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Tiananmen Then, Hong Kong Now

A man stands in front of a convoy of tanks on the Avenue of Eternal peace near Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China. (Stringer/Reuters)

Orville Schell, who covered the Tiananmen Square protests for the New York Review of Books 30 years ago, has an essay in Foreign Affairs that is worth your time. Schell compares what happened in Beijing then with what is going on in Hong Kong now. The similarities are not reassuring.

“The Tiananmen Square demonstrations taught that powerful movements of dissent against the Chinese Communist Party are almost always destined to end in confrontation,” Schell writes. “Why? Because such challenges are intolerable to a Leninist one-party system that allows no notion of dissent and whose leaders are perennially worried about displaying weakness.”

A generation ago, Deng Xiaoping waited until the conclusion of a high-profile summit with Mikhail Gorbachev before acting against the democracy activists in Tiananmen. Gorbachev departed on May 18. Within a few weeks, the government massacred the protestors.

Xi Jinping is also aware of the calendar. The seventieth anniversary of the People’s Republic of China will be commemorated on October 1. Any crackdown on the Hong Kong protests before then would put a damper on the occasion. The riot police amassing on the mainland can afford to be patient. “Xi Jinping has never hesitated to lash out when he feels ‘the Chinese motherland’ is being spurned, rebuked, or dishonored,” Schell writes. “And when it comes to confronting protest movements fueled by democratic idealism, he has few tools to draw on other than outright repression.”

There is a further parallel between Tiananmen and Hong Kong. In 1989, American officials and commentators expressed solidarity with the students and vowed to hold the Chinese authorities to account if the protest was violently suppressed. When the tanks rolled in, these verbal assurances did not make much of a difference. The inhumanity of the Chinese regime was displayed live on television. It shocked consciences but did not hinder China’s rise. “China is, of course, a very different place today, and its leaders are painfully aware of the global costs of a Tiananmen-style military crackdown in Hong Kong,” Schell concludes. “But given the absence of evident alternative approaches to escalating confrontation, it is not easy to imagine how else it will end.”

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