The tense situation in Hong Kong is at a critical juncture. The protesters have made plain that they are there to stay, though their numbers are dwindling. They are demanding that the Beijing-appointed chief executive, Leung Chun-ying, resign. They want China to live up to its promise that elections in 2017 will be freely contested, not constrained by being limited to Beijing-approved candidates. The Chinese government has made just as clear that its patience is wearing thin, and that it strongly supports Leung. Will the outcome be an “Umbrella Revolution” or another Tiananmen?
An ominous sign of a potential police crackdown is use of the word “chaos” in Renmin ribao (People’s Daily, the official newspaper) to describe Hong Kong events. “Chaos” (luan) was the word used in the spring of 1989 to signal the Beijing leadership’s unwillingness to let the protests at Tiananmen drag on indefinitely. The word has a particular resonance in China: Its tumultuous modern history is replete with failed efforts to unify the country and prevent the formation of secret political cliques and factions. In the leadup to the Tiananmen crackdown, top leaders signaled through the press that the students were causing chaos and that “turmoil” would not be tolerated. Though these warnings were followed by Premier Zhao Ziyang’s fateful meeting with students in the square, which earned him 16 years under house arrest, we know from later accounts that Deng Xiaoping had convinced his colleagues that the demonstrations were a threat to the political system and had to be put down. Martial law followed.
Beijing is following the same script today. Editorials of October 1 and 3 in Renmin ribao’s online editions dwelled on the demonstrators’ “illegal assembly” and “absurd and crazy kidnapping” of law and order. The protesters are being called an “extremist opposition group” that is not only breaking the law but also threatening to disrupt years of prosperity and stability under communist rule. The laws enacted by China’s legislature “allow for no challenge.” The editorials scoff at the protesters’ talk of democracy and freedom, saying that “freedom without order isn’t real freedom, and will lead to social disharmony and instability.” Far from suggesting a path to compromise, the editorials are a warning of potential use of force. Leung Chun-ying strengthened that prospect by setting a deadline, October 6, for protesters to clear out and let government workers return to their offices, or face “all necessary actions.” They removed blockades, but many students are continuing their sit-in.
While Beijing has apparently ruled out concessions, it has authorized Hong Kong’s executive secretary (but not the chief executive) to meet with some students. But to meet does not signify when or what to negotiate. Finding a face-saving formula will be extremely difficult, moreover, particularly since the demonstrators have no leaders, no common program, and no agreed-upon end game. Should talks fail, or not be held, the opposition will face a choice between going home, hanging on and risking loss of public support, and escalating pressure such as by seizing an official building or office.
Beijing’s chief concern is the domino effect of lending legitimacy to the pro-democracy forces. Even if it does not concede on the election issue, it no doubt wants to avoid appearing weak in the face of a popular protest. To its way of thinking, successful demonstrations in Hong Kong might be followed by more of the same elsewhere in China, just as happened in 1989. Demonstrations create an environment for anti-government groups to organize and call for all kinds of reforms, not least free elections from top to bottom in China’s political system. Chinese leaders have therefore imposed strict controls over what the press reports about the demonstrations. Renmin ribao’s very limited reporting on Hong Kong attempts to show how strongly people in Hong Kong support China’s rule. But Beijing is well aware that it cannot suppress all the news out of Hong Kong. For one, Chinese bloggers are quite adept at finding ways around the army of censors. For another, thousands of mainland visitors funnel in and out of Hong Kong every day; a small number of them reportedly have even joined the protesters’ ranks. Whether Chinese tourists are sympathetic to the demonstrators or not, they represent potential trouble when they return home and recount what they saw.
Beijing will have no more compunctions about ordering the Hong Kong police to crack down now than they did about bringing in the army in 1989. International opinion is far less important to Chinese leaders than stopping “instability” in the empire. Already, as happened in June 1989, the Beijing press has seen “the hand of Western powers” in the demonstrations, insisting that the Western media invented the term “umbrella revolution” just as it invented “color revolution” and “jasmine revolution.” To China, democratization is a virus, and the contagion effects must be firmly dealt with. The British and American governments have expressed “concern” and sympathy for the demonstrators, but Beijing will easily deflect such “interference in China’s internal affairs,” as the criticism will be called. US and European Union sanctions are very unlikely to be imposed because of the huge commercial interests at stake, and besides, the West is too deeply embroiled in Middle East crises to want a confrontation with China. The only leverage Hong Kong’s people have is their numbers and tenacity. But time is not on their side, as students and workers discovered to their horror on June 4, 1989.