Hong Kong Protests: Will There Be Another Tiananmen Square Massacre?

Hong Kong protests
A vehicle drives among protesters blocking the main street to the financial Central district, outside the government headquarters, in Hong Kong September 29, 2014. Carlos Barria/Reuters

The historical resonance is unmistakable: thousands of Chinese students gather en masse to protest for democracy; thousands of riot police gather in response, firing tear gas, scattering the crowd only to see them return.

The chaos now unfolding on the streets of Hong Kong, the Chinese capitalist jewel of 7.2 million people, instantly evokes the images of Tiananmen Square—the June 4, 1989 massacre in which at minimum hundreds of Chinese protesters were killed in and around Beijing's central square.

In Focus

Pro-Democracy Protestors Face Tear Gas, Arrests in Hong Kong

Pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong, many of them students, faced tear gas and arrests as they took to the streets in massive numbers to call on China to allow free elections for territory’s next leader
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Less well understood is how the Tiananmen crisis and its aftermath informs how Beijing governs Hong Kong today and why the issue of "democracy" is, for both sides, so fraught.

Beijing's resumption of control over Hong Kong—after 150 years as a British colony—came in two steps: the "joint declaration," reached after two years of arduous negotiations between London and Beijing in 1984. The declaration laid out the principles by which Hong Kong would be governed after 1997, when Beijing would regain sovereignty. At its core was the concept of "one country/two systems." Despite being ruled from Beijing by China's communist leaders, Hong Kong would retain the critical attributes that have made it one of the world's most prosperous enclaves: the free movement of capital, the commitment to the rule of law, the right of free expression, a convertible currency and a free port.

The key British diplomat behind the joint declaration was Percy Craddock, the former British ambassador to Beijing in the early 80s who then returned to London and became then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's chief China troubleshooter. Craddock was among the among the best of the West's "China hands": fluent in Mandarin, smart, polished and low key, he kept pushing the Hong Kong rock up the hill, until, just before Christmas in 1984, Thatcher flew to Beijing to sign the declaration.

At the time it was regarded as a triumph in both capitals.Thatcher called it "an excellent result," as did then China's paramount leader Deng Xiaoping. But in his memoirs, published in 1994, Craddock noted that the agreement called for "the legislature to be elected," though he noted parenthetically, "it was not specified how," and Hong Kong's Chief Executive would be ``accountable to the legislature."

In the wake of the joint declaration, the Chinese—that is, Beijing and Hong Kong—took to crafting the "Basic Law" that would govern the city after 1997. The British had no standing to participate, but as Craddock noted at the time, "it was obviously essential that the document should faithfully embody the joint declaration negotiations." London therefore followed the process carefully and "one of the first things" the British noted, Craddock wrote, "were the first signs of differences in interpretation over the issue of representative government."

Fast forward to June of 1989, and the aftermath of the crackdown against pro-democracy protesters on the Chinese mainland. The turmoil sidelined the prospects for political reform in China for decades. It meant the end of the political career of the then party secretary Zhoa Ziyang, who had been the most liberal standard bearer for freer politics and political thought in China. And among the other consequences, Craddock noted, "democracy in Hong Kong in particular became a neuralgic issue."

And so it remains today. Earlier this summer, nearly 800,000 voted in an unofficial referendum in Hong Kong, calling on Beijing to allow Hong Kong residents to directly nominate candidates for the leadership of their local government. The Basic Law does allow for elections in 2017; mainland officials stress that it only allows a nominating committee to pick the candidates. It does not allow for anything approaching the "universal suffrage" that the "Occupy Central" movement calls for.

Demonstrations followed and on August 31 Beijing's National People's Congress (NPC) laid down the law: each candidate to stand in the 2017 leadership election must be supported by half the members of the 1200 strong nominating committee—which is stacked with pro-Beijing forces. As the Hong Kong Federation of students noted in a September 28 statement, "None of the previous pan-democratic candidates...would qualify [for nomination.]" Hong Kong's ``thirty year long dream for democracy," the group concluded, "had been completely shattered."

The Federation of students vowed "not to give up," and they have been in the vanguard of the current protests. But the likelihood of achieving what they desire seems bleak. The NPC statement made it clear that Beijing at the highest levels is in no mood to compromise. And in June, a strongly worded White Paper issued by Beijing reminded everyone that ``the high degree of autonomy in Hong Kong is not an inherent power, but one that comes solely from the authorization by the central leadership."

There is little to reason to believe, moreover, that the demonstrations are going to change minds in Zhongnanhai, China's leadership compound in Beijing. Earlier this summer, Benjamin Kang Lim, a well connected political reporter for Reuters in the capital, quoted a source close to party secretary Xi Jingping saying there was little chance of any give in Beijing's position. "Pushing for democracy in Hong Kong," the source told the reporter, "is tantamount to asking the tiger for its skin."