In China, 2019 is not 1989

In China, 2019 is not 1989
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The 2019 Hong Kong protests will be written about for decades to come. They are not, as Beijing claims, another color revolution: They do not seek to replace the national government. Nor are they, as the Mainland media dubs them, a product of a U.S./CIA plot to undermine China, a claim absurd on its face.  Most importantly, even though there are some irresistible parallels to the student-led protests of 1989 (threatening troop movements, stultifying political pronouncements by Beijing, the glare of the international media), those similarities do not describe the Hong Kong protesters. 

Unlike 1989, the 2019 “water revolution” has been fueled by moderation and constant updating of tactics and the correcting of tactical errors in real time.  To cite one example, the occupation of Chep Lap Kok airport was a powerful move, but by its second day, it was creating a serious optics problem and posed a risk of costing international support.  The protesters responded to these new realities with extraordinary speed and coordination. By contrast, the 1989 protests went down a singular path of increasing radicalization.  This was fueled by the constant influx of students from the provinces that gave the Beijing movement leaders human resources necessary to occupy the square after many of their moderate Beijing-based colleagues had gone home or back to campus. 

The key inflection points of the 1989 protests were shaped by a group of increasingly radicalized students who took the spotlight away from their more thoughtful and responsible colleagues.  

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The protesters in 1989 were also more naïve and less worldly than the 2019 protesters. Their initially reasonable demands were often overshadowed by the personal drama of key protest leaders, culminating in the televised “debate” between protest leader Wu’er Kaixi and Premier Li Peng, which led to both sides digging in further.

By contrast, the Hong Kong protesters are extremely savvy in their use of symbols and the messaging of their unhappiness. With Carrie Lam’s formal withdrawal of the extradition bill from the docket three of the remaining four demands – an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality, amnesty for arrested protester and a government edict against describing the protests as “riots” – are eminently reasonable. This does not have to end badly.

Finally, the protesters’ use of social media is an object lesson to the world on how to use phone apps and VPNs as a way to constructively engage in a social movement rather than provide a dark platform of conspiracy theories that threaten to corrode the movement from within. This open, non-hierarchical organizational structure is only able to exist because of the technological advances of the last few years. It is an extraordinary resource for these protesters, and, were Beijing to send in troops, would remain an organizing tool for a resistance that could well make a post-crackdown Hong Kong look more like Beirut than a post-Tiananmen Beijing.

That said – and as reluctant as I am to write this – some of the protesters are making serious tactical errors that threaten the already-dwindling chances for a peaceful outcome of the crisis.

First, the act of defacing symbols of the Mainland serve little purpose but to inflame Beijing and the scores of netizens it has captured in the net of its overarching narrative that the protests are a threat to stability. Although the 2019 protesters have largely avoided the temptation of gratuitously embarrassing their opponents, lapses in this regard are dangerous and provide little if any lasting benefit.

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Second, the use of American flags and other U.S. symbols is a wrongheaded tactic. It plays directly into Beijing’s unfounded narrative that the protesters are being organized and funded by Washington, a claim that has widespread traction in the Mainland. And it betrays a misunderstanding of the U.S.’s willingness to provide anything more than a fig leaf to the protesters. 

The Trump administration has been almost completely mute on the issue, and it is not difficult to imagine Trump privately equating these protesters with the 2017 anti-white nationalist protesters of Charlottesville: troublemakers whose grievances make absolutely no sense to him.  Unlike the deep ambivalence but robust action of the George H.W. Bush administration toward the 1989 events, the Trump administration seems to have little, if any, concern at all with Hong Kong in 2019.

Third, although Beijing bears the full blame of creating this crisis by introducing the extradition law in the first place, the protesters’ legitimate, ongoing frustrations are nonetheless complicating prospects for a positive outcome. It seems there might be some daylight between Ms. Lam and Beijing, as well as a face-saving way to meet most, but not all, of the protesters’ demands (the demand for the right of Hong Kong citizens to elect their own political leaders, for example, is a political non-starter). 

Beijing is going to pay, no matter what. No need to drive the knife in further.

Andrew Mertha is Hyman Professor of China Studies and the director of China studies and director of SAIS China at the School of Advanced Studies at Johns Hopkins University.