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The Hong Kong protests haunted by dangerous precedents

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Protests in China in 1989 have parallels to the current moment (image via Twitter).

There have been fears that the Hong Kong protest movement would be violently suppressed since the first demonstrations in late March because of the 1989 massacre at Tiananmen Square.

Lee Duffield, who covered the collapse of the Eastern Bloc in Europe at the same time as Tiananmen Square, says there are many links with this year’s events.

LOOKING BACK a short thirty years, things were very different on Sunday 4 June 1989, in Warsaw, where an embattled Communist Government had gone to limited free elections and was heavily defeated. Under a deal with the opposition movement, Solidarity, it had been given “reserve” seats but could not even win three free-contest seats in parliament that it needed for a majority.

Two events on the same day

That news story was swamped by same-day coverage of a barbaric event in Beijing. The protest movement that occupied Tiananmen Square for seven weeks was suddenly and bloodily being put down.

The links strengthened, initially because of the presence in Beijing a few weeks earlier of the reformist President of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev. The protestors had been chanting his name and calling for him to help.

In Poland the defeated Government called on Gorbachev for a guarantee of intervention, even send tanks like in Hungary 1956 and Czechoslovakia 1968 – but it got out that he had said no. The Soviet State was collapsing; Gorbachev needed rapprochement and money from the West and he was impatient with Old Guard leaders who would not support reforms. The Polish parties got into negotiations that led to peaceful regime-change that year, but the spotlight then moved to East Berlin.

East German protests in 1989

The East German Government under the Communist Party Leader Erich Honecker looked much stronger than its counterpart in Poland. On the weekend of 7 and 8 October 1989, it put on a great celebration for its fortieth anniversary. Hundreds of western journalists, including me, were let into the country, and left-wing dignitaries attended from around the world – including Mikhail Gorbachev as a guest of honour.

As history affirms, the stage-managed event turned into a chaotic mess that quickly led to the collapse of the regime. Young protestors besieged a state occasion chanting “Gorby, save us”, and as the demonstrations built up, the Army turned out; using a technique of blocking-off neighbourhoods, then streets, to corral, attack and arrest the “offenders”.

The operation was not a scene of horror like Tiananmen Square just four months before, but that immediately became likely – on Monday 9 October 1989 at Leipzig. Defiant protests had been held there every Monday night – the city of Leipzig became a target.

Ominous signs – “worse than Beijing”

Journalists who had flown into East Berlin with Gorbachev had also accompanied him to Beijing four months before and began writing about an “East German Tiananmen Square”.

It was not Western news media on their own which began ominous speculation that the regime would attempt to save itself through a “Tiananmen Square solution”.

The East German Government had strong ties with Beijing and had just hosted a visit from the Chinese Deputy Prime Minister, Yao Yilin, where Honecker in a speech gave support to “Tiananmen Square”. Dissidents received messages from state security to “remember China”. A Government Minister, actually Honecker’s wife, publicly talked about sending an armed workers militia to deal with the opposition. A retired head of East Germany’s spy agencies was later quoted on the danger: “It could have been worse than Beijing”.

Here are some facts about an East German Tiananmen Square incident that was set to happen but was narrowly averted:

Honecker ordered that the Leipzig protest be strongly put down and troops were sent there with live ammunition. His deputy, Egon Krenz, starting to position himself as a reformer, put in late phone calls to try and block the action; a group of leading citizens in the city including the famous musician Kurt Masur anxiously pulled strings to get the local command not to do it. 

There is some evidence that Soviet commanders in the country asked East German Generals to hold off. “Will we or won’t we?”, might be how they have been talking in Beijing this year. The massacre in East Germany did not happen, the protests swelled, Honecker was deposed by his own party soon after, on the way to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

The Hong Kong protests

As for Hong Kong in 2019, not 1989, the signs have been plain to see. The warnings in the controlled Chinese mass media and build-up of armed security forces just across the border with the Chinese mainland have been the same as then. It signals the way they get ready.

The East German crowd-control measures, bottling-up concentrations of protestors not dispersing them, are highly dangerous, and if deployed in Hong Kong could easily produce many deaths.

Same ingredients for crackdown: Then and now

The protests have all the hallmarks of so-called “mass social movements”, which get very hard to crack. They are marked by a rapid growth in public support and enormous crowds. The demonstrations mount up for months and months, they turn up everywhere, along with strikes, and if they die down, they flare up again.

Without the money and structures of political parties, such movements improvise, using mass media to communicate with followers. In 1989 it was smuggling out video and information to Western media that could then be received in East Germany. In Hong Kong 2019 it is social media.

These movements get “policies” from their members in the street, putting them up as simple but on-the-mark, persuasive slogans. In 1989 they said: Communist Government out, free elections, a Western-style economy (meaning jobs mobility and access to consumer goods), reunify Germany and join the European Community, later known as the EU.

In 2019 they have been saying: drop the proposed law that could send any “criminals” into China, out with the Beijing-linked Hong Kong Government, stop undermining the “basic law” of “one country two systems”, hold free elections. Leaders of the movement may include long-time opposition figures, like the East German church leaders or persecuted dissidents, or Councillors from the Hong Kong Democratic Party – but other leaders and spokespersons also come up off the street.

There is no Gorbachev this time

What is different?

This time there is no Mikhail Gorbachev to pull the plug. In East Berlin on the October weekend, he had heard them calling “Gorby save us”.  He famously said in a speech, “those who delay are punished by life”, repeating it in an impromptu speech to journalists in the street next day – ditching the Old Guard. He would not intervene from outside, but this year “outside” intervention from just across the Hong Kong frontier has been loudly proclaimed as a possibility.

Hong Kong vulnerable 

The Eastern European communist governments were bankrupt and devoid of ideas, demoralised, offering reforms too-little-too-late, close to surrender. Joining up with Western Europe would be a short step, and would bring large numbers of people and resources for development into the EU fold.

In the case of Hong Kong, the behemoth, China, is already their national state, but it is hostile towards the protesting citizens. Its Government in Beijing has recorded enormous economic successes and remains fired-up in a belligerent and confident frame of mind. There is no “European Union” next door to which Hong Kong could go for protection. Hong Kong is small, 7.4-million people crowded into an area just under one-quarter the size of metropolitan Sydney.

That might be good for solidarity in the territory with its demands for democratic freedom, under threat, but it also highlights how vulnerable it is.

Follow these links for Lee Duffield’s history of the events of 1989 in Europe.

Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.

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