The circumstances the Hong Kong protesters face today are eerily similar to those Walesa faced in Poland. In Hong Kong, as in Poland, a grass-roots movement has risen up against a communist puppet government. In Hong Kong, as in Poland, they are menaced by a totalitarian empire across their border that threatens to invade and crush them. In Hong Kong, as in Poland, the puppet regime has cracked down on the protesters, firing at marchers in the streets and arresting opposition leaders. And in Hong Kong, as in Poland, few believe the democratic forces can prevail against the massive powers arrayed against them.
That should not faze them, Walesa told me in an interview. “When I was involved in my struggle, nobody in the world believed we could win the victory. I consulted the big leaders of the world. … and none of them, not even a single one, claimed that we stood the least of chances.”
But they did succeed — and Walesa believes the odds of success in Hong Kong are even better than they were in Poland. Decades ago, Solidarity broke the regime’s monopoly on information by publishing underground newspapers printed with shoe polish that were passed from person to person. Today, he says, modern communications technology means Hong Kong’s opposition “can communicate in real time instantly … to establish their solidarity, solidarity among themselves, but also solidarity with the leaders of the world.”
Moreover, in Poland, Walesa says, Communist authorities “would be ridiculing us saying, ‘You are so few. What power do you represent?’” It was only after Pope John Paul II first visited Poland in 1979, and millions came out to greet the Polish pontiff, that they realized the Communists had lied to them. They were not so few, after all; they were millions strong. But in Hong Kong, the people know they are not few. This weekend, nearly 3 million people — over 71 percent of eligible voters — turned out for district council elections, the only fully democratic elections in Hong Kong. In a vote considered a referendum on the protest movement, the pro-democracy parties crushed the pro-Beijing parties, showing that the people of Hong Kong support the opposition.
Of course, Beijing learned the lessons of Walesa’s success. Chinese leaders saw that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev was unwilling to kill indiscriminately to maintain power. In Tiananmen Square, they demonstrated no such reticence. This is why, Walesa says, it is critical that the United States and the rest of the world’s democracies stand with the people of Hong Kong and use their leverage to deter a Chinese crackdown. “If China realizes that those people protesting there have the support of the whole world, their approach will also differ because they would not want to lose their friends worldwide."
Walesa also warns Hong Kong leaders to be careful not to push for what he calls the final confrontation before they are ready. “Like in boxing, you know you can give a blow, but then you try to avoid the opponent's blow,” he says.
But he also believes Hong Kong’s victory may come before anyone in the outside world expects it. Walesa recalls how in November 1989 West German Chancellor Helmut Kohl came to Warsaw and met with him. “I am not a diplomat, so I just got straight to the point. ‘The Berlin Wall is about to fall.’ That’s what I tell them. ‘The Soviet Union is about to collapse. ... Are you prepared for that?’” He recalls that Kohl responded “Dear friend, I wish we had problems like that.”
“The point,” Walesa says, “is they had to cancel the rest of the official visit to Poland because the Berlin Wall came down that night.” Hong Kong, he says, can see the same success. Asked whether he is ready to travel to Hong Kong, Walesa does not hesitate. “Yes, I would be willing to do that,” he says, “because the ideals that they are fighting for are not against anybody. They are fighting for the ideals that are in favor of the good progress of the world. So, I would like to help them and I think the whole world should be helping them in Hong Kong.”
If Hong Kong’s democracy advocates want his help, the man who helped bring down the Soviet empire is ready to board a plane and stand with them.