Hong Kong And The Risk Of Tiananmen Revisited

PRO-DEMOCRACY DEMONSTRATORS in Hong Kong are risking more than just the failure to achieve their objective of “full” democracy, if latest developments are any guide; ominous and bellicose rhetoric — emanating from the central Communist government through its state-sanctioned, state-controlled mouthpieces — suggests there is a real risk that history, 25 years on, may repeat itself. Only a hope that cool heads prevail can avert a catastrophe.

It’s a post this morning to keep an eye on goings-on in our Asia-Pacific neighbourhood, with reports coming out of China and Hong Kong that ought to alarm Chinese people globally, believers in freedom and democracy, and anyone who remembers the shameful day in 1989 that saw tanks crush student protesters in Tiananmen Square in Beijing.

I have an old friend who has lived in Hong Kong for many years, who has sporadically communicated his rising unease of late in relation to the upsurge in popular movements for democracy in Hong Kong and the unmistakably icy responses they elicit from the Chinese government; now it seems his fears may be about to be realised, and developments in recent days have recreated many of the conditions that existed in June 1989 when the campaign for democracy reached its bloody, but terminal, outcome.

For reference, readers may like to access this article from the Murdoch news wires, which provides an accurate and reasonably comprehensive snapshot of where things stand in Hong Kong, and whilst we pray nothing like the brutal crackdown that occurred in Tiananmen Square (or anything remotely similar) transpires in Hong Kong, the risks are obvious, clear, and the potential for any suppression of the so-called “Umbrella Revolution” to spiral out of control is all too real.

I passionately believe that democracy and the rule of law in a free society is the best form of government among so many more imperfect alternatives; I know most readers share that view, and it is natural that those who do not enjoy these things should aspire to obtain them: at considerable personal risk, and sometimes as the potential cost of their own lives.

Certainly, this is a price paid — for nothing — by the Chinese students massacred in 1989.

It is obvious that any comparison of the conditions that led to the Tiananmen Square Massacre, and those that exist presently in Hong Kong, is akin to comparing apples and oranges.

Yet even so, I want to simply make a few comments this morning on the situation in Hong Kong and, whilst I don’t pretend for a moment that these are in any way comprehensive, they point to a situation that could easily draw such a bloody response from the central Chinese government — if the Communist regime in China is of a mind to order it.

There are those who laugh at the prospect of such Chinese Communist brutality happening again, preferring to point instead to the remarkable economic expansion and improvements in living standards for hundreds of millions of Chinese that followed that black day a quarter of a century ago.

But Hong Kong was returned to Chinese control only 17 years ago, and the overwhelming bulk of the population of Hong Kong has first-hand memories of life under the rule of British law, the semi-Westernised culture that existed in their booming territory, and the freedoms that then existed and which have progressively been curtailed.

Certainly, they remember the freedoms and economic liberalism introduced — to China’s fury — by the last British Governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten, which included full democratic elections and self-governance: reforms quickly subverted and/or dismantled by the Chinese government after it resumed control in 1997.

China watchers know that the ruling Communists face opposition on two fronts: the various pro-democracy movements on the one hand, and resurgent support for Nationalists on the other; I don’t propose to deviate down the tangent of Chinese Nationalism to any great degree, but I would observe that Taiwan — which China regards as a renegade province — has been ruled by the Nationalists who fled China in 1949, and that it is only in the past few years that any resurgence in Nationalist support on the mainland has conspired to pose any serious potential threat to continued Communist control.

Even so, the word from my old friend and others who have spent time in China is that the government is worried (one likened it to a cornered puma) and the risk — with its stern lecturing to the West about its sovereignty, and its sanctimonious assumption of the moral high ground where any international criticism of Chinese law is made — is that the “cornered puma” that is the Chinese government could very well lash out.

The kind of things the pro-democracy demonstrators are doing — demanding the resignation of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, blockading government buildings, staging mass rallies that completely obstruct major thoroughfares and other activities explicitly designed to cause chaos in a system wherein order is rigorously enforced — have already triggered violent clashes with Police that have included the use of tear gas against the student protesters.

To Western minds, the objectives of the protests might seem modest: China is offering elections, but allowing them to be contested only by a handful of state-sanctioned candidates; the pro-democracy movement wants the veto of candidates by Beijing to be abandoned.

But this is enough — more than enough — to enrage Beijing, which will not tolerate widespread and protracted dissent, and which can ill afford the prospect of anti-Communist candidates being allowed to stand for office in “full” democratic elections in Hong Kong.

Ironically, it is the precedent of exactly such an election and its after-effects, presided over by Patten, that hardens Beijing’s position on such matters now.

And whilst China’s relations with the West have been far more open over the past couple of decades — with more liberal figures in the Communist Party succeeding those who ordered and orchestrated the brutality in Tiananmen Square — one of the consequences of the rising nationalism I alluded to earlier is that the cycle has again turned to some degree, with the present generation of Chinese leadership representing a far more hardline Communist cohort than has been seen for some time.

Already, it has effectively told the US (and other Western leaders) to butt out over concerns of where any response to democracy protests in Hong Kong might lead.

It has repeatedly insisted that the elections, in their designated form, are not open to negotiation or alteration, and it has been belligerent in its emphasis on their validity within the Chinese legal system.

This intransigence has now been backed up with rants published in official government newspapers and state-sanctioned publications, warning of dire consequences if the protests do not cease, with one editorial stating that the actions of protesters are illegal and that if they do not desist “the consequences will be unimaginable.”

Based on Beijing’s past record in squashing dissent and extinguishing protest by its own people, and by the most violent means available, nobody should misinterpret such bellicose rhetoric as anything other than an explicit threat of a very bloody crackdown, and it is noteworthy that in the runup to the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the same publications carried similarly worded warnings of vague-sounding, but unmistakably chilling, consequences if the protesters of the day did not desist.

And as the Murdoch article notes, next Wednesday and Thursday are public holidays in Hong Kong: providing the perfect opportunity for thousands of activists to mass and linger in the city’s empty streets, making themselves a very clear target for whatever recriminations a malevolent, hardline regime might opt to dispense.

We hope and pray that this situation resolves peacefully, and of course hope the day comes when the peoples of Hong Kong, China, and other countries subjugated by the tyranny of totalitarian rule are able to enjoy the same basic freedoms as we do here in Australia.

But the portents are not good, and the “Umbrella Revolution” has concocted a volatile political mix indeed, and one not at all to the liking of its Communist overlords.

We pray the Chinese government approaches this issue with great restraint and care. The potential for another 1989-style massacre — irrespective of the international outrage it would provoke — is, alas, all too real.

It is to be hoped that cool heads and sage advice are preferable to those who rule in China than the exercise of a collective finger on the trigger.