The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion To avoid a Tiananmen-style crackdown, the Hong Kong protest movement needs to evolve

Chinese leaders need to discuss Hong Kong protesters' demands or face political consequences, the Editorial Board says. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: EPA-EFE/REX/Shutterstock and Daron Taylor/The Washington Post)
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In May of 1989, I was among the people who pleaded with the leadership of the student movement that had occupied Tiananmen Square in Beijing to end their demonstrations. Declare victory and return to your dorms, I urged.

In the days between May 15, when more than a million protesters “welcomed” Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev to Beijing, and May 20, when China’s then-Premier Li Peng declared martial law, a string of well-wishers made their way to a musty tent near the center of Tiananmen Square to implore student leaders to call off the marches. The argument was that there was a debate within the upper reaches of the Chinese Communist Party over how to handle the protests. If the students vacated the square — and cleaned it, to boot — it might tip the intra-party struggle toward leaders of a more liberal ilk.

Many of us received a sympathetic hearing. But the students didn’t budge. Some sought a violent end to the protests in a misplaced belief that it would spark a wider revolt against the Communist Party. Others who had just arrived on trains from across China were loath to abandon the Woodstock-like vibe that blossomed all around the square. Meanwhile, many student leaders had disappeared, spirited home by their parents or into hiding for fear of a crackdown, which arrived with bloody intensity on the evening of June 3, 1989.

Flash forward to 2019, and protesters in Hong Kong are facing a similarly fateful decision.

After 11 weeks of massive protests aimed at preserving Hong Kong’s uniquely pluralistic society and independent judiciary, demonstrators in the Chinese territory appear equally divided in the face of a local government that is clearly incapable of doing anything of its own accord and a Communist overlord in Beijing who views the prospect of compromise as tantamount to surrender.

Key leaders of the demonstrations are either in jail or exiled overseas. Some participants want to compromise. Others advocate a more radical path, spouting slogans such as “Hong Kong independence.” All of those involved are grappling with what it would take to pivot from a street movement to a negotiating partner.

Meanwhile, authorities in Beijing have laid the foundations for a bloody crackdown. Just as they did in 1989, China’s state-run media have demonized the protesters, dubbing them “terrorists” under the influence of Western “black hands” and framing leading democracy activists in Hong Kong as “traitors.”

To add the requisite foreign angle to further justify violence, China’s state-run press claimed without proof that U.S. agents have fomented the demonstrations. China’s state-run media also released images of the People’s Armed Police mustering at a stadium in Shenzhen, across the border from Hong Kong. And a string of uniformed Chinese apparatchiks have been wheeled out, warning darkly that the People’s Liberation Army was ready to “safeguard Hong Kong’s long-term prosperity and stability.”

So what next?

The protesters have five demands. They want Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, to resign; they want to completely withdraw a bill that would allow Hong Kong people to be extradited to China; they want an independent inquiry into police brutality; they want more democratic freedoms; and they want arrested protesters to be released without charges.

On Tuesday, following another massive protest — probably the most impressive to date, as it was technically illegal but did not degenerate into violence — Lam emerged to offer dialogue, investigate complaints about police misconduct and carry out a wide-ranging fact-finding study into the demonstrations. While Lam did not meet any specific demands, it was an olive branch. Despite the fact that demonstrators criticized Lam’s approach as a smokescreen, I would hope that they would reconsider.

While there is even less possibility now that there exists a slightly more liberal wing of the Communist Party arguing for compromise, there clearly are those in China who oppose a crackdown, and those voices need a hand. As someone who witnessed the Tiananmen Square massacre and spent a decade covering wars throughout the world, I can say that if bloodshed can be avoided in Hong Kong, it would be a good thing.

Second, by exhibiting prudence and maturity in the face of China’s mean-spirited surliness, Hong Kong’s marchers would reveal Beijing’s claims of foreign intervention to be what they are: paranoid ravings of a nasty regime.

Even more significantly, in holding off on more marches, the demonstrators would raise their political profile in Hong Kong, especially compared to Lam’s government, which has clearly failed to carry out its mandate that “Hongkongers rule Hong Kong.” This is and remains a long-term political struggle, and the marchers in Hong Kong need to stay safe and alive — and continue to appeal to majority opinion in Hong Kong — to fight another day.

Wu’er Kaixi was a prominent student leader of the 1989 pro-democracy movement in China. Thirty years later, he still lives in exile. (Video: The Washington Post)

Read more:

China tried to erase the memory of Tiananmen Square. But its legacy lives on.

The Post’s View: China has misread the Hong Kong protests from the start. It’s time to get it right.

Marc A. Thiessen: China does not have the upper hand in Hong Kong. Trump does.

Ian Birrell: The Hong Kong protesters are scared but resolute even as a crackdown by China may loom

Frida Ghitis: Did the U.S. president greenlight a potential Chinese crackdown in Hong Kong?