Al Pessin was the VOA Hong Kong Correspondent 1984-87 and Beijing Correspondent 1987-89. He was expelled from China for his coverage of the Tiananmen protests and crackdown. This analysis was originally published on October 1, 2014, and has been updated to reflect developments on October 2.
LONDON - China has raised the rhetorical stakes in its dispute with pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong, saying they are creating “chaos.” That is a significant term in Chinese Communist Party ideology, suggesting that the situation could threaten the Party’s hold on power, and therefore that decisive action is required.
The word was used in a front-page commentary in the Party newspaper, The People’s Daily – a platform used to express the views of top leaders and to implicitly warn of consequences unless the situation is rectified.
It is the same word Party officials used 25 years ago to describe the Tiananmen Square protests, in which thousands of students occupied Beijing’s central square for weeks.
Shortly afterwards, the Chinese military cleared the square by force and cracked down on democracy activists nationwide. Western experts say hundreds, if not thousands, were killed. China denies that anyone died on Tiananmen Square.
China’s latest rhetoric about the Hong Kong protesters is stronger than previous statements. Until now, Foreign Ministry Spokeswoman Hua Chunying had only said the protests were “illegal” and “undermine the rule of law and sabotage social stability.
At the same time, there are reports of the detention and questioning of dozens of people on the mainland who have indicated their support for the protests. Some have spread foreign news reports that have been suppressed in China. Others have participated in a social media support campaign in which they shave their heads and then post photos of themselves.
The latest developments appear to indicate that the patience of top leaders is running out for the Occupy Central protesters, who are blocking roads around the Hong Kong government offices to demand free elections.
The new rhetoric from Beijing runs counter to what many China experts had expected – an effort to find a face-saving way out of the Hong Kong protests.
“What happens in Hong Kong, at the moment, is not going to threaten the very existence of the Chinese state in the way that Tiananmen did,” said former British diplomat Roderic Wye, who was posted at the British embassy in Beijing in the 1980s and 90s and is now at London’s Chatham House.
Still, even speaking before the latest People’s Daily commentary, Wye said public support in China for the Hong Kong protesters would change the Chinese leaders’ calculation.
“They clearly don’t want something similar to happen in China,” Wye said in a VOA interview, “because if it did start happening then, I think, yes, we could be back in a situation sort of parallel to Tiananmen. And that is something that the Chinese government will do their utmost to avoid.”
But Wye said although the Tiananmen crackdown successfully suppressed dissent in China for the last 25 years, Chinese leaders don’t want to use the same tactics in Hong Kong.
“If they did have the involvement from the People’s Armed Police or the Chinese military, that would effectively be the end of ‘One Country, Two Systems.’ And I don’t think that’s what they want at the moment.”
Hong Kong owes its special status as a Special Administrative Region to China’s desire in the 1980s to allow the territory to continue as an engine of trade and economic growth while coming back under Chinese sovereignty. That was the breakthrough concept of “One Country, Two Systems,” articulated by then-Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping.
The concept also included a separate political system for Hong Kong, with levels of freedom and civil liberties that other Chinese citizens did not have, and still don’t.
But since then, China has developed many more engines of economic growth, potentially making Hong Kong’s special status less important to Chinese leaders.
At the same time, they may be more concerned about foreign reaction to how they handle these protests than they were about reaction to the Tiananmen crackdown. China is much more integrated into the global economy than it was 25 years ago, making it potentially more vulnerable to any sanctions that might follow a violent crackdown.
“I think it’s a very big challenge and quite an uncomfortable situation,” said China Studies Professor Francoise Lauwaert at the Free University of Brussels. “All China is watching Hong Kong now, and [China’s leaders] could be afraid of a kind of contagious disease for the system.”
But while the leadership is indicating it is not willing to take any such risk, experts differ on whether people elsewhere in China will see the Hong Kong protests as a model or as an overreach by people who already have more rights than they do.
“Maybe for them Hong Kong is a little bit special, so they don’t feel so deeply concerned about the Hong Kong situation,” Lauwaert said.
Still, there is the potential for a more subtle impact. “I’m not sure the majority of people in China are interested in free elections,” said Lauwaert, “But they are interested in how to struggle for more concrete topics peculiar to their situation.”
“The way [Hong Kong] people gather and the way they organize themselves may give them some ideas,” she said.
And that could be what Chinese leaders are worried about.
When China regained control of Hong Kong from Britain in 1997, its hope was to make the territory more like China politically, even as it maintained its capitalist economic system.
But in the intervening years, many people in Hong Kong have not come to feel politically closer to their new ruling party.
Wye said there is a “sort of growing Hong Kong identity. The feeling of somehow ‘differentness,’ in a way contrary to expectations, has grown rather than diminished since 1997.”
Indeed, he said the Hong Kong activists also want a more western-style education system and direct election of their legislature, as well as the chief executive.
“Even if there is a solution, and let’s hope that there is a solution, the problem won’t go away because that’s just one step,” he said.
Hong Kong’s status as a Special Administrative Region of China grew out of more than 100 years of British colonial rule, and the Sino-British Joint Declaration for the return of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, negotiated in