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China’s Xi and Lam, echoes of Tiananmen Square in Hong Kong protests

Written By | Jun 16, 2019
Lam, Hong Kong, Tiananmen, China

HONG KONG, CHINA: The massive protests of Hong Kong residents against a new law allowing extradition to mainland China has achieved remarkable success. With the suspension of the proposed law by Chief Executive Carrie Lam, she has signaled a significant crack in the resolve to move forward from Chinese President Xi Jinping.

Her concession to the fury in Hong Kong that turned out over a million residents into the streets has both inspiring and dangerous similarities to Tiananmen Square. That watershed event in both the suppression of democracy and the transformation of China had its 30th anniversary just weeks ago.

Hong Kong protesters are emboldened

The temporary victory of the protesters in Hong Kong has emboldened them. They are now calling for Carrie Lam to step down as Chief Executive. As this article is written, at 10 pm in Hong Kong, a million people are still in the street demanding Lam step down.

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The implications for Lam and hence Xi and the Chinese government for the  strategic retreat on the issue is tactically sound. They are trying to diffuse a volatile situation brought on by a distrust of Beijing eroding the independent authority of Hong Kong. Undermining its “one country, two systems” understanding.

Warning signals for Beijing and Xi Jinping

In protests several years ago, over the appointment of Lam as Chief Executive by Beijing, pro-Democracy forces were wildly ambitious. Repression of the movement was followed by the installment of Lam. All amidst the widespread perception that she is primarily doing Beijing’s political bidding in Hong Kong.

This has led to a simmering resentment.

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By seeming to back off, Xi is signaling both uncertainty, mild alarm, and a shred of weakness. The image of the Iron man of China is left to be seen as not impregnable.

Xi and Lam were afraid of a larger explosion than the police violence that occurred during the protests last Wednesday. Hong Kong residents were shocked by the police brutality as well. They then turned out in swelling tides of humanity, demanding results, spooking both Lam and Xi.

Leaders of the movement are articulate and smart

Articulate leaders of the current protests are appearing on international media, like CNN’s Fareed Zakaria. They display a sophisticated understanding of their position but are clearly emboldened now to press on with their demands.

We will see shortly if Lam steps down. Or Beijing replaces her with someone more able to implement their long-range plans to integrate Hong Kong into Chinese society.

Lessons from Tiananmen Square

But the ghost of Tiananmen Square looms in the background of any social uprising in China. In 1989, at the height of the protests, three student leaders met with Prime Minister Li Peng on May 18, 1989. It was broadcast on national television.

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By this point, the leaders of the student movement had won considerable victories. There were more than 300,000 protesters in Tiananmen Square. They had won a significant, unexpected ally in General Secretary Zhou Ziyang, the Chairman of the Communist Party.

Know your allies, seize your opportunities

Zhou had for months defended their position. Urged accommodation with the student movement. He had managed to hold sway over hardliners led by Prime Minister Li Peng. Ultimate authority was still held by Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader.

General Secretary Zhou was repeatedly criticized by hardline factions within the Politburo. As events began spinning out of control, he began to lose his grip on power.

When the Government made concessions to the students, their reaction should have been more prudent. When the three student leaders met on national television with Prime Minister Li Peng, it was another extremely serious government concession.

A chance to declare victory and gain legitimacy

It was also an opportunity for the student leaders to declare victory and reach an accommodation with the Communist authorities. Especially since they knew that the party General Secretary, appointed by Deng Xiaoping, was an ally.

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Instead, they blew it. They harshly berated Li Peng on national television. Showing enormous disrespect in a forum where a significant victory could have been achieved. For themselves and for China.

The student leaders were emotional and disheveled. Ranting at Li Peng they resembled a scathing self-criticism session of the Cultural Revolution.  Rather than a victorious group. Representing a new political reality. Being recognized by a senior and not terribly sympathetic government leader.

Mishandling events, lost opportunities

The student leaders performance on television was alarming to party leaders and undermining to Zhou Ziyang. Zhou had been seeking accommodation with the students. Li Peng had gone along with the meeting and been humiliated. It was the final straw in a simmering crackdown that had been planned for months.

Zhao Ziyang actually appeared in Tiananmen Square the next day, on May 19th,  to tearfully beg the students to declare victory and go home.  Zhou knew he was finished, and what was to come. It was his last public appearance.

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Deng Xiaoping declared Martial Law, and thousands were killed by the Peoples Liberation Army. That it was unavoidable is perhaps a truism. But the reality is that it didn’t have to happen that way. At crucial moments, revolutionary movements that succeed know when to pull back from a violent confrontation.

Declaring victory and moving forward

Tiananmen was just such a missed opportunity. I have long believed that the students should have treated Li Peng with a great deal more respect. It was a huge concession to the student movement on the governments part. From the leader of the hardline faction.

They were recognizing them before the nation as a legitimate entity.  One they had chosen to deal with. It was a missed opportunity for the movement. Future movement leaders should learn from their mistakes.

A critical turning point

The student leaders should have used that meeting as a chance to reinforce that authority. Bridge an institutional arrangement with the Party leaders and the Government.  Especially their ally, Zhao Ziyang.  Declare victory with an eye toward moving forward.

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They didn’t. The students directly challenged the authority of the party. In blistering, uncompromising terms. This was neither wise nor prudent. And they provided fodder for the final removal of Zhao Ziyang. The rise of Li Peng and the hardline factions.

And the reassertion of authority by Deng Xiaoping.

The legacy of Tiananmen after 30 years

Thousands died in the massacre that followed. Zhou knew what was coming. The student leaders should have known too. A squandered opportunity for advancement led to 30 years of paranoia within China by each successive leader to prevent its reoccurring.

But the leaders of the movement in Hong Kong appear more level headed than their counterparts 30 years ago. They are fearless in the face of a Chinese government under Xi Jinping that dwarfs the influence of Deng Xiaoping. They have won a huge victory with their recent demonstrations.

What the Hong Kong demonstrators are hoping is that China becomes more like Hong Kong rather than the other way around. It is a valid point. As nations develop strong economic bases and growing wealth and middle classes, political rights are an inevitable outgrowth of that development.

Making China more like Hong Kong

The extent to which a state is able to reach an accommodation with democratic impulses that are the natural result of economic development is the extent to which they will grow and develop a stable social ecosphere.

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Japan from 1946 to 1970 is a great example. South Korea is an even better example. especially after 1981. Closer to home, Taiwan has shown how an authoritarian regime under Chiang Kai-shek can develop into a functional democracy. India shows it every day, although imperfectly.

Hong Kong considers its legal and civil heritage to be as much British as Chinese. They cherish those rights. That special character. Beijing cherishes it too, at least to the extent that Hong Kong is has been the Chinese gateway to economic development.

Beijing recognizing realities

Carrie Lam, Beijing and Xi fear events in Hong Kong are spinning out of control.  Which Xi must not allow to happen. Any more than Zhao could afford for it to happen at Tiananmen.

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Xi is not without his pressures and his own factions within the party leadership. US-China trade talks are a crucial part of the current Chinese economic slowdown. North Korea is a constant threat to regional stability. Uncontrolled unrest in Hong Kong could undermine Xi in Beijing.

But the Hong Kong movement should be wary of not pushing things too far. If Lam goes, they won’t get a directly elected Chief Executive. Beijing will appoint another one, who may be even more hardline and pro-Beijing.

A victory for Hong Kong, if they know how to use it

Maybe it is better to work with the executive they have who has shown a willingness, finally, to be responsive. Maybe its time to cautiously declare a victory of sorts, while seeking to institutionalize the gains they have made.

It is without question a significant victory for the people of Hong Kong. Outside of the merits of the proposed law, Lam and Xi have shown the necessity of a reasonable understanding of the will of the people. At least for now.

Moving forward, China and Beijing must accommodate reality

In the long run, if Beijing is smart, they will gradually make China more like Hong Kong. Rather than the other way around. Recognize the inevitable pressure for Democratic expression in a maturing society. Instead of insisting on their headlong rush to the 21st-century police state.

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China, of necessity, must reach an accommodation with Hong Kong. Just as it must with Taiwan. The extent to which China has the maturity and wisdom to become more like Taiwan and Hong Kong than the other way around is the defining moment of their future prosperity. It could all come apart in the blink an eye.

Beijing and Hong Kong should keep the ghost of Tiananmen Square in their minds as they move forward. The Communist Party of China isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. But neither are the people of Hong Kong.


L.J. Keith

LJ Keith is a non-partisan commentator taking aim at all aspects of governmental domestic and foreign policy and the American socio-political landscape with an eye toward examining the functional realities of the modern age, how they can be understood, and what context to view the changing face of life in America and its place in the world at large.