Lessons From Moscow: How China Might Handle Hong Kong

Soviet experiences from decades past offer examples for what Beijing may do to quell protests in the city.

Lech Walesa addresses striking shipyard workers in August 1980 in Gdansk.
Lech Walesa, who would go on to lead Poland, addresses striking shipyard workers in Gdansk in August 1980. The Soviet response to their uprising offers lessons to Beijing. (Reuters)

Large crowds are taking to the streets—outraged by how the place they live is being run, angry that police are beating up protesters—and railing against a broken system they say needs to be made more democratic. The local leader in charge is beholden to a distant capital, and is out of touch with the populace.

A worrying question begins to be asked: Will we see a repeat of what happened in June 1989, when Chinese authorities violently put an end to weeks of overwhelmingly peaceful protests in Tiananmen Square and plazas across the country?

This scenario is relevant to Hong Kong right now, but could also have been written about a place at the other end of Eurasia 30 years ago.

When the protest wave that ultimately led to the fall of the Berlin Wall began, people feared that East Germany’s leaders might take a page from Beijing’s playbook. Riot police stood ready. Masses of people were on the streets in cities such as Leipzig. East German leaders had openly expressed support for how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had crushed the Tiananmen upheaval, and the term Chinese solution began to be uttered to describe the use of violence to stop the struggle.

In the end, the East German authorities did not kill protesters. They went another way, in part because Mikhail Gorbachev sent signals that while Moscow had backed repressive moves in Soviet satellite states and allies before—sending troops to East Germany in 1953 and to Hungary in 1956, and allying with other Warsaw Pact armies to crush the Prague Spring in 1968—the situation now was different. The Soviet Union was changing; he was a new kind of leader; and he did not want to be seen as just like his predecessors. Gorbachev even refrained from suggesting, as Leonid Brezhnev did to Poland’s Communists in 1981, that while troops were not en route, Moscow was willing to see local officials get as tough as they wanted to in trying to restore order.

The similarities with Hong Kong are clear, yet no analogy from the past will provide a definitive answer to the question of which path Beijing will take. History does not repeat itself, in part because situations are always changing and current actors are aware of what has happened before. Still, as specialists in the history and politics of Eastern Europe and East Asia, respectively, we think it is useful in this case to look to the old Soviet bloc as well as to China’s own past when grappling with possible developments in Hong Kong.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, is in a situation not unlike that of heads of states within the Soviet orbit. Though she assumed her position through nondemocratic means—via an election with limits on who could vote and in which the candidates were carefully vetted by Beijing—Lam claims to represent and be determined to protect the people of Hong Kong. But like previous holders of the position, she is beholden to Beijing in much the way that some Eastern European leaders were to Moscow. Beijing could, as the Soviets did in Poland in 1956 in the face of public unrest, dump its own puppet: force Lam to step down; make cosmetic concessions; find a new leader less tainted by close relations with the CCP; and hope that those changes take the wind out of the protesters’ sails.

These tactics can work—indeed they did, in Poland—but only for a while. The Solidarity trade-union movement emerged in 1980 after a decade of worker unrest and demanded political freedom. Replacing a leader and offering minor compromises have also worked in Hong Kong in the past, as chief executives associated with actions that inspired protests in 2003 and 2014 either eventually stepped down, in the former case, or did not get an expected second five-year term, in the latter one.

The outlines of such a deal seemed in place last month. The Hong Kong government had shelved, for a time at least, the law on extradition to the mainland that had given rise to these latest mass demonstrations, and it could have easily taken the further step protesters were demanding of withdrawing the law completely.

At least so far, though, Beijing has shown no interest in replacing Lam. Some moves made in 2014 have been repeated—the use of tear gas, trying to wait out the protesters—but no additional concessions have been made. One key decision early on that could have helped defuse the situation, other than replacing Lam, would have been to give in to the popular cry for an independent investigation of claims of police brutality. Yet instead of doing this, the authorities have just ramped up their use of repressive methods. There has been a repeat of thugs attacking protesters; sharply more tear gas has been used than in 2014; and police have shot at protesters using rubber bullets.

One scenario that is off the table is a repeat of East Germany in 1989. Xi Jinping, China’s leader, has made it crystal clear throughout his time in power that, perhaps even more so than his predecessors, he sees Gorbachev as a negative role model, someone who lost an empire and then control of the metropole. The CCP has sent signals to Lam that it will back the Hong Kong government and police taking stern measures, though, if possible, not killing anyone.

