A combination photo shows messages of support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong in central Sydney, October 5, 2014.
David Gray / Courtesy Reuters

As events in China dominated headlines in the spring of 1989, many reporters suggested that the best way to understand them was through analogy. Unfortunately, however, they often picked the wrong ones, over-emphasizing parallels to events from the American past or the Eastern and Central European present. There were, of course, international influences worth noting, but observers should have paid more attention to China’s own past. The young protesters in China certainly did, self-consciously linking their actions to those of previous generations of Chinese students. They held rallies right in front of a Tiananmen Square frieze celebrating the campus activists of 1919’s hallowed May Fourth Movement, for example.

By looking for Western precedents, observers missed the degree to which the struggle, at least at first, was as much about disgust with official nepotism and corruption as it was about democracy. And by looking at Soviet bloc comparisons, they failed to

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