How Close Is Hong Kong to a Second Tiananmen?

The Chinese Communist Party prefers violence to perceived weakness.

Pro-democracy activist Avery Ng and supporters march to the Hong Kong Chinese Liaison office on June 5, after a vigil to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown in Beijing.
Pro-democracy activist Avery Ng and supporters march to the Hong Kong Chinese Liaison office on June 5, after a vigil to mark the 30th anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown in Beijing. Isaac Lawrence/AFP/Getty Images

In late October 1956, students and workers massed in the Hungarian capital of Budapest to protest Soviet rule and demand the end of Moscow’s political domination. Largely leaderless at first, the protests were galvanized by increasingly aggressive police action to become a full-blown revolt against a government widely viewed as a Soviet puppet. By the end of the month, with a new rebel government in place, it seemed that Moscow might be willing to negotiate the withdrawal of Soviet troops—after all, then-First Secretary Nikita Khrushchev had denounced Joseph Stalin several months earlier.

This optimism was short-lived. At 4:15 a.m. on Nov. 4, Soviet tanks entered the city, leaving thousands of Hungarian citizens dead and eliciting widespread international condemnation, though no actual action. Yet the crackdown had succeeded in its immediate objective—forestalling Moscow’s loss of political control, at least until the collapse of the Soviet Union three and a half decades later.

The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has a long memory, and it is increasingly obsessed with the fate of the Soviets. As usual, we don’t know what Xi Jinping and other leaders were discussing at the recently concluded yearly meeting in the seaside resort of Beidaihe—but it seems likely that the memory of 1956 loomed over discussion of unrest in Hong Kong, arguably the most significant political challenge outside its own ranks the CCP has faced since Xi assumed power in 2012.

Unfortunately for the protesters, Beijing’s calculus in 2019 is likely the same as Moscow’s nearly 70 years earlier: When backed into a corner, violence is preferable to perceived political weakness or territorial dissolution.

Some argue that Beijing will ultimately refrain from the use of violence due to a concern over its global reputation or domestic blowback. Kerry Brown of King’s College London predicted: “Anything too dramatic is going to be quite a high cost. It will be called Tiananmen 2.0, and they don’t want that kind of reputational hit.” Yet this fundamentally misunderstands the party’s long-running political calculus and how it interprets past events, including Hungary in 1956, Czechoslovakia in 1968, and even June 4, 1989. The great arc of CCP history—indeed, of one-party political systems in general—shows that international opprobrium and domestic blowback are manageable, if costly. The uncontrolled deterioration of political authority is not. And that’s exactly what Beijing sees in Hong Kong right now.

What began with targeted protests over a proposed extradition bill that would potentially subject Hong Kong residents to the CCP’s domestic legal controls soon morphed into a full-blown movement after an overly aggressive and inept response by the local police and the refusal of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to fully withdraw the bill. (It has only been temporarily shelved.)

As an unintended consequence of Beijing’s successful neutering of Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement in 2014, a sense of desperation and urgency now imbues this largely leaderless and grassroots movement. Hong Kong International Airport, one of the world’s busiest transport hubs, has been shuttered in response to sit-ins, and the language is escalating on both sides. While the violence has been largely on the side of the police, this Monday saw protesters attack and beat suspected infiltrators. Just this week, Lam warned that the protesters were pushing Hong Kong “into an abyss.” “Sorry for the inconvenience,” said one protester’s sign at the airport, “but we’re fighting for survival.”

For the CCP leadership, especially Xi, the stakes could not be greater. Not only does this unrest come at a time of mounting challenges, including the ongoing trade war with the United States and the slowing economy, but demands by protesters, such as for increased sovereignty from Beijing and more democratic participation, cut directly at the CCP’s core principle of unchallenged territorial integrity and its argument that it alone speaks for the “Chinese people.”

