Millions of students, blue collar workers and professionals poured into the streets of Hong Kong in protest over proposed legislation that would allow people to be extradited for trial in China.
The students voiced fears that the extradition laws would be used against activists to stifle political dissent, freedom of speech and what remains of the former colony’s fledgling democracy.
The unrest in the former British Crown colony erupted in the same week that much of the world was recalling unrest on a similar scale in faraway Beijing – protests that were brutally crushed on June 4, 1989 when tanks of the People’s Liberation Army rolled into the city’s central Tiananmen Square.
Many of Hong Kong’s young protesters were yet to be born at the time of the so called Tiananmen Square Massacre where more than a thousand civilians died demanding an end to corruption, an end to repression and a greater say in government.
Upheaval in Hong Kong and upheaval in Beijing – very different places with seemingly quite different issues provoking different people separated by a generation. The one factor linking these events across time and space is an aging Chinese Communist regime driven by a deep fear of losing its vice like grip on power.
Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, insists that the Special Autonomous Region remains independent under the one country, two systems deal struck between China and Britain in 1997. She claims that her extradition legislation, which would make it easier for Beijing to pursue its political opponents, was drafted as a local law and order measure to prevent fugitives hiding in Hong Kong, had nothing to do with her Communist overlords.
No one believes her, just as no one believed Beijing’s 1989 claims that it was forced to act against criminals and hooligans intent on fomenting chaos across the People’s Republic.
The spark that ignited the turmoil of three decades ago, which was to shake the Middle Kingdom to its foundations, was the death of moderate and long disgraced former Community Party Secretary, Hu Yaobang. To Beijing’s young student population, Hu was a champion of political reform.
But the protests were founded much earlier in the civil war, political disarray and starvation of the early 20thcentury and a deal struck between the people and victorious Communist forces in 1949. In return for peace, stability, an end to feudal oppression and a promise of work, healthcare, education and a decent living, the rural peasants and urban workers accepted the Party’s absolute authority.
This cradle to the grave welfare delivered through tens of thousands work unit, was known as the iron rice bowl and by the mid 80’s it was beginning to show signs of wear. As I wrote at the time, “the cost of the 1949 deal to the people has been silent obedience to the party line. The frustration born of so many years of silence is now pouring into the streets of Beijing”.
Under Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms, the people were being asked to accept uncertainty, to fend for themselves in an alien marketplace, to ignore runaway inflation and to turn a blind eye to the corruption that had seeped into every aspect of life.
The Party gave nothing in return.
Many foreign journalists, their viewers, listeners and readers characterised the student led uprising in the spring of 1989 as a cry for Western style democratic reform; the right to peacefully oust the Communists and to hold multiparty elections.
The truth is, the vast majority of protesters wanted nothing of the sort. What they demanded was an end to the cancer of corruption, and a Communist government that listened and was responsive to their concerns. And, they wanted a return to certainty in their everyday lives.
The protests that paralysed Beijing also paralysed the government. Faced with the greatest challenge to its authority since 1949, the all-powerful government of the world’s largest nation simply ceased to function as various factions struggled for control.
Leading the political conservatives was senior leader, Deng Xiaoping, Long March veteran and driving force behind the country’s market oriented economic reforms.
Leading the moderates was Hu Yaobang’s successor, Party Secretary Zhao Ziyang, who wanted to accommodate the people’s demands. At one point, Beijing television viewers were treated to extraordinary images of Zhao, the boss of one of the world’s most powerful political machines, the 47 million strong Chinese Communist Party, down amongst the squalor in Tiananmen Square pleading with students to end their protests.
Eventually, Deng triumphed, Zhao disappeared and on May 20, martial law was imposed in parts of the capital. But, while troops, loyal to the senior leader massed on the outskirts of Beijing, the city remained in the hands of the students and their numbers were dwindling.
By June 2,Tiananmen Square was held by a handful of young protesters weakened by their ongoing hunger strike. Another day or two and the movement would be no more. Of course, this didn’t suit Deng and his military supporters. There is an old Chinese saying that goes, ‘sometimes it’s necessary to kill a chicken in order to scare a monkey’. The government now had to scare a nation if it was to successfully reassert its authority.
In the early hours of June 3,unarmed, ill-equipped and poorly trained soldiers advanced on Tiananmen Square. They were easily repelled by civilians hurling shoes and bottles but the action ensure that an outraged city would again take to the streets in protest.
There were hundreds of thousands of people in and around Tiananmen Square when armoured units and infantry of Deng Xiaoping’s loyal 27thArmy made it move late on the night of Saturday June 3 and in the early hours of Sunday June 4.
I reported at the time that, “columns of soldiers, armoured personal carriers and tanks shot and crushed their way through hundreds of thousands of students and their supporters. Students are said to have been crushed as tanks rolled across their tents. Others died as they tried to flee from the square ahead of advancing troops”.
On that night, the people’s army turned its weapons on the people and the Communist Leadership lost what was referred to in imperial times as “the mandate of heaven”.
Over the past 30 years, the government has resorted to increasingly sophisticated forms of oppression. China has become a dystopian world of camera surveillance, internet firewalls, facial recognition devises, fake news and concentration camps for entire ethnic groups with a propensity to rebel.
But for those prepared to toe the Party line, China also offers prosperity and a higher standard of living than at any other time in the history. It’s what I like to call “the bread and circuses” approach maintaining to stability and the retention of total power.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her legislature has also lost ‘the mandate of heaven’ over the Beijing inspired extradition legislation. Just how stability is to be maintained in Hong Kong and who wields power as a consequence is yet to be seen.
Trevor Watson, former ABC China correspondent