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.
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 college in Hong Kong). Instead of entrusting Hong Kongers with a grand experiment, though, Beijing offered them a Potemkin election. Only candidates chosen by a handpicked election committee of 1,200 will be eligible to stand for office -- a kind of electoral college in reverse. The Chinese people, in other words, are still not trusted to choose their own rulers.  

The stage was therefore set in September for some kind of civic rebuttal to Beijing’s fiat. As activist groups such as Occupy Central (Hong Kong’s answer to Occupy Wall Street) warmed up for nonviolent resistance, it was high school and university students who suddenly took the lead by boycotting classes en masse. Joshua Wong, a 17-year-old member of the student group Scholarism, marched the demonstrations to the doorstep of the chief executive building, and the police detained Wong and pepper sprayed his compatriots. Unwittingly, they were repeating the same mistake as Beijing back in May 1919 and the Communist Party in April 1989, when manhandling and arresting students only fueled larger protest and greater civic solidarity. Wong’s 40-hour detention, combined with more police aggression, including firing tear gas on the crowd on September 28, brought more than 100,000 demonstrators into the streets in time for the October 1 “National Day” holiday. Students celebrated 65 years since Mao founded the People’s Republic by occupying the streets of downtown Hong Kong and demanding democracy.

That weekend, I happened to be in Taiwan leading a group of South Korean students from Yonsei University for a dialogue with students at National Taiwan University. The students compared and contrasted relations between North and South Korea with the dynamics between Taiwan and China. It became clear that the Taiwanese participants were watching Hong Kong intently. One student remarked that Hong Kong was something like Taiwan’s “sacrificial lamb,” revealing their island’s fate should reunification ever come to be. A young professor described how increased trade with the mainland was exacerbating inequality in Taiwan, just as in Hong Kong. We later learned that hours before our student dialogue, as Wong was speaking to throngs of students in Hong Kong, an 18-year-old Taiwan independence activist named Yen Ming-wei threw the book Formosa Betrayed at Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou for failing to stand up to Beijing. Written by a U.S. Foreign Service officer stationed in Taiwan after World War II, the book describes the Chinese leader Chiang Kai-shek’s brutal suppression of Taiwanese dissent, starting with the infamous massacre of February 28, 1947.

As our student delegation visited Taipei’s 228 Incident museum, which commemorated the victims of February 28, events were taking a violent turn in Hong Kong’s Mong Kok neighborhood, where a mixture of disgruntled middle-aged residents and hired thugs, some with Mafia ties, assaulted the students’ protest tent. In the mainland, sending in thugs and holding back police is standard protocol for corrupt local cadres who want to silence critics -- an example of the malicious abuse of state power that has led President Xi Jinping to launch a nationwide anticorruption campaign. But “the siege of Mong Kok” also called to mind Chiang Kai-shek’s bloodletting during the Shanghai Spring of 1927, when he unleashed Green Gang members to rampage through the city, beating and killing political dissidents, labor union leaders, and communist activists. Fortunately, no one was seriously injured in Mong Kok, but the specter of political violence cast a darker shadow over the protest.

Authorities in Beijing took this outbreak of “chaos” as their cue to warn students not to push any further against the orderly forces of “rule of law,” that is, the police and chief executive. Until then, mainland state media had been noticeably quiet about the demonstrations. But now, the Communist Party’s flagship newspaper, People’s Daily, began firing salvos at the students by mocking their “daydream” of igniting a “color revolution” on the mainland. The newspaper commentary, which came out on October 1, was enough to send chills up the spine of anyone old enough to remember April 26, 1989, when the People’s Daily ran an editorial slamming the student marches as “unpatriotic disturbances.” That editorial, signed off on by Deng, outraged the intensely patriotic students and set them and party leaders on a crash course that would end in blood.

But perhaps the Hong Kong Federation of Students, despite being born after the Tiananmen massacre, had studied its lessons. In response to the October 1 editorial, student leaders insisted theirs was the Umbrella Movement, not the Umbrella Revolution, and that their struggle was for suffrage in Hong Kong, not in China. Adopting the prudent strategy of local protesters in the mainland, students focused their criticism on the Hong Kong government, not Beijing. Playful posters sprouted up deriding the sitting chief executive, C. Y. Leung, but left Xi alone. 

Despite the students’ self-restraint, by the second weekend of protest, Occupy Central seemed headed toward a tragic denouement. The People’s Daily had defined the protests as not just unlawful but tantamount to treason. Leung warned darkly that the streets must be cleared by Monday or else. The police commander who ordered tear gas unapologetically defended his action and publicly stated he was prepared to do so again. Fearing a repetition of June 4, Bao Tong, who was a reformist party official in those days and is now one of Beijing’s most prominent democracy advocates, advised the students to take a break “for the sake of future room to grow. For tomorrow.” During reportedly tense and confused discussions on Sunday night, students, criticized for their lack of centralized leadership, performed democracy in action -- some decided to defend the barricades, many decided to go home.

When “tomorrow” came, on Monday morning, the big crowds had dispersed, but a core of students held on to their prized protest spaces. Gently, they had called the state’s bluff, and quietly, they had won, although what came next remained uncertain.

The odds of Beijing reversing its decision on 2017 are very slim. But in the history of student protest in modern China, winning the battle has been less important than fighting for the cause. Modern China’s first student demonstration, spearheaded by two young Cantonese intellectuals (Kang Youwei and Liang Qichao) visiting Beijing to take the civil service examinations in 1895, failed to achieve practical outcomes. The epochal May 4 movement of 1919 likewise had little immediate effect. And of course, student demands for democracy in 1989 were crushed by the tanks that drove them from Tiananmen Square.

Yet no history of modern China is complete without telling the stories of those movements, and strung together, they chart an alternate trajectory for the Chinese nation. There is nothing inevitable about the prospect of self-government in China, and there are no right or wrong tides of history to take comfort in. But neither, as one former Obama administration official argued, is it a “reality” that “Beijing is not going to lose” and that the students’ call for genuine democracy is a mere “pipe dream.” For what history does record are long and hard-fought struggles between competing visions of political life and social order, and the students in Hong Kong have made themselves heard and their vision known. In the past two weeks, they have revived a tradition that goes back not just to 1989 but all the way to 1895 and reaches into the core of modern Chinese identity. Even if theirs is the losing side so far, they are keeping the candle of Chinese democracy lit. 

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