July 19, 2019

Can Protest Win Against a Dictatorship?

“Hong Kong is not Beijing. And July 1, 2019, is not June 4, 1989. First of all, in 1989, the violence in China came almost entirely from the side of the government; the weeks of demonstrations in Beijing and other cities had remained remarkably peaceful throughout. This was mostly true in Hong Kong as well, until a small number of young protesters lost their cool and ransacked the Legislative Council chamber with crowbars and hammers.

The massive demonstrations in Hong Kong in recent weeks were triggered by a proposed law authorizing extradition from the city to mainland China. But that bill was suspended indefinitely after earlier protests. Since then, the continuing demonstrations have been driven by fury against the tightening constraints imposed by the Communist Party of China (CPC).

The Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 began as a petition to the CPC to curb official corruption and allow more civic freedoms – freedoms that Hong Kong people already enjoyed, even under colonial rule. The Chinese government promised that these freedoms would be preserved in Hong Kong after the handover from Britain on July 1, 1997. That promise is now in doubt.

Despite these differences, there are important similarities between 1989 and today. Like the Tiananmen demonstrations, the mass protests in Hong Kong lack clear leadership. This is deliberate. Protests movements are not political parties with their own hierarchies. Indeed, they are usually opposed to the very idea of hierarchy. Partly as a consequence of this, tactical splits among the protesters are difficult to control.”

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