In April 1989, I was in Beijing, meeting with philosophy professors and students from the Academy of Social Sciences. While I was familiar with China and even taught there occasionally, I did not notice anything out of the ordinary. Since the arrest of the Maoists in 1976 and the return to power of Deng Xiaoping—a moderate, in Western eyes—the political climate had improved, and the economy was gathering steam. China seemed destined to become an open society, leaving its revolutionary utopias and totalitarian horrors behind.

But my companions that day opened my eyes: the Communist Party remained repressive, freedom was tightly leashed, and prosperity was reserved for leaders and their cronies. During this same period, the USSR was dissolving, without violence, inspiring dreams of a Chinese version of perestroika among Beijing students—Mikhail Gorbachev, who visited Beijing at that very moment, cut a popular figure among the young Chinese. The professors, however, who had survived purges and the Cultural Revolution, didn’t share their students’ youthful optimism. They knew the ferocious nature of the Communist Party. Several weeks later, we discovered that they were right. Student protests on Tiananmen Square were crushed by the army on the orders of Deng, the “reformer.” Thousands died or disappeared. The Communist Party in China, by definition, never shares its power, its privilege, or its wealth.

It is hard not to think of this episode as we watch the rebellion of young people in Hong Kong. Their fight is a simple one: they live in an open society and don’t wish to see it close. A visible rebellion is their only recourse, but it has little chance of succeeding. Beijing is axiomatically incapable of tolerating even the smallest dissent. For the leadership, democracy and freedom of expression are not Chinese values, but contaminations of Western liberalism, requiring extermination.

As they see it, method and timing are the only issues in the current crisis. In Beijing in 1989, using the army appeared to be the most efficient method. The situation in Hong Kong is more complicated, as the territory will not entirely belong to China until 2047. Financial risks are considerable. Any repression could lead to the collapse of the stock market, where many mainland companies source their financing. The real estate market could also crumble, and many Communist oligarchs have invested heavily in the territory. Patience and prudence are therefore the name of the game. As long as the virus of rebellion is contained to Hong Kong, the Chinese army will not intervene; if, however, it contaminates the mainland, calm and caution will be forgotten. In any case, crushing the rebellion in some form or another is the goal.

What support can Hong Kong’s rebellion count on? Probably none. Being a youth movement, like the one in 1989, it worries older generations instead of spurring them to action. Little sympathy can be found on the mainland for these demonstrations, judging by conversations I’ve overheard: “They’re playing with fire,” “They’re spoiled children,” “They don’t know who they’re up against.” China is repelled by excess. What’s more, Hong Kong’s opposition political leaders are close with Beijing, many media outlets are bankrolled by the Communist Party, and corporate lobbies prefer the status quo.

As for the West, Europe and the United States were shocked by the images of 1989. We still remember the young man in a white shirt standing in front of a tank, his arms by his sides. He has become forever known as Tank Man, as his identity—and fate—have never been discovered. One holdover from this era is a Western embargo on the sale of arms to China, though the effects of the ban are hardly visible. The China of 1989 was a weak power that the West met with an equally weak resistance; if Hong Kong sees violent repression, we can expect even weaker Western resistance to a now-formidable power in Beijing.

A generation ago, following perestroika, the Tiananmen Square protests, and the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe and the United States believed in the universality of human rights, and in democracy as the “end of history.” This rights-based optimism has been replaced, many argue, by the return of the national question, and by an identitarian ideology driven by ideas about national sovereignty. The reality is more complex. Human-rights universalism never dies, and it is currently manifesting itself in Hong Kong, Algiers, Khartoum, and Skopje. But national identity-based ideology never dies, either—whether in Washington, Rome, London, or Beijing. The opposition of these two ideas, which are found in all societies, is more meaningful than the distinction between Right and Left. The events in Hong Kong are therefore universal, both of their time and of all times, a perilous moment in the eternal struggle between open and closed societies. In that contest, I have no trouble knowing where my sympathies lie.

Photo by Anthony Kwan/Getty Images


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