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Tiananmen in Hong Kong

The Alarming Echoes of 1989

Police officers fire tear gas at protesters in Sham Shui Po neighborhood of Hong Kong, August 2019  Tyrone Siu/REUTERS

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.

THE LONG SHADOW

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

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