The Limits of Mass Protest in a Dictatorship
Public opinion cannot remove a communist government by electing another one. But the PRC does aspire to a certain degree of respectability in the world. Sending tanks to crush protests in Hong Kong would make China look very bad – though this does not mean that the government would not do so, if it saw no other way.
LONDON – 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.