For those watching the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, there are obvious reminders of a parallel with another student-led protest in a major Chinese city 25 years before. It's an uncomfortable thought. The 1989 Tiananmen Square protests only came to an end when soldiers opened fire on the largely peaceful protesters, killing hundreds if not more.
But a long time has passed since 1989, and a lot has changed, both in China and the wider world. There are numerous signs that Beijing might instead be looking toward another, more modern example for how to control mass urban protests.
This one was perfected by Vladimir Putin.
Much like how Beijing's decision to only allow pre-approved candidates to contest Hong Kong's election spurred the protests in the city, it was a single event that led to protests in Moscow and other Russian cities in Winter 2011. Many Russians looked at the 2011 Duma Elections as evidence of the blatant corruption of Russian society, and took to the streets to protest. For Putin, then prime minister, it was worrying timing: He was just months away from his planned return to the Kremlin, and he had built his legitimacy as Russian leader upon a tacit agreement with the people that freedom could be curtailed in return for economic growth and stability. That agreement suddenly began to look fraught.
So how did Putin crack down? In hindsight, surprisingly slowly and cautiously. He mobilized his supporters, in particular the youth movement Nashi, to counter-protest. In state media, he blamed the protests on ominous "foreign forces" and pointed to the hand of the United States and Europe. But most importantly, he was patient: While the protests were far from peaceful, Russian security forces were clearly holding back, applying constant but infrequently overbearing pressure. They were playing the long game. After months of protests through the bitter 2011-2012 winter left activists with little to show, the protests lost momentum. By the end of 2012, they were virtually dead.
After the protests withered, however, that's when the real crackdown came. Putin tightened the screws on Russian society, clamping down on independent media and non-governmental organizations. The United States Agency for International Development (USAID) was forced to close its offices. Protest leaders, now out of the limelight, suddenly found themselves in considerable legal woes – the protest leader with the most significant momentum, lawyer and blogger Alexey Navalny, has been in and out of court since the main protest movement ended, and he is currently restricted under house arrest.
There are some obvious parallels between the recent protests in Moscow and Hong Kong. The cosmopolitan disposition of many Hong Kong residents echoes the urban, elite values of many of the Muscovite protesters who formed the core of the Russian movement. Both are protesting what they see as a lack of democracy from their authoritarian governments. Russian state media has explicitly linked the Hong Kong protests to the so-called "Orange" revolutions in its neighboring countries, which are widely seen as foreign-orchestrated and ultimately negative. And while Russia may be considered a pariah in the West, in China it's still viewed warmly. As Jeremy Page recently noted at the Wall Street Journal, Putin's mythology has a place there: Some even refer to him as "Putin the Great."
Even before the protests in Hong Kong, there were signs that Beijing was clamping down on civil society in China. The Post's Simon Denyer recently spoke to a number of experts who said that Xi Jinping had recently applied pressure on NGOs in the country, in part inspired by Putin. “Xi doesn’t want to go back to Mao’s path, but he doesn’t agree to Western democracy, either," Xiao Shu, a visiting fellow at Columbia University and a former newspaper columnist, told Denyer. "So Xi will follow the third path — Putin-style democracy, a controllable democracy — by shutting down the NGOs that are not submissive and supporting NGOs that are useful to government.”
And once the protests began, there were other signs. Chinese state newspapers blamed the protests on "foreign anti-China forces." And while police responded harshly over the weekend, with tear gas and pepper spray, they since appear to have been more restrained. Patience now appears to be a distinct policy. “The strategy is to control the situation and let them occupy until a time that the inconvenience caused to others in Hong Kong will swing the public opinion against Occupy or pressure the organizers to call it off,” one source told the Wall Street Journal. “They can wait to a time the public opinion will swing.”
Jeff Bader, formerly the Obama administration’s former top adviser on Asia, told The Post's William Wan that such a tactic could work. Unlike in other large protests, such as in Egypt in 2011, or even Tiananmen in 1989, the protesters in Hong Kong have a lot to lose if things drag out. "[Hong Kong residents] don't see democratic development as the key to a good life, which they already have," Bader explained. "They would like it, but they have other objectives, which the current economic and social system in Hong Kong effectively promote and ensure."
On Friday, things stepped up a notch, with anti-protester crowds clashing with protesters in parts of Hong Kong. While those opposing the protests may have gathered spontaneously, there is a strong suspicion among protesters that the groups were organized by Beijing. This echoes not only the role of the pro-Kremlin groups in the Russian protests (and the suspicions that surrounded them), but also other pro-government groups who have popped up in protests over the years all around the world. At the time of writing, the clashes seem to have entrenched the protests, though that could change.
Even if Beijing can use Putin-style tactics to clamp down on Hong Kong in the short term, it will be difficult to neuter the movement as successfully as the Russian state did in the longer term: Hong Kong's strong civil society and history of a free press are a big contrast to Moscow. And ultimately, even in the short term, the success of Beijing's tactics will depend on how protesters react. "[The Putin strategy] only works if the protesters fail to sustain or broaden their actions or refuse to escalate them," Jay Ulfelder, an American political scientist who focuses on political instability, explains. "Those things didn't happen in Russia a few years ago, but I think they are happening now in Hong Kong."
However, as bad as a Putin-style slow crackdown on Hong Kong might be, as Leonid Bershidsky pointed out at Bloomberg View, the alternative – a bloody crackdown like that in Kiev during Euromaidan – would probably be worse. Given Beijing's vast security apparatus and political will, that may well end up looking not so dissimilar to Tiananmen 25 years ago.