This call for no fatalities suggests that a second outcome—one that is not desirable in Beijing’s eyes, but that is not impossible—could be a repeat of what the CCP itself did on June 4, 1989. The Chinese military has several thousand troops stationed in Hong Kong, per the terms of the handover of the city from Britain to China in 1997, so the capacity for a violent solution is at hand. But it would not be costless. Although never as sensitive to Western denunciations as the Soviets, who still considered themselves “European,” China did promise Hong Kong its own social system and a “high degree of autonomy” after regaining it from Britain. A military action would not technically be an invasion, but it would look to the world like one, and would render that promise completely meaningless, exposing Beijing’s domination as hard-edged colonial control.

Xi might be willing to pay this price, especially if he senses disorder in Hong Kong threatening to spread to the mainland—but there seems to be little sign of that happening. It is not 1989, when there were major protests not just in Beijing but in scores of Chinese cities. China also has a chip in the international game today in a way it did not 30 years ago: Donald Trump’s administration has reportedly told officials to hold back their criticism over the crackdown in Hong Kong, and may well remain unmoved by military violence, but would surely try to make use of it to sway the ongoing trade war between the United States and China. There are also already calls for a boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing over outrage at the gross violations of human rights in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang, where at least hundreds of thousands and likely well over 1 million people, mostly Muslim, are incarcerated in a large network of camps. If there were images of military violence in Hong Kong to go along with the documented horrors in Xinjiang, boycott calls would be amplified dramatically. The June 4 option is there, but it is not an appealing one.

Perhaps more tempting would be a variant of the Polish solution of 1981: Prompt the Hong Kong authorities to declare martial law, deploy their police forces with greater brutality, arrest the protest ringleaders, grant a new round of cosmetic concessions, and hunker down until the crisis passes. The problem with this solution, in the minds of Beijing’s leaders, is that in Poland, it failed spectacularly. The calm that came after the imposition of martial law merely masked the brewing storm. Solidarity never really left the scene, and the image of a mass democratic social movement only grew in the popular imagination. Some leaders were arrested but many more went underground, and they returned in 1989 to bring down the entire Communist system. Beijing must be keenly aware of the risks of outsourcing repression to its local clients. Still, this case seems particularly relevant, as China has so far emphasized that the Hong Kong authorities should handle this on their own, while giving them the same signal that Brezhnev offered Polish leaders in 1981 about the capital being ready to add direct support in a last resort.

Of course, we need not look only at Soviet-bloc cases. The final years of the Cold War also saw authoritarian leaders dependent on the United States dealing with popular movements in varied ways, and the signals Washington sent were a factor in the course history took. In 1980, for example, the South Korean military carried out a brutal massacre in Gwangju, knowing that Washington would not withdraw support. By contrast, while Washington had signaled to the Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos in the 1970s that it saw no problem with his using force to crush opponents, it made clear at the time of the People Power Revolution in the mid-1980s that its attitude had changed.

Historical analogies, however, are never perfect. One big difference between Beijing today and Moscow then is capitalism’s importance across China. The rise of the private sector and an extensive criminal underworld have given Beijing the option, one not available to either Warsaw or Moscow circa 1980, of turning to private thugs armed with sticks and metal bars to intimidate protesters and supportive journalists. The supply of thugs is large, and their use may help limit mass mobilization in the short run. But private thugs cannot be counted upon in the long run, and their use could become a new source of grievance, raising the specter of further deterioration of governmental authority.

The use of gangsters highlights an aspect of the repression story in China that predates the 1980s—indeed, an aspect that predates the Cold War. In 1927, decades before the CCP founded the People’s Republic of China, Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists turned against the Communists, with whom they had briefly made common cause. Chiang’s forces used gangsters to help them in a “White Terror” drive to rid the country of all “Reds.” Protesters in Hong Kong have sometimes accused the CCP of following in the footsteps of the Nationalists, who are vilified in official Chinese-government textbooks, claiming that Beijing and its proxies are carrying out a “White Terror” of their own. And like the Nationalists then, the CCP and its allies in Hong Kong have claimed that protesters are in league with a foreign power and sent thugs to attack crowds, a tactic used by Beijing in Hong Kong on a small scale in 2014 and 2015, before being expanded this summer. (Another Nationalist strategy the CCP has used recently in Hong Kong is ginning up “pro-stability” demonstrations and claiming that these anti-protest protests represent the popular will more than the much larger and more spontaneous anti-government events. Chiang’s representatives in Shanghai did the same thing during the years immediately following World War II.)

There are limits to this comparison with the pre-Communist Chinese past, just like there are to those comparisons with various parts of the world in the 1980s. Bringing them up, though, is still relevant. It helps underscore that authoritarian governments rely on a diverse playbook. This makes them a dark mirror image of protesters, who similarly can—and, in the case of Hong Kong activists, definitely do—draw on repertoires of contention that have roots in varied places and times.