A combination photo shows messages of support for pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong in central Sydney, October 5, 2014.
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 appreciate that the protesters sought not to bring down the Communist Party, but rather to get it to live up to its own professed ideals.  

On the mainland in 1989 -- and today in Hong Kong -- something specifically local was at stake. And that made China’s own history the most important place to look for guidance. In both cases, the competing sides were engaged in a high-stakes symbolic battle over the redefinition of China’s past and future, albeit the whole country’s in 1989 and a specific city’s now. When the students of 1989 gathered in front the frieze, they were suggesting, quite daringly, that they, and not Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and his allies, carried the mantle of the revolution. And when People’s Daily denounced the protesters as creating chaos in a manner that brought to mind the Red Guard madness of the 1960s, the authorities were trying, in turn, to paint the student movement as a historical catastrophe in the making. 

In Hong Kong today, the protesters have again presented their cause as continuing the work of 1919, while also linking it to the events of 1989 on the mainland. They have also evoked the waves of protests that shook Hong Kong in 2003 and 2012 in response to efforts by Beijing to make the metropolis less different from other Chinese cities. Meanwhile, Beijing has been raising the specter of the Red Guards once more. 

In looking at Hong Kong now, as in looking at Tiananmen then, the key is not to find a single analogy that explains the protests and what will happen next. This movement, like that earlier one, has been eclectic in its use of symbols, slogans, and tactics. Observers must keep that in mind and strive to be similarly eclectic in finding comparisons. To fixate on this struggle’s potential to end up as Hong Kong’s “Color Revolution” (used as a shorthand for something that accomplished systemic transformation) or its “Tiananmen” (used as a shorthand for something that ends in a massacre) is as misleading now as putting too much emphasis on American or Soviet bloc analogies was 25 years ago. There are plenty of potential endings in between, outcomes like that of the May Fourth Movement, which did not undo autocratic warlord rule, but did see the dismissal from office of three particularly despised officials. 


Although there has been some excellent on-the-ground reporting by journalists who know China and its past well, this time around, much media commentary of the protests in Hong Kong has locked onto the Tiananmen-reborn analogy. This is understandable, given the role that vigils to commemorate the June 4 massacre have played in Hong Kong’s recent history and the way that replicas of the goddess of democracy (a touchstone of the 1989 protests) have popped up across the city. There is a risk, however, in making 1989 too central. That analogy works fine when there is a direct repeat of something that happened in 1989, such as when Beijing tries again to portray peaceful students as following in the footsteps of the Red Guards. But when something new happens, observers are at a loss and look, once more, beyond China’s border for explanation, which helps explain why journalists have made so many references to the Color Revolution, despite the fact that the protesters themselves insist that the analogy is misleading, since they are just asking for Beijing to live up to the One Country, Two Systems promise it made in 1997.

And, as Hong Kong-based historian Denise Y. Ho has explained, the most important China-specific precedents for current events doesn’t necessarily lie in 1989 -- or at least not in 1989 alone. Just before the strike began, Ho told me that the students on her campus gathered around a replica of the Goddess of Democracy and listened to speeches that evoked the legacy of 1919.

There is also something familiar about the care that Hong Kong students have taken to project their demonstrations as orderly and contributing to -- rather than preventing -- their education. So, too, did other student protesters in the 1910s and during 1925’s May 30th Movement against foreign concessions in Shanghai: They were concerned to show that boycotting classes was not frivolous and wild. They issued statements calling on their classmates to behave with propriety while on strike and combine self-improvement activities with political ones.

Further, when the people of Hong Kong talk of wanting a greater say in how their city is run, it does not resonate with the national themes central to 1989. It does, however, echo the cries of “Shanghai is the City of the Shanghai People” that accompanied the May 30th Movement. And the foreign authorities who then ruled the city, like those in Beijing now, worked overtime to try to convince local Chinese business leaders to side with them against the clamoring crowds. In Shanghai, meanwhile, the crowds called out to those same business leaders to show their local loyalty, to focus on their ties in the city to and do what was good for the people of the city -- the same is true in Hong Kong now.

