Read: Remembering Tiananmen Square is dangerous, even in Hong Kong
Though Hong Kongers had rebelled against the authorities before, the Tiananmen protests were what awakened their political consciousness, and their sense of the difference between popular sovereignty and state sovereignty became acute. The CCP drew the opposite lesson, becoming so fearful of popular political mobilization that it insisted that Hong Kong’s laws be effectively unchanged from 1984, when the Sino-British Declaration on the city’s handover was agreed, through to the official transfer in 1997, unless reforms were authorized by the Party itself. It even demanded that a labor law passed in early 1997 guaranteeing the rights of collective bargaining be scrapped, which it was soon after the handover.
Since then, Beijing has sought to pass an antisedition law, attempted to promulgate “patriotic education” in Hong Kong, and restricted the territory’s ability to choose its chief executive. The heavy-handed, unyielding stance Beijing has taken against this summer’s protests has only served to “pour oil on the flames,” as a Chinese proverb says, pushing Hong Kongers into a corner: They must fight for their freedom once more, or become slaves to Beijing’s imperial rule.
How much can the ongoing demonstrations in Hong Kong be compared to Tiananmen? On the protesters’ side are plenty of similarities. For one thing, the “silent majority” of the population did not always remain passive or follow party orders in 1989. Ordinary Beijing residents were the ones who risked their lives to brave the fire as tanks and machine guns made their way to the square. Much of the same is happening in Hong Kong today: Students and young people have been at the forefront of the rallies, but a wide array of residents have joined them, including civil servants, accountants, medical personnel, the elderly, and others.
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Yet the differences are also significant. The regime in Beijing has changed a lot in 30 years. The Chinese economy today is far larger, and Hong Kong’s proportion of it substantially smaller. The tools available to the state are also much greater than they were in 1989, with a more powerful security apparatus and myriad economic levers at its disposal. At the same time, Hong Kong’s institutional infrastructure is far more advanced than any other Chinese city in its ability to serve Beijing’s global ambitions. Hong Kong still operates a U.S.-dollar-denominated currency market that is part of the global financial system, the only one in China, and is key to Beijing’s many projects worldwide, not least the Belt and Road Initiative. So Beijing would be loath to go too far in eroding these institutions. Donald Trump has also linked the CCP’s response to the protests to his ongoing trade war with China.
Beijing has done well to grant Hong Kong’s protesters some of what they want in withdrawing the extradition bill. Yet China must also investigate police abuse, give amnesty to arrested protesters, and reopen political reform toward comprehensive universal suffrage in the territory.
Of course, it may not, reckoning it can wear down Hong Kong’s protesters. Given the city’s history and its rapidly politicized population, that would be a miscalculation.