In assessing the 1989 Tiananmen movement and ongoing protests in Hong Kong, turnout or duration matter less than influence over government or global activism.
By Jeffrey Wasserstrom*
In 1989, residents of cities across the People’s Republic of China took to the streets in massive numbers to demand change. That spring protest wave – often referred to as the “Tiananmen Movement,” in honor of the Beijing plaza that was the site of the biggest rallies – lasted six weeks. During that time, it gripped the attention of audiences around the world, thanks largely to the images projected onto screens via a then still relatively novel technology of global communication: televised news reports aided by satellites. During the months immediately following the June 4th massacre that curtailed the movement, activists in several countries referred to drawing inspiration from the bravery of Chinese students and a young worker, known as the “Tank Man,” captured on film standing before a line of armored vehicles.
There have been many protests in the PRC since 1989, but for a quarter century no urban movement came close to the Tiananmen struggle in terms of garnering newspaper headlines, producing iconic images and capturing the international imagination. Hong Kong broke that long dry spell – not just once but twice. First, with the Umbrella Movement of 2014, a 79-day struggle that many people followed on screens, filled with images sent speeding across the globe via media delivered on the internet. And now, more dramatically, with the ongoing protest wave that began last June, known by various names, including the Anti-Extradition Law Movement or simply the 2019 struggle even as it continues in 2020.
At first, it seemed that the Hong Kong protests of the 2010s would be no match for Tiananmen in many ways. The Umbrella Movement, for example, while lasting longer than six weeks stayed confined to Hong Kong rather than spreading to other PRC cities. In addition, most protest activity in 2014 was confined to three specific neighborhoods. In addition, while some participants in Soviet bloc protests in 1989 and Taiwan’s Wild Lily Movement the next year cited Beijing events as a source of inspiration, the Umbrella Movement did not exert the same cross-border influence. The Umbrella Movement garnered ample international media attention, in other words, but did not wield clear international impact.
The latest Hong Kong protest wave has already lasted more than twice as long as the Umbrella Movement and more than four times as long as the Tiananmen struggle. A higher percentage of Hong Kong residents have participated than in any previous local movement. Some claim that, while very different than the Tiananmen struggle, Hong Kong’s current movement has proved to be a match for that historic upheaval in terms of significance. I would go further and claim that, in some key regards for historians, Hong Kong’s 2019 could end up more significant than China’s 1989.
I say significant despite being aware of three points: As in 2014, the Hong Kong movement has not spread to mainland cities or even neighboring Macau. There has been no single act of repression comparable to the June 4th massacre. And while producing many memorable still shots and videos, there is no iconic, globally recognized image that evokes 2019 in the way that the Tank Man photograph does 1989.
Despite this, the latest Hong Kong events have been remarkable. It has surpassed the Umbrella Movement in terms of duration and geographical scope and protests with broad participation taking place in nearly every part of Hong Kong. China has never seen a year when crowds hundreds of thousands strong filled the streets in three seasons, but this happened in Hong Kong last year with Sunday marches that big taking place in late spring (June 9 and 16), late summer (August 18) and late fall (December 18).
Numbers are not key. Adding up the biggest protests in multiple PRC cities in 1989 would produce a high total. Nor is it even a matter of numbers plus duration.
In claiming Hong Kong’s 2019 is more than a match for China’s 1989, I consider less tangible factors, most notably how these PRC upheavals of different years have influenced distant places and contributed to the global repertoire of protest tactics, symbols and strategies.
One special feature of Hong Kong’s 2019 is the diffusion of its influence beyond the PRC’s borders. Tiananmen’s impact was largely limited to two types of places, those under Communist Party rule or those in nearby locales, and 1989 is remembered now as a year of the protester almost exclusively because of events in Eurasia and upheaval in East Germany that led to the Berlin Wall falling that November.
The 2019 Hong Kong protests, by contrast, were part of a more truly global year of protest. France, Catalonia, Lebanon, Puerto Rico, Haiti and Chile were just some of the settings other than Hong Kong with major protests last year, and there were climate strike actions in dozens of other locales. Moreover, in 2014 it was easy to single out places that inspired Hong Kong activists – the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan, the Occupy Wall Street struggle in the United States and others – but hard to point to places that looked to the Umbrella Movement for inspiration. The reverse was true in 2019. Hong Kong protesters have long been eclectic and cosmopolitan, putting new spins on slogans and symbols from varied settings. In 2019, though, the flow of influence was, for the first time, even stronger out of Hong Kong than into it.
Hong Kong protesters were not the first to turn an airport into an occupy zone, but only when they did this last summer and Catalonian activists followed suit did this action become firmly part of the international repertoire of dissent. Hong Kong activists first used the slogan “be water,” emphasizing flexibility of tactics and associated with the late celebrity and martial arts practitioner Bruce Lee, in 2014. It was only last year, though, that it became a key local protest principle and only then that the phrase and approach to action was adopted in other places.
Placing protests of different years side by side does not require choosing one as more significant. And Hong Kong’s 2019 exceeding China’s 1989 in global reach can be chalked up partly to technological changes. In the age of social media, images, tactics, slogans and songs move across borders at speeds far greater than they could in 1989, as much as it seemed then that fax machines and satellite broadcasts had shrunk the world.
Still, making the case for the idea that Hong Kong’s 2019, while confined to one city, has been more significant in some regards than 1989’s pan-PRC protests seems a worthwhile exercise. For much of 2019, and before that 2014, when the term “Tiananmen” was brought into discussions of Hong Kong, this often led only to debate over whether troops might once again end up firing on protesters. This commentary shows, if nothing else, that there are other questions worth considering.
*Jeffrey Wasserstrom is the author of Vigil: Hong Kong on the Brink, published this week by Columbia Global Reports.