It’s thus unsurprising that Beijing has ramped up its rhetoric against the protesters in the past week, ominously likening them to terrorists and, predictably, blaming “hostile foreign forces” and “black hands” for organizing and inciting the protests. Since the mid-1950s, fears of outside meddling—legitimate or intentionally stoked—have been a core part of the party’s political discourse. Mao Zedong became convinced the United States was intent on regime change in Beijing after Secretary of State John Foster Dulles spoke of a “peaceful evolution” strategy. Later, “hostile forces” became the party’s catch-all explanation for domestic discontent and unrest, for the alternative—that the Chinese people were organically unhappy with Beijing’s rule—was completely untenable.

More worrying, then, are the rumors that Beijing is considering the use of its paramilitary forces (the People’s Armed Police, or PAP) to quell the protests, which gained credence when Chinese state media reported on forces assembling in the southern city of Shenzhen for a “large-scale exercise” that included armored personnel carriers. (U.S. President Donald Trump’s tweet on Tuesday seemingly confirming the rumors only added to such fears.)

The question now hanging over Hong Kong is whether Beijing is prepared to crush the protests with direct force or whether the recent threats are simply bluster, intended to spook both the protesters and Lam’s administration.

Beijing faces something more than a mere binary choice—to send in the troops or not. There is a range of options available, including Beijing’s current preferred method of attempting to create a wedge between the protesters and the city’s population at large. Beijing might also do more to strengthen the capabilities of the local Hong Kong police to quell the protests. And just as few predicted that events would escalate this quickly, so too may an off-ramp—such as the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill—be found more easily than expected.

Yet the outright use of mainland forces—be they of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) or the PAP—should not be ruled out. Indeed, even under the Basic Law, the foundational legal document governing Hong Kong, the local government may request that Beijing station troops in the city in the “maintenance of public order.” So too does the National People’s Congress Standing Committee have the authority to declare a “state of emergency” when a situation “endangers national unity or security.”

Looking at China’s own recent history, from the CCP’s perspective the lesson of Tiananmen Square was not that the use of tanks and PLA troops to subdue the Chinese people was a mistake. Rather, Deng Xiaoping and the party elders believed that the price was justified in order to stave off an even greater catastrophe. As Deng said in his first speech after the June 4 crackdown, “The nature of the incident should have been obvious from the very beginning. The handful of bad people had two basic slogans: overthrow the Communist Party and demolish the socialist system.”

Beijing’s calculus is seemingly confirmed by the experience of other communist leaders who acceded to protester demands, from Solidarity in Poland to East Germany’s (inadvertent) decision to open the Berlin Wall. Such moves to appease protesters lead to “demand spirals,” wherein opposition movements are emboldened, not satisfied, by compromise.

If the CCP believes that these are the stakes, then the adoption of almost any means is acceptable. After nearly two years of international isolation and an economic downturn in the wake of its use of force on June 4, by 1992 the party emerged largely unscathed, while the Soviet Union lay in ruins. Similarly, while Beijing no doubt cares about its global image, it’s also prepared to detain millions of its own Uighur citizens in Xinjiang out of concerns of ethnic and territorial separatism.

Hong Kong is not the Beijing of 1989 nor the relatively remote region of Xinjiang. Rather, it is the financial capital of Asia, and perhaps more importantly, it contains untold sums of wealth controlled by China’s elite, including senior-level officials with the CCP. The deployment of domestic forces in Hong Kong, no matter how well calibrated, would be extraordinarily costly to China.

But we’re veering into the realm of something more primal—the instinct for political survival. Thus, the near-apocalyptic rhetoric that permeates the CCP’s recent political discourse on Hong Kong is not mere blustering. And with the upcoming 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on Oct. 1, there is mounting pressure to resolve the situation in Hong Kong quickly.

The former lawmaker Martin Lee recently told the New York Times, “The future of Hong Kong … depends on what’s going to happen in the next few months.” If history is any guide, this timeline might be optimistic. If Beijing feels it has run out of options, we may be talking about days, not months.


Jude Blanchette holds the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS).

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