Many of us are holding our breath wondering what is going to happen next in Hong Kong. There are concerns that what is happening now might come to the same tragic end as what happened in Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989.
Universal suffrage is the ultimate aim in Hong Kong, according to Article 45 of its Basic Law. People are protesting because although China agreed to the universal suffrage clause during handover negotiations with the UK in the 1980s, on 31 August the National People's Congress Standing Committee announced that candidates not approved by Beijing would be screened out of the running.
Many – although not all – in Hong Kong are angry that promises for full suffrage in 2017, while not broken as such, have been cleverly reshaped so that while everyone would be able to vote, they would only be able to vote for Beijing-approved candidates.
While the Hong Kong authorities are already using harsh violence, at this point it has not gone past tear gas and threats of rubber bullets. I think that escalation to another Tiananmen is unlikely, for a number of reasons. One particularly important reason is that individuals count when it comes to decision-making, and Xi Jinping is not Deng Xiaoping.
As events unfold in Hong Kong, decisions about how the leadership should best react are being made from scratch; the direction and result is not preordained. China now is not where it was in 1989 economically, politically, or socially. Under Deng in the reform era, ideological struggle was being subjugated to economic development, and a new social contract that still holds today was being forged. With this new social contract, the people would not oppose or compete with the Party for political power as long as the Party served their economic needs and improved standards of living.
China's role in the world was also fundamentally different. At that time China was becoming increasingly engaged with the rest of the world, so China's pariah status as a result of Tiananmen, at least in the West, had real and tangible domestic implications. This loss of (much) international legitimacy had profound implications for Deng's domestic project, creating an urgent need for the leadership to shore up its side of the domestic social contract, particularly given that social dissatisfaction of various sorts was what had led to the Tiananmen demonstrations in the first place.
Xi Jinping and the current Chinese leadership will be all too aware of the damage Tiananmen caused to China's international status, and, more importantly, the implications for China's domestic development. Given the current circumstances of the Chinese economy, and China's growing role in international affairs, I believe that the Communist Party is very unlikely to choose to use more violence on these protesters in Hong Kong to the extent of that used in Tiananmen.
Xi Jinping is presiding over an era where maintaining the breakneck economic growth required to maintain the social contract forged in Deng's reform period is neither really desirable nor possible. The Party is already in a very difficult bind as to how to demonstrate its legitimacy and mandate domestically. Messaging around events in Hong Kong is carefully controlled, key search terms such as 'Occupy Central' and even 'Hong Kong' do not come up with anything related to the protests. Reportage of how events are being covered in the mainland can be found here. What coverage does exist describes the protesters as instruments of anti-Chinese forces in the UK and US, "whose hearts belong to colonial rule and who are besotted with 'Western democracy'."
As such, domestic political and social uprisings on the mainland in response to a more severe crackdown in Hong Kong would not necessarily be the primary deterrent of intensified violence. However, the economic impact of the global loss of legitimacy that would follow another crackdown like Tiananmen would be too high a cost in the current economic climate.
We should also not underestimate the skill and experience the Chinese Communist Party has when it comes to managing dissent. It has a range of well-honed options at its disposal, which it deploys regularly in protests and demonstrations across the mainland, that we never really see reported in Western media.
What is happening in Hong Kong now is undeniably a very real challenge to the Chinese authorities, but precisely because of the risks associated with getting it wrong, it will be handled carefully, skilfully, and without recourse to violence anywhere near the level of what was seen in Tiananmen in 1989.
Originally published by The Lowy Institute publication The Interpreter. Republished with permission.