I would like to start with a bit of background on the Hong Kong protests. In September, Occupy Central, a democratic activist group, launched a civil disobedience movement in Hong Kong reacting to the Chinese government’s issue of a ruling limiting who can stand as a candidate in the upcoming election in 2017. A pro-Beijing Nomination Committee will choose the 2 or 3 candidates. Noah Sin, an ‘independent voice’, declared this as “Iranian-style democracy”. This decision just heightened fears that the Chinese dictatorial state intends to erode the separate identity and autonomy of Hong Kong. Students became involved when they entered the public space outside the government headquarters on the 26th of September and encouraged citizens to assemble there. This led to the arrest of several student leaders who were held for two nights.
The protest has taken the form of a peaceful sit-in and with tens of thousands of people of all different ages becoming involved large parts of the territory’s central business district has been paralysed. The response of the police was to fire tear gas (and pepper spray) into the crowds to try and disperse them. They have threatened to use a ‘higher degree of force’ if the protesters don’t disperse. There have been at least 34 injuries since the protest began, the majority of which are protesters.
The ultimate aims of the protests are for Beijing to resume political reform negotiations and so withdraw their ruling. Though it is important to note that the direction and methods of the students and Occupy Central are quite different so it is not unified.
So how does it compare with the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989?
They are both about the Chinese state eroding democratic rights. The other name for the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989 was the “89 Democracy Movement” which clearly shows the centrality of democracy to the protest. However, the demands in the Tiananmen Square protests were much more radical than the current one as they called for a communist party without corruption, freedom of the press and freedom of speech. Whereas in Hong Kong they have been granted universal suffrage so they are significantly further along the road to democracy than mainland China in 1989 and even now.
Students are involved in both of the protests. However, unlike in 1989 where the students led the popular demonstrations, and then were joined by various people of different ages and backgrounds, it seems that the Hong Kong protests are joint controlled by Occupy Central, a professional group alongside the students, so the students are less involved in 2014 than were in 1989. Also, both of the protests have involved a sit-in of a public area and it is likely that the Tiananmen Square protest has offered a model for the current protest.
The reaction of the Chinese authorities to the Tiananmen Square protest was the imposition of martial law leading to a minimum death toll of a few hundred. The use of teargas and pepper spray against peaceful protesters is an unacceptable measure in terms of Western values and although it is awful and cruel, martial law is on a whole other level. The martial law decision in 1989 drew widespread condemnation, which was a setback for the leadership internationally, so it is very unlikely they would repeat this.
The Hong Kong protests are not equal to the Tiananmen Square protests – less radical, less harshly suppressed and less student involvement. Also, it seems unlikely that any Chinese protest would be similar or comparable to the Tiananmen Square protest of 1989.
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