2014 is a unique year for the People’s Republic of China (RPC or Mainland China). In June, the world remembered the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square (天安门广场) Protests that ended with a blood repression made by central government’s troupes against civilians asking for a more democratic administration. Similarly, two months ago, young people assembled at the Hong Kong’s economic center in order to protest against undemocratic decisions made by Beijing. In spite of disliking the protests called “The Umbrella Revolution”, the central government has not sent military forces to contain the so called too liberal and unoccupied protestors in the same way they did in 1989. Regarding this facts, it is possible to ask: Why does not Beijing “solve” the Hong Kong’s situation as it did during the Tiananmen Square episode? One of the possible answers to this question is that the international Chinese objectives and insertion are pushing Beijing（北京) to follow a more pacific way of leading with pro-democratic protests.
In 1986, Hu Yaobang (胡耀邦), a former general secretary of the Communist Party (CP) and a moderate representative, was purged from the Party and from the government. The reason for this expelling was that he had been too permissive during his administration, allowing Chinese people require more freedom and political rights inside the socialist country. Three years after, in April 1989, Hu died and, during his funeral, thousands of students and workers paid homages to him despite the prohibitions of this kind of demonstrations during that moment. This mobilization during Hu’s funeral catalyzed Beijing’s youth to protest against the Deng Xiaoping’s government. During seven weeks, students occupied the Tiananmen Square pacifically and promoted a hunger strike in order to sensitize the CP’s politicians.
Right before the official visit of the USSR’s president at that time, Mickhail Gobarchev, the protests were intensified and the central government decided to repress violently using “any means” to solve the problem. Consequently, over then 200,000 troupes were sent to protest’s places and, as a result of the police men reactions, several civilians were killed – experts say that between 500 to 2,000 people died during the repression, including both protestors and governmental forces.
This incident, considered a Massacre by western media, experts, and politicians, took place during the Cold War and it was associated as the response of an authoritarian regime to pacific manifestations pro-democracy. At that time, Beijing’s action was condemned and considered an enormous violation of freedom and human rights. Despite shocking the international community, the event had been seeing as an expected movement made by a dictatorial and socialist regime. As consequence, the western reactions to this terrible incident had not as much impact into the Central Government as it should have. Until today, there are still unanswered questions about the CP’s repression that culminated in several deaths.
After 25 years, other pro-democracy protests took place in China. This year, during August, the central government of mainland China announced that the electoral mechanism for choosing the executive representative for the Special Administrative Region of Hong Kong (香港or H.K.) would change. Instead of which had been proposed, RPC announced that this local representative will be chosen among two or three candidates already approved by an electoral commission supported by the central government. In other worlds, it means that, despite the appearance of a direct voting, the H.K.’s citizens would have to choose a candidate supported – or “allowed” – by Beijing and the Communist Party (CP), which, in practical terms, would result in neither democratic nor free elections.
After this announcement, Hong Kong people, majority young university students, occupied financial districts in the former British colony. Pacifically protesting, this youth asked for real democratic elections that would enable them to vote freely in any candidate running for the government instead of choosing one person from a list controlled by Beijing. Furthermore, they also objected to the current local administration – they asked for the removal of Leung Chun-Ying, the ongoing local leader.
Despite the pacific nature of the “Umbrella Revolution”, some businessmen are complaining that this pro-democracy event is jeopardizing the local and international finances and economy. According to the Central Government, the movement is blocking the main streets in the city’s financial heart. Banks, multinational corporations, and financial agencies, for instance, have had their work threatened by instability and difficult logistic conditions – it is physically complicated for the workers to arrive in their offices and work, once the streets surrounding their work places are blocked.
In order to restore the financial conditions, avoid big damages to the world economy, and keep the country political united with H.K., official and non-official media are condemning the protests throughout RPC. Mainland China’s administration, through the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of State Council, is classifying this episode at Hong Kong as “unlawful occupation actions”. (Washington Post, 2014, September 29).
Leaning on this supposed legitimate claim – keeping the order, the freedom and the economic conditions at the city – police men tried to contain the protestors using tear gases, for example. This action, based on unjustified use of force against a pacific group of students, had a big repercussion among this special zone’s population. Consequently, the number of people occupying and protesting in the streets has raised.
Of course, the number of people involved in this present situation and the period it has been occurring are smaller than those of the Tiananmen Square incident of June 1989. Nevertheless, these two protests are still similar. Both are pacific movements and fight for a more democratic politics. Not only the Tiananmen episode, but also the Umbrella Revolution involves specially young and university students – the new generation of each period. Furthermore, they take place in a “socialist” country, ruled by one official party – the Communist Party.
Nonetheless, some Chinese foreign and domestic economic, and social conditions have changed after the 1989’s incident. It is important to emphasize one more time that this analysis focuses on the international influences that partially explains why Chinese government acted differently in this two episodes.
Different from 1989, Hong Kong’s protests are taking place neither in a bipolar international order nor in a Cold War scenario. Actually, they take place in a historical moment characterized by one international polo – the United States of America. After the USSR’s fall, the world saw the expansion of the liberal and democratic ideology lead by the United States and other European countries such as United Kingdom.
