Last week at Hong Kong’s Chinese University, a crowd gathered around a replica of the statue Goddess of Democracy, a key symbol of the 1989 student occupation of Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. Beneath hand-lettered banners calling on fellow students to “shoulder their historic mission,” several generations of student union presidents discussed a proposal to boycott classes, a measure adopted by a federation of Hong Kong students over the weekend and slated to begin on September 22. The student boycott supports a wider democracy movement; as a leaflet circulating yesterday (September 10) explained, it is a “prelude to a student civil disobedience move…that will lead various social groups to their own civil disobedience movement, together opposing unjust political power.” Activists and scholars alike are calling this moment a watershed for the future of Hong Kong, and indeed, for the politics of China itself. As an American-based scholar of Chinese student movements and an historian teaching at Chinese University, we too view events in Hong Kong—the former British colony that became part of the PRC in 1997—at a crossroads. As we consider the protests’ significance, it is worth considering the historical analogies at play in Chinese politics, and which revolutions from China’s past might illuminate the way forward.

At the heart of the current controversy is the contested future of democracy in Hong Kong. When Hong Kong reverted to mainland Chinese rule in 1997, the premise of the Basic Law agreement was that Beijing would allow its population to maintain its political system, which had incorporated some electoral democracy in the late years of British rule. Since the handover, the chief executive—as the pre-eminent Hong Kong official is known—has been chosen by committee, and this process has resulted in business-friendly leaders who support Beijing. In the next election of the Chief Executive in 2017, pro-democracy activists have called for direct elections. On August 31, Beijing decided to define the call for universal suffrage in its own way: elections for the next chief executive will be by “one person, one vote,” but the candidates will be vetted by Beijing. What’s more, the Communist Party’s official People’s Daily has attempted to portray the pro-democracy movement in general, and the militant wing within it, known as “Occupy Central,” in particular, as controlled by “external forces,” saying the struggle threatens to create “chaos” and undermine economic stability.

In the wake of Beijing’s decision, Hong Kong students are planning a class boycott meant to precede demonstrations by Occupy Central that will block the streets in Hong Kong’s main business district. The grievances of Occupy Central have much in common with those of Occupy movements worldwide: Hong Kong is a vastly unequal society, and government policies are seen as favoring real estate development over affordable housing, shopping complexes over little remaining farmland, and low taxation over more equitable redistribution. One prominent Chinese academic, Wang Zhenmin, explained restrictions on elections by saying that the Communist Party must protect rich people in the interests of continued capitalism in Hong Kong. But while acknowledging that unfettered economic development—in both Hong Kong and China—has led to extreme inequalities rivaling those in the United States, Occupy Central, unlike some related movements, has made its main goal altering electoral procedures.

The most obvious historical analogy for recent Hong Kong events is the 1989 Tiananmen student-led movement, whose icon the Chinese University students chose as the backdrop for launching their own strike. In mainland China, the event still cannot be discussed openly or included in textbooks, but it is commemorated with public mourning ceremonies in Hong Kong each year. It was in the aftermath of Tiananmen that Hong Kong was returned to mainland control. At that moment it was hoped that the former colony’s democratic experience might provide an example for China’s own political reform. Now as the Communist Party calls for stability and accuses Occupy Central of foreign manipulation, the echoes of Tiananmen loom large: Voice of America reports that Beijing’s Hong Kong decision reflects the Communist Party’s internal insecurities. From his Facebook page, former Tiananmen student leader Wang Dan urges Hong Kong students to strike. The sighting of armored personnel carriers, of the sort used in Beijing in 1989, has caused rumors to fly that perhaps the military will use force to quell protests. An open letter by Occupy Central supporters to Chinese President Xi Jinping is even more explicit, “Don’t stage another Tiananmen crackdown in Hong Kong. The whole world is watching.”

But we hear louder echoes of protest movements that predate 1989, ones in which the Communist Party was among the groups supporting demands for democracy. In the colonial Hong Kong of 1967, labor disputes led to months of anti-British demonstrations. Communist groups and leftist sympathizers shouted Maoist slogans, blocked traffic and plastered government buildings with posters denouncing colonial oppression and police brutality. Demanding the release of arrested protesters, then-Premier Zhou Enlai declared from Beijing that “the destiny of Hong Kong will be decided by our patriotic countrymen in Hong Kong.” At that time it was the British who spoke the language of power, emphasizing “law and order,” insisting that Hong Kong residents wanted nothing but economic stability, and calling the protesters a “small number of misguided fanatics.” With the tables now turned on Beijing, it is no wonder that some locals insist that 1997 merely saw control of Hong Kong handed from one foreign capital to another.

There are also parallels between today’s Hong Kong and Shanghai before the PRC was founded in 1949. For example, after this year’s July 1 pro-democracy march, a pro-stability march was staged in which groups from the mainland were allegedly offered food and money in exchange for participation. Similarly, in Shanghai after World War II—a city then governed by Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist government—Communist Party and other opposition groups demonstrated against corruption and authoritarianism, only to have the Nationalists hold rent-a-crowd rallies decrying the protests as the work of outside agitators. And even before the Nationalist government came to power, in the May 30th Movement of 1925, Communists and Nationalists both protested against British control of Shanghai’s foreign-run International Settlement. Here, too, one of the demands was expanding suffrage in the settlement, where only foreigners could vote and stand for office in the Municipal Council. In the Communist Party’s approved official histories, movements like May 30th are hailed as milestones in anticolonial nationalism, and their popular support evidence that the Party came to power backed by the people.

Ironically, two years ago in Hong Kong, protestors successfully fought plans to incorporate Beijing-approved “patriotic education” into its school system—a victory referred to in the Federation of Students leaflet mentioned above. Yet now Hong Kongers plan to take to the streets not unlike China’s pre-1949 textbook heroes: nationalists against British imperialism, patriots against Chiang Kai-shek’s corruption and authoritarianism, and democrats for equal representation. In the face of this Beijing’s Communist Party rulers have come full circle. Now they are the ones whose mantra is stability, who say business must be protected, and who talk of foreign conspiracies.

Historical analogies matter in many political settings, but there are special resonances to them in Hong Kong and China, especially when linked to actions by students. In imperial times, Chinese scholars—and students are seen as belonging to this category—were seen as having a special duty to serve as the conscience of the polity, speaking out when rulers lost their moral compass. And over the course of the twentieth century, students continually played central roles in spearheading nationalist struggles, including the May 30th Movement and earlier and later protests, that are as famous within Chinese patriotic mythology as the Boston Tea Party and Paul Revere’s ride are in the American one. Thus when the deputy of Hong Kong’s Federation of Students, Lester Shum, refutes the idea that students are being manipulated by outsiders, the Tiananmen students’ assertion that they were patriotic—twenty-five years ago—springs immediately to mind, as do memories of earlier struggles when educated youth served political vanguard roles. Likewise, Occupy Central’s open letter to President Xi Jinping anticipates that the party will once again reach for its traditional source of power, the barrel of a gun.

As historians of China’s revolutions, we suggest that the Tiananmen analogy is powerful, but it is not the only or even the best one to keep in mind. To draw solely upon this one historical example, linked to a tragedy, is to take a fatalistic view, that the student boycott and the Occupy Central movement are already doomed. We should make room as well for other moments in history—as students themselves now do.

For example, consider two of the stories that former student leaders told the latest generation of activists who gathered around the Goddess of Democracy last week—stories that referred first to the New Culture Movement of 1915–23 (which called for enlightenment through science and democracy) and then to the May Fourth Movement of 1919 (a related wave of anti-imperialist, anti-authoritarian protests). Chong Chi-keung, student union president of 1987, spoke of a house whose sleeping occupants were unaware of a fire. Wong Weng Chi, president of 2007, invoked the spirit of May Fourth, arguing that only through mass movements could society be changed. Until now, Wong reflected, China has science but it doesn’t have democracy. These are two stories that every Chinese schoolboy knows: the former is of Lu Xun the leftist writer, calling for political awaking; the latter refers to a protest that marked the birth of modern Chinese nationalism.

The analogies suggested by the Hong Kong students themselves show that the “historic mission” to be shouldered is not that of Tiananmen but of May Fourth, a democratic and patriotic protest that preceded the founding of the Communist Party and whose ideals remain incomplete. Today’s Communist Party, contrary both to its early history and its textbook history, does not wear May Fourth’s mantle. Instead, in the name of social change, Hong Kong’s students declare that it is theirs, while the Communist Party acts and speaks in ways that bring its pre-1949 authoritarian opponents to mind—an irony of which local activists are well aware. For example, when pro-Beijing forces in Hong Kong began calling on students to snitch on classmates who supported going on strike, democracy activists labeled this a “white terror” tactic, using a term that Communist Party textbooks employ to condemn brutal tactics that Chiang Kai-shek wielded when the Nationalists were in power before 1949.

The students who have been gathering in the shade of the Goddess of Democracy and invoking the May Fourth tradition do not know what the future will hold, any more than did the students of 1919, who achieved key demands in the end, such as the dismissal of three particularly despised officials. If the outcome is uncertain, though, the importance of the movement and the need to pay attention to how it develops is clear. Ever since 1997, Hong Kong struggles have been significant not only to local actors but also to those on the mainland wondering if moves toward democratization could be in their future. To them, the determination that Hong Kongers have shown in recent years to wrest the democracy they have been promised from the Communist Party has often been inspiring. All the same, moves by Beijing to control future elections has surely had a chilling effect.