There are also historical parallels in Hong Kong and Beijing’s behavior. Efforts by both to dismiss the current protests as the work of meddling outsiders taking advantage of impressionable youth echo back. During the May 30th Movement, for example, the Westerners in charge of Shanghai’s International Settlement leveled similar chargers against outsiders, but in that case it was the Russians rather than the Americans who were accused of hoodwinking the youth. In the end, the imperialists in charge of Hong Kong sent their Chinese constables to try to disperse and ultimately fire on unarmed students and workers. The echo to 1925 was strong late last month when local police used tear gas in Hong Kong, presumably to appease the colonialist-like authorities in far-off Beijing. 

And there are also comparisons to the Nationalist Party’s behavior during the Civil War era (1945–49), when it was in power and the Communist Party was among the groups trying to overthrow its leader, Chiang Kai-shek. In 1947, the Nationalists were accused of backing anti-protest demonstrations designed to counter the citizen marches. This time, once again, regime loyalists have staged pro-stability protests to counteract the pro-democracy protests. And many journalists saw clear indications that these involved at least some rent-a-crowd contingents. In some cases, these crowds have attacked pro-democracy activists, just like the Nationalist toughs used to rough up those clamoring for change. (There has also been, of course, a good deal of vocal criticism of the movement from and some violence committed by people who are genuinely frustrated about the disruption of their lives and have a different sense of where Hong Kong should be heading.) 

Finally, Beijing has released several statements condemning the demonstrators, ironically, for disrupting the business sector, particularly banking and investment. There was some concern in 1989 that the protests would derail China’s road to development, of course, but the rhetoric of demonstrations being bad for business and businessmen is much more reminiscent of the anti-protest statements issued in 1925 by the Western authorities in Shanghai -- and in 1967 by the British running Hong Kong when labor unrest, supported by the Communist Party of China, broke out. 


So what can we make of all of this? In The Dictator’s Learning Curve, the journalist William J. Dobson argues that observers need to be sensitive to how closely autocrats and protesters alike are following the playbooks of their counterparts around the world. He has a point, and the varied influences at play in Hong Kong make his book worth reading or re-reading now. But it is also important to appreciate how regularly protesters -- and those they challenge -- take cues from their country’s own history. And in the Chinese case, doing so offers a striking reminder of just how often those in power retrace the repressive footsteps of those they hold as enemies.

The Hong Kong protesters have shown themselves tremendously resourceful, able to borrow freely and creatively from many different sorts of movements. They are aware of --and draw strength from local struggles of the past. They borrow from the playbook of Chinese revolutionary heroes and from the mainland students of 1989. As their leader, they have even picked Joshua Wong, a noted participant in the 2012 protests in Hong Kong. They have also looked for inspiration to other parts of the world. The student protesters allied with Hong Kong’s Occupy Central activists, for example, who embody the spirit of New York City’s Occupy Wall Street movement and are largely concerned with economics and inequality. 

A complex and creative movement like this one, then, cannot and should not be squeezed into any one box. It bears similarities to past uprisings, but it is no simple reprise or reboot. Observers need to keep this in mind as they try to imagine what will happen next. As I write, the government ultimatum for protesters to clear the streets is about to pass. We should remember the surprising speed with which these protests evolved from small-scale student strikes and hope -- even if the odds seem long -- that the Hong Kong and Beijing authorities will see the wisdom of finding a way to satisfy some of the protester’s demands: giving the governed a sense that the governors are taking what they want into account. The title of one of the movement’s anthems is thus fitting: “Do You Hear the People Sing?” In this cosmopolitan Chinese city, protesters are singing a Cantonese version of a Western song and calling on the powerful to listen. It recalls nothing more than the Chinese sage Mencius’s reminder to rulers that they rule by virtue of a mandate that comes from Heaven, but that Heaven “sees with the eyes and hears with the ears of the people.” 

You are reading a free article.

Subscribe to Foreign Affairs to get unlimited access.

  • Paywall-free reading of new articles and a century of archives
  • Unlock access to iOS/Android apps to save editions for offline reading
  • Six issues a year in print, online, and audio editions
Subscribe Now