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.”