Read: The blurring boundaries between Hong Kong and mainland China
The value of drawing connections between Beijing in 1989 and Hong Kong’s recent struggles is obvious: It was a key moment of political awakening, and last weekend’s march has been described as the biggest held in Hong Kong since one staged 30 years earlier to express anger at the June 4th massacre. To some protest leaders in Hong Kong, such as Joshua Wong, their Umbrella Movement—the name for demonstrations that erupted in 2014—carried forward a tradition that can be traced back all the way to student rallies in 1919 and was revived in 1989.
What, then—given how much further in geography and culture Hong Kong is from Warsaw than it is from Beijing—is the point of looking back to Solidarity?
For one, there are some parallels associated with the protesters themselves. For example, religious beliefs and organizations did not play a central role in the Tiananmen struggle, but Wong sometimes describes his activism as rooted in his faith. One of the most important senior figures in the Umbrella Movement was Reverend Chu Yiu-ming, and Christian organizations have played significant roles in various recent Hong Kong struggles. These things all call to mind, despite important differences, the central role the Catholic Church played in Solidarity.
Another connection has to do with targets of protest. The people Solidarity challenged and ultimately bested were power-holders who claimed to be serving local people but were actually beholden to, and backed by the might of, a distant capital. This description does not fit the leaders that the Tiananmen protesters challenged, but it does apply to Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam—and in this case, the distant capital is Beijing rather than Moscow.
Looking back to Solidarity’s electoral victory is certainly a more hopeful thing to do than focusing on the time that soldiers killed civilians in Beijing. It is worth remembering, though, that Solidarity’s fortunes were tied to developments in the Soviet Union as well as in Poland, and that its rise went in tandem with Mikhail Gorbachev’s softening of Moscow’s line toward states operating in its shadow.
Standing in Victoria Park on June 4, holding up a candle, I felt transported by a sense of being in step with a giant crowd engaged in a collective activity. As I let my mind wander, though, I began thinking more about Adam Michnik, a journalist who played key roles in the Solidarity story, than about the Tank Man.
He was on my mind in part because of a conversation we had early in the 2000s, when I was teaching at Indiana University and we hosted him for a visit. He had just seen a documentary about Tiananmen, The Gate of Heavenly Peace, for which I had been a consultant. When I asked him what he thought of it, he replied: “I knew everyone in the film.” This was not to say that he had a lot of Chinese friends—as he watched the movie, he kept thinking of counterparts within Solidarity and felt a shock of familiarity hearing Tiananmen activists debate, just as he and his colleagues had, the relative value of different strategies for challenging authoritarian rule, some urging caution and others pushing for more radical actions. Would Michnik feel the same way at Hong Kong mass actions like the one I attended? Would he think he “knew everyone” at the scene?