So says Claudia Rosett, writing in the Wall Street Journal. She should know. She has been present for both.
It’s true that the two showdowns are 30 years apart and arise in different venues. But in both cases, China’s control of a major city was challenged by a population seeking freedom. In the first case, rather than give in to legitimate demands, the Communist Party resorted to guns and mass violence. In the second, it’s preparing to do so.
In Hong Kong:
[T]he millions of protesters. . .have been doing the world a heroic service. Like their predecessors at Tiananmen, they are exposing on a world stage the brutality of the Beijing regime. From the only place under China’s flag where there is any chance to speak out, they are shouting the truth, day and night, in the streets and from the windows—while they still can.
During more than 13 straight weeks of protest, Hong Kong’s people have demanded the rights and freedoms—including free elections—that China, in a treaty with Britain, guaranteed to Hong Kong for 50 years after the 1997 handover. At a press conference last week held by Hong Kong’s Civil Human Rights Front, which has organized some of the biggest peaceful protests, spokeswoman Bonnie Leung observed that if the authorities would simply keep those promises, “the whole movement will end immediately.”
Instead, President Xi Jinping and his puppet, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, have defaulted to threats, propaganda and force. Ms. Lam’s administration has deployed riot police, tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons. Officers have made more than 1,000 arrests.
China has been pressuring Hong Kong companies, including Cathay Pacific Airways, to fire employees who join the protests. Chanting “Stand with Hong Kong! Fight for freedom!” the protesters have refused to back down. Some told me they are ready to die for their cause. Many of their predecessors did in Tiananmen.
Hong Kong police have begun firing warning shots with live ammunition. This weekend, police were caught on video beating unarmed civilians bloody on the subway. China has been conspicuously drilling troops of its People’s Armed Police across the border, and last week it sent fresh army troops to its garrison in Hong Kong, labeling this a routine rotation to ensure “prosperity and stability.”
China’s model for ensuring prosperity and stability is well known. Rosett describes it accurately. “Under Mr. Xi, Chinese communism is completing its evolution into a more economically efficient totalitarian system of techno-surveillance, brainwashing and the engineering of human behavior via a digital system of ‘social credit,’ backed up by security squads, guns and detention camps.”
The Hong Kong protests arise from the extension of this arrangement to that city. In 2014, China imposed a rigged system in which Beijing, not Hong Kong, effectively “elects” Hong Kong’s chief executive, who works with a similarly rigged pro-Beijing majority in the Legislative Council.
Next came a bill that would have allowed extradition of Hong Kongers to the mainland. This would expose them to a Chinese Communist Party that, as Rosett says, uses law as an instrument of dictatorship, not justice.
When this prompted protests by one to two million residents, the bill was suspended. However, it has not been withdrawn (but see update below). And now, China seems ready to crack down, Tiananmen Square style, on the protesters who seek what China promised in 1997.
With great courage and at intensifying risk, Hong Kong’s people have brought to the fore a lesson for anyone dealing with China. For this regime, which aspires to world dominance, what matters most isn’t economic development or international treaties, never mind freedom or democracy. As in Tiananmen, the prime imperative is absolute power, whatever it takes.
UPDATE: Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, has finally agreed to withdraw the extradition bill discussed above. She takes her order from Beijing, so it looks like China wants to avoid a Tiananmen Square style massacre and the worldwide condemnation it would bring.
Will this concession, absent the freedoms China promised Hong Kong in 1997, be sufficient to take the steam out of the protests? Perhaps.
Another possibility is that the protesters, if anything, will be emboldened by the concession and that China, having made it, will believe it can defend a crack down by claiming that the protesters couldn’t take “yes” for an answer.