Tactics used on HK protesters recall Tiananmen unrest

FACING OFF: Protesters in raincoats fending off pepper spray from riot police in Hong Kong on Sunday. The state-backed press has charged that "hostile foreign forces" were whipping up dissatisfaction, echoing Tiananmen-era language.


    Oct 01, 2014

    Tactics used on HK protesters recall Tiananmen unrest

    OVERNIGHT, my childhood home became a battleground. The Hong Kong streets where I grew up morphed into an alarming political flashpoint, with riot police officers in gas masks firing tear-gas canisters at pro-democracy protesters.

    Having lived for years in Beijing researching the legacy of China's suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, I should not have been shocked.

    After unleashing the army on their own people a quarter-century ago, China's leaders were left with a brooding sense of their own vulnerability and a determination to ensure demonstrations would never again spiral out of control.

    This preoccupation gave birth to a ballooning security apparatus whose mission is corralling and suppressing grassroots protests. For China's leaders, the overriding priority is stability, no matter the cost.

    On Sunday - when the phalanxes of riot police officers moved aggressively to clear the streets of peaceful protesters - Hong Kong became just another Chinese city.

    Hongkongers had been waiting for months to see how Beijing would fulfil its promise to allow for universal suffrage in electing the territory's next leader in 2017.

    Last month, Beijing handed down an order that candidates for chief executive, as the top leader is known, would have to be nominated by a committee packed with Beijing loyalists.

    What stands out is that so many of the tactics used against the Hong Kong protesters echo those used in Beijing in 1989.

    Indeed, in the run-up to the weekend's protests, as Hongkongers debated the future of democracy in the territory, the state-backed press repeated familiar accusations that "hostile foreign forces" were whipping up dissatisfaction.

    This culminated in an "expose" on Thursday in the pro-Beijing Wen Wei Po newspaper charging the 17-year-old student leader Joshua Wong of having ties to the American government and being manipulated by a "black hand" behind the scenes, in an eerie echo of Tiananmen-era language. Joshua said the accusations were false.

    The protests have been driven by a new generation of young activists like Joshua, for whom social media is both a tool of organisation and a means of immediately publicising each clash with the riot police.

    Another prominent figure forced to deny links to the American government was the media baron Jimmy Lai, an outspoken advocate for democracy.

    In a sensational corruption trial last week, the man who was once Hong Kong's second-highest ranking civil servant, Rafael Hui, admitted to taking a payment of almost US$1.5 million from a Beijing official as far back as 2007.

    So the vaunted political neutrality of Hong Kong's civil service, trained by colonial administrators, is looking somewhat shakier.

    The growing anger in Hong Kong stems not just from a lack of democracy, but also from gaping inequality, embodied in government policies perceived to be rigged to benefit the city's billionaires.

    So when President Xi Jinping responded to the growing discontent by summoning Hong Kong's business tycoons to Beijing last week, this further underlined the gaping chasm between the governor and the governed, the wealthy elite and the ordinary people.

    The muted response from Western capitals has dismayed Hong Kong's protesters. Many feel that Britain, as the former colonial power, has failed in its legal and moral responsibility to speak out.

    For China's leaders, the accusation that foreign forces are manipulating students is easier to countenance than the idea that Hongkongers are standing up for the high degree of autonomy promised to them.

    As students and activists faced off against the riot police amid the canyons of skyscrapers, one popular chant was simply: "Hong Kong people! Hong Kong people!"

    Such an assertion of a separate and distinct identity is anathema to Mr Xi.

    But, even as the protests continue to swell, Beijing seems to hold all the cards. Yet, even if it succeeds in tamping down the anger in Hong Kong - which is unlikely - its gains can be fleeting at best.

    The moment that Hong Kong citizens have been dreading for 17 years has finally arrived.

    And the ramifications will ripple out to Taiwan, whose residents are increasingly wary of the idea of reunification, as well as to the fringes of Beijing's empire, where it is struggling with suicidal Tibetan protesters and a murderous ethnic insurgency in the north-western province of Xinjiang.

    Hong Kong has not yet become another Tiananmen, but the fact that they are being spoken of in the same breath shows how little Beijing cares what the rest of the world thinks.


    The writer is a visiting professor of journalism at the University of Michigan.