Out of Tiananmen's Shadow

Why the Protesters Have Already Won

A plaque is partly hidden between the roots of a banyan tree at the King George V Memorial Park in Hong Kong, May 25, 2012. Bobby Yip / Courtesy Reuters

The past has a strange way of finding echoes in the present, as if history’s hungry ghosts will not stop until they are sated. Over the past two weeks, Hong Kong has been drenched not just in rain but also in history, as a class boycott grew into what The Economist's Gady Epstein summed up as “the first large-scale student-led protest for democracy to erupt in any Chinese city since 1989.” Similarities to the protest and crackdown at Tiananmen Square have indeed been striking -- and unnerving, given the outcome of that beautiful and terrible spring. But 1989 is not the only touchstone for Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement. Tracing the wider web of historical parallels reveals that the kids occupying Central have already won.

The protests originated with a decision made in Beijing on August 31, when the National People’s Congress ratified a disappointing plan for Hong Kong’s election of chief executive in 2017. Hong Kong’s democrats want the city to select its own top official by popular vote, but universal suffrage turned out to be just a little too radical for Beijing’s mandarins to countenance, in keeping with a hundred years of resisting self-rule. Chinese citizens have elected their own national leaders just once, in the ill-fated election of 1912, a year after the fall of the Qing dynasty. Early on, Mao Zedong promised an inclusive, socialist form of “New Democracy,” but that soon gave way to a totalist, top-down monopoly on political power. In the 1980s, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping belatedly granted villagers powers to elect their chiefs, but this innovative experiment in “grassroots democracy” never progressed to the county or city level, let alone to national leadership.

Thus, Hong Kong’s 2017 vote -- marking the twentieth anniversary of its “handover” from British colony to Chinese appendage -- could have been a historic opportunity to advance the country’s long march to self-government, a future first envisaged by “Father of the Nation,” Cantonese-born revolutionary Sun Yat-sen (who went to

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