However, due to the economic Crisis of 2008 and the Recession, some people are wondering if China will be able to “steal” the American leadership and create a new world order. China is ascending economically and politically speaking. However, the USA still occupies a central place inside the global dynamics, and there is no feasible alternative to this order right now.
With the purpose of gaining more authority and legitimacy within the present liberal order, China has held a discourse of “Pacific Ascension”, “Harmonious World”, and “Chinese Dream” delimitating its foreign actions. Since President Deng Xiaoping’s administration, philosophical ideas provided by Confucianism have appeared in Foreign Policy discourses. The first one was that of “Harmonious Ascension” sustained by President Deng Xiaoping (邓小平); during President Hu Jintao’s (胡锦涛) mandate the concept of “Harmonious World” emerged, and now President Xi Jinping (习近平) supports the idea of “Chinese Dream”. These three important concepts are directly related with the Chinese Culture and Chinese international political point of view.
As consequence of these ideas shaping the international objectives of the “Empire of the Middle”, it is possible understand why Mainland China’s government is so concerned with the repercussions of the Chinese reactions towards the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. If China represses violently this pacific movement which claims for a more democratic political process, the western will condemn the Chinese abuses against its own population. Moreover, China will be seen as a terrible dictatorship that is unfavorable to liberal and democratic regimes, institutions, and manifestations. In other worlds, Mainland China will be perceived as a perverse and doubtful partner that threats both its own citizens and the Western order based on Democracy and Liberalism.
This Western (mis)perception can create economic problems for China. If the Western countries, their leaders, their businessmen, and their companies neither trust in Chinese politics nor agree with the CP’s way of leading with divergence and opposition, the external investments tends to decrease, jeopardizing the finances and economy throughout the country.
In this kind of (mis)perception, not only the economy, but also the political international power of China might be affected. As China participates of an international order conceived and shaped by liberalism, capitalism and democracy, RPC had to shape itself, its economy and its political system in order to become a feasible and trustful country. The country accepted democratic ideals inside multilateral and international institutions and has been acting quite democratically within forums, bilateral meetings, group discussions, and international organisms such as United Nations. If RPC starts to fight violently against its population, independently of the kind of movement or situation that lead to this violence perpetuated by the government, Chinese legitimacy among international actors and within multilateral organizations will fall down. That is exactly what China wants to avoid at almost any cost.
The future Chinese domestic and the external paths are impossible to be predicted. However, the international scenario seems to compel China to act in a more pacific, and institutional way to deal with the protests happening in H.K. Probably, the Central Government will avoid repressing the manifestations with the same actions it did during the Tiananmen Square episode. Instead, it will try to suppress the movement indirectly, convincing the population – both from Hong Kong and Mainland China – that this kind of demand for direct democracy in the former Colony does not make any sense. Why should young students claim for more participation, through direct elections, in a socialist country where there are economic growth associated with a socialist and “equal” government? This is what China is selling as news to the population, trying to convince them that the protests are meaningfulness and harmful for their economy.
Nevertheless, if this strategy is not succeeded, the Central Government will react discreetly and silently, avoiding international repercussion and retaliation. There is no doubt that Beijing will ensure the control of H.K., especially to prevent other pro-democracy or even separatist movements around the whole country. However, as said before, this reaction will be maintained almost in secret if possible.
To sum up, the protests that take place in Hong Kong right now will probably face by the Central Government in a different way it did during the Tiananmen Square protests. A more pacific way to deal with the pro-democracy revendications can be partially explained by how China is playing in the international game. Nowadays, the discourse of “Pacific Ascension”, “Harmonious World” and “Chinese Dream” has been shaping the international role of RPC. This discourse has impact in how Beijing deals with protests in H.K. and what are the more likely positions that the government will assume to “solve” the problem and to back to normality.
Taylor, A. (2014). Chinese state media points to foreign hand in Hong Kong protests. Accessed in October 29, 2014 from http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/worldviews /wp/2014/09/29/chinese-state-media-points-to-foreign-hand-in-hong-kong-protests/.
Leslie, T. (2014). Tiananmen Square massacre: Look back on how the crackdown unfolded. Accessed in October 29, 2014 from http://www.abc.net.au/news/2014-06-04/how-the-tiananmen-square-massacre-unfolded/5496454
Zero Hora. O que motiva os protestos em Hong Kong. Accessed in October 29, 2014 from http://zh.clicrbs.com.br/rs/noticias/noticia/2014/09/o-que-motiva-os-protestos-em-hong-kong-4610469.html.
Zero Hora. Protesto por democracia termina em confronto em Hong Kong. Accessed in October 29, 2014 from http://zh.clicrbs.com.br/rs/noticias/noticia/2014/09/protesto-por-democracia-termina-em-confronto-em-hong-kong-4608582.html.
Laís Bueno Sachs is member of the Program of Tutorial Education in International Relations at University of Brasília – PET-REL and of the International Relations Analysis Lab -LARI (firstname.lastname@example.org)