The Scars of Tiananmen…and Hong Kong
My latest thoughts on Hong Kong are in the new ChınaFile debate here.
My contribution —
No one who lived through China in 1989 emerged unscarred.
Beijing residents learned their government and army would do anything to keep the Communist Party in power. Hong Kongers learned that their post-colonial future suddenly looked more ominous. Journalists, like myself, learned to mistrust deeply the momentum of joyous outpourings of youth-led demonstrations—like we are seeing in the streets of Hong Kong today—because we saw the joy turn to horror overnight.
The Communist Party leadership learned … Well, what did they learn? That is the key question facing Hong Kong today, and one for which we don’t have an absolutely clear answer.
All public indications are that the lesson the leadership learned was that army intervention was a success, that the deaths bought needed stability, that world condemnation would quickly pass. If those indeed were the lessons, then my anxiety and pessimism about how the Umbrella Revolution will play out is more than justified.
But what if the leadership, too, was scarred by Tiananmen? What if the army found the cost of killing its own people was too high? Then, perhaps, there may be some constructive ways through.
However, since coming to power, Chinese President Xi Jinping has shown no signs of compromise on any issue. He has cracked down on domestic opponents ruthlessly. He seems intent on using and displaying power. And he would seem to have everything to lose and nothing to gain domestically by appearing soft on dissent in Hong Kong or, worse, soft on sovereignty.
Worringly, too, one key group in the Hong Kong drama was not scarred by Tiananmen. The secondary and university students who have been in the vanguard of Hong Kong’s protests and whose idealism galvanized the city were not even born when a previous generation of students saw their dreams crushed under tank treads. The generational gap both gives them courage and puts them hugely at risk.
I hope for a peaceful end to the standoff. I fear a crackdown.
No matter which actually happens, a generation has been politicized, a city has found a consciousness, and Hong Kong has displayed an identity separate and distinct from its colonial past and its Chinese nationality.
That in itself is a huge change, a tremendous accomplishment, and a factor Beijing and the world will have to acknowledge.
And for Hong Kongers themselves, no matter how this ends, their lives will forever be defined by the questions: “Where were you in September and October 2014?” And “what did you do for our city?”