Hong Kong is not Beijing, 2014 is not 1989, and Civic Square is not Tiananmen Square. Still, the images of tens of thousands of Hong Kong Chinese demonstrating in the streets for democratic reform cannot help but bring back memories of a quarter century ago. Like the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations in Beijing, those in Hong Kong are spearheaded by extraordinarily passionate, articulate, and inspiring young leaders. Both movements include Chinese people from all walks of life. And both movements, while at heart represent a call for fuller democracy and more direct political participation, also engage issues of economic well-being and inequities within the system. Of course they are linked in other ways as well: had the 1989 Tiananmen protests turned out differently, there likely would be no need for the 2014 student boycott of their classes and more broadly based Occupy Central demonstrations in Hong Kong.
That the two sets of protests twenty-five years apart are not the same, of course, leaves open the hope that the demonstrations underway in Hong Kong will not result in the same violent suppression that befell those in Tiananmen. Hong Kong, unlike Beijing, has a strong recent history of large-scale peaceful demonstrations, and the protestors in Hong Kong include experienced politicians as well as passionate students and citizens. Students in Hong Kong have even received a degree of institutional support from at least one university, the University of Hong Kong, which stated in a letter that it “will be flexible and reasonable in understanding the actions of students and staff who wish to express their strongly held views.” Moreover, Hong Kong’s rule of law will likely afford greater protection to the demonstrators: in the midst of the protests, several student leaders were arrested and then released; in referring to one of them, a judge noted that seventeen-year-old Joshua Wong had already been held longer than was lawful and that there was insufficient cause to keep him further.
And yet the question remains: what are the next steps? While various groups within the larger protest movement in Hong Kong have slightly different lists of demands, the resignation of the unpopular Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying and the ability to vote for at least one candidate for chief executive not preselected by Beijing top most people’s lists. Given these reasonably straight-forward demands, Beijing has a number of options. It can: enforce a harsh crackdown in Hong Kong in the hopes that brutally suppressing the protestors will stave off further reform demonstrations; confine the protests to a small area of Hong Kong and hope that they run their course: eventually the students will return to school and the occupy central protestors will return to work; remove Chief Executive C.Y. Leung, who has been a weak and unpopular leader from the outset as a stop-gap; or establish a committee including representatives of various Hong Kong political actors to consider the next stage of suffrage, post-2017. (It could also, of course, decide to grant the protestors their biggest demand—an open slate of candidates determined by universal suffrage for the 2017 election—but this seems well outside the realm of possibility.)
None of the options is likely very attractive to the Chinese leadership. All come with not insignificant political and economic costs. No doubt, the government wishes that the Hong Kong activists would simply concede, perhaps following the advice of Tsinghua University Professor Daniel Bell, who suggests that Hong Kong political activists are doing more harm than good. He notes, “The Hong Kong special administrative region is the most important experiment in political reform. But the system assumes that the central government has the ultimate power to determine what works and what doesn’t. If that power is threatened, the experiment may be put to an end. Hong Kong political activists who, willingly or not, harm the relation with Beijing also harm the chance for Hong Kong-style political reform in mainland China.” Of course, Dr. Bell may want to consider that Beijing has already had fifteen years to witness the success of the Hong Kong political experiment and has done nothing to emulate it on the mainland. It hardly seems reasonable to ask the Hong Kong people to keep their interests at bay in the hopes that mainland leaders might suddenly come to appreciate the value of universal suffrage.
There is no easy solution—the best outcome for now might be to test the waters by replacing C.Y. Leung not with a lackey of Beijing or a democracy activist but with a politician such as Anson Chan or Christine Loh, who have impeccable political credentials, as well as strong managerial experience. The next three years could then be a test case for what a more independent-minded Hong Kong leader might mean for the island’s relations with the mainland and provide guidance for further revisions to Beijing’s current limited conception of universal suffrage.
Hong Kong is not Beijing, and here is hoping that Beijing knows that too.