How a Great Power Falls Apart
Decline Is Invisible From the Inside
At first, when demonstrators began spilling into city streets, citizens were surprised by their audacity and struck by their idealism, openness, and élan as they confronted the might of the Chinese Communist Party. The demonstrators’ demands were limited and answerable, their behavior civil, and their marches orderly. Yet as their numbers grew, they allowed themselves to entertain a heady sense of possibility—a hope that this time they might actually be heard. When they ran into police lines, instead of yielding they defiantly but peacefully kept going. Government officials and party organs denounced them as unpatriotic fomenters of social turmoil, but they turned the insults into fuel for an expanding movement. Before long, they had occupied the heart of the city.
Weeks passed, and the demonstrators, worried about losing steam, changed tactics, reinventing themselves and winning over additional elements of society and thereby giving their movement new life. Party officials took great umbrage at the affront of hundreds of thousands of insubordinate youths defying them and paralyzing the city center, but because of certain important upcoming national occasions, they did not wish to crack down. Yet neither would they negotiate with the young troublemakers. And so the demonstrations continued to grow and become more chaotic.
Such are the outlines of the Tiananmen Square protests that unfolded over seven weeks in 1989—and also of the protests unfolding now in Hong Kong. Thirty years ago, the party’s indignant supreme leader, Deng Xiaoping, ultimately could no longer restrain himself: on June 4, he ordered in troops who massacred protesters. The alarming parallels between then and now make it hard not to worry that Hong Kong could come to a similarly savage conclusion.
In the spring of 1989, I reported in Tiananmen Square for The New York Review of Books. For anyone who was there, Tiananmen now casts a long shadow across the demonstrations in Hong Kong. Those demonstrations started in early June, in opposition to a bill that would have allowed those accused of committing crimes to be deported to the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Many in Hong Kong considered the law a flagrant violation of the “one country, two systems” agreement struck with the United Kingdom in the 1984 Joint Declaration that guaranteed the former British colony “a high degree of autonomy” and the ability to maintain its own legal system and courts for 50 years. But even after that bill was tabled, ten weeks of escalating protests have transformed the reputation of Hong Kong: once known as a trade entrepôt distinguished by unalloyed commercialism, it has become a poster child for mass political dissent.
In 1989, as the Tiananmen protests began, the Chinese Communist Party leadership was at first relatively quiescent. But then, on April 26, after the Standing Committee met in Deng’s home, the People’s Daily ran a provocative front-page editorial denouncing demonstrators as “an extremely small number of people with ulterior purposes” who had organized a “planned conspiracy” designed to “plunge the whole country into chaos” and “negate the leadership of the [Chinese Communist Party] and the socialist system.” By impugning their motives and patriotism, the official editorial both enraged the protesters and closed the door to any reconciliation while their demands were still minimal. The next day, a massive new march was launched from the university district to Tiananmen Square, right into the heart of Beijing, giving the movement a new burst of energy.
So it has gone in Hong Kong. When Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, denounced the initially peaceful movement as a “riot”—possibly at Beijing’s command—her inflammatory rhetoric fueled the protest movement just as Deng’s editorial had. Consequently, on June 22, when she withdrew the extradition bill that had sparked the protests and apologized for her inept handling of the situation (“I now announce that the government has decided to suspend the legislative amendment exercise, restart our communication with all sectors of society, do more explanation work, and listen to different views of society”), it was too little too late. By refusing to permanently “withdraw” the bill or to launch an open inquiry into police beatings of protesters, she did not even minimally meet the demands of demonstrators. Instead of relenting, they expanded both their actions and demands, calling on Lam to drop riot charges against protesters, introduce democratic reforms, and step down from office. On June 17, they succeeded in bringing some two million supporters into the streets, more than a quarter of the city’s population, creating one of the largest public protests in human history. Then, adding insult to injury, they declared a “general strike.”
The alarming parallels between then and now make it hard not to worry that Hong Kong could come to a similarly savage conclusion.
The students in Tiananmen Square had known that the party would hesitate to act militarily before May 15, 1989, when Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev was due to arrive in Beijing for a historic summit meeting with Deng. So have the Hong Kong protesters taken comfort from the assumption that Beijing would be hesitant to crack down violently before October 1, when the PRC is scheduled to celebrate its 70th anniversary.
As the initial burst of enthusiasm waned, Hong Kong demonstrators took a leaf from the 1989 playbook, embracing new tactics to keep their movement going. In Tiananmen, demonstrators had launched a dramatic hunger strike; in Hong Kong, instead of trying to continue mass street demonstrations (which opened them to increasingly aggressive police suppression), protesters turned to a strategy of dispersed “flash mob” actions well suited to their leaderless movement. At first, they had focused on the downtown “Central” area of Hong Kong, coordinating their large marches electronically (using apps such as Telegram); now they emphasized their slogan “Be Like Water” and resorted to more Maoist guerrilla-like tactics, decentralizing their street actions and proselytizing via hundreds of so-called Lennon Walls spread out around the city where supporters could display their comments on multicolored Post-it Notes.
On July 27, with the movement still growing, the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, which answers to China’s cabinet in Beijing, responded. It denounced “evil and criminal acts committed by radical elements” and warned that “should the chaos continue . . . entire Hong Kong will suffer.” The People’s Daily added that Hong Kong police “should not hesitate” or have any “psychological worries about taking necessary steps.” Protesters were reminded that by law Hong Kong authorities have the power to request military support from Beijing for “the maintenance of public order.” But far from intimidating protesters, such warnings served to fuel further protests—just as warnings had in Tiananmen Square.
In Beijing in 1989, an important turning point came in mid-May. What had been largely a movement of students, intellectuals, and professionals began to draw new societal elements—“ordinary people,” workers, and some so-called rabble, many from the provinces. With these new recruits came larger crowds, but also broader grievances, which could not be remedied with a single governmental concession.
When the Hong Kong protests began, they, too, were composed mostly of idealistic youths with specific demands centered around maintaining Hong Kong’s autonomy. But as they have grown and brought in a wider array of supporters, other issues—such as the housing crisis and dead-end career prospects for many youths—have entered into the movement, along with a new anger, at both police violence and the broader unresponsiveness of officials in Hong Kong and Beijing. A familiar vicious cycle has set in: condemnatory official statements have helped the protests attract wider support and also brought a propensity toward more extreme and violent tactics, which in turn have led to even harsher official reactions.
As police clashes have become more frequent in Hong Kong, new slogans have appeared: “Free Hong Kong, Democracy Now”; “Hong Kong Independence”; “Retake Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times.” Beijing’s leadership, which considers maintaining national unity one of its most sacred charges, has taken these slogans hinting at independence as attacks on Chinese sovereignty. Such affronts have made it difficult for President Xi Jinping, like Deng before him, to consider even communicating with the protesters, much less making concessions to them. Instead, party officials have issued increasingly dark and militant statements. “I want to warn all the criminals to not wrongly judge the situation and take restraint for weakness. . . . A blow from the sword of law is waiting for them in the future,” one official declared earlier this month. The director of the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office charged that protesters evinced “the clear characteristics of a color revolution,” an ominous reference to popular uprisings in the former Soviet bloc that Beijing officials believe were fomented by the United States. Local officials kept insisting that the protests must end before an investigation into police violence could begin, removing any hope of a peaceful compromise.
Just as the Tiananmen protesters did in 1989, the Hong Kong movement has continued changing, seeking to reinvent and reinvigorate itself. With police resistance intensifying, it moved from city streets to symbolic public spaces such as Tsim Sha Tsui Train Station and then Hong Kong International Airport, where massive crowds of demonstrators caused a serious disruption. As encounters with authorities turned more violent, on August 14, a reporter from a party-supported paper, the Global Times, was caught and roughed up by demonstrators, who mistook him for a security agent. Beijing officials accused the protesters of acting “like terrorists.”
As the Hong Kong movement has passed the seven-week mark set in Tiananmen Square and continued to gather momentum, some kind of intervention has come to seem ever more likely. On August 1, the People’s Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong released a provocative video showing troops undertaking urban riot-control exercises. “We have the determination, confidence, and capability to safeguard China’s sovereignty, security, and development interests, and to safeguard Hong Kong’s long-term prosperity and stability,” a PLA spokesman warned. Video footage of troops mustering at a stadium just across the border in Shenzhen began circulating soon after, creating a sense hauntingly reminiscent of May 20, 1989, when martial law was declared and word reached the protesters in Tiananmen Square that PLA troops were already bivouacking outside the city. Then, party officials began charging—as they had during Tiananmen Square—that the unrest in Hong Kong was the work of “black hands” from the United States, suggesting it was foreign manipulation rather than local democratic sentiment that has caused the protests.
As events in Hong Kong have escalated without any plausible scenario for resolution, they have gained a worrisome air of determinism. With the two sides sliding ineluctably toward greater polarization, it becomes ever more difficult to imagine making the requisite concessions without risking an unacceptable loss of face and sacrifice of core principles. (Since the protest movement is essentially leaderless, it is not clear whom the authorities could negotiate with, even if they wanted to.) And as the movement continues and grows angrier, it becomes more likely to produce precisely the kinds of casus belli that would give Beijing a pretext for intervention. Indeed, as PRC propaganda outlets began warning on August 13, Beijing was seeing “sprouts of terrorism” that must be punished, “without leniency, without mercy.”
The Tiananmen Square demonstrations taught that powerful movements of dissent against the Chinese Communist Party are almost always destined to end in confrontation. Why? Because such challenges are intolerable to a Leninist one-party system that allows no notion of a dissent and whose leaders are perennially worried about displaying weakness. It was just such concerns that deprived Deng of the flexibility he needed—and that many other high officials wanted to exercise—to avoid the violent and humiliating finale that befell China in 1989. With the local government now seemingly paralyzed, unless the demonstrations somehow magically subside very soon on their own, there will come a time when someone somewhere will have to do something in Hong Kong. Xi Jinping has never hesitated to lash out when he feels “the Chinese Motherland” is being spurned, rebuked, or dishonored. And when it comes to confronting protest movements fueled by democratic idealism, he has few tools to draw on other than outright repression.
“Any violent crackdown would be completely unacceptable,” said U.S. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on August 10. “The world is watching.”
But the world was also watching on June 4, 1989, over live satellite links when Chinese leaders killed and wounded untold hundreds, even thousands, of protesters in Tiananmen Square. China is, of course, a very different place today, and its leaders are painfully aware of the global costs of a Tiananmen-style military crackdown in Hong Kong. But given the absence of evident alternative approaches to the escalating confrontation, it is not easy to imagine how else it will end.
CORRECTION APPENDED (August 19, 2019)
An earlier version of this article misstated the date of the "one country, two systems" agreement between China and the United Kingdom. It was struck in 1984, not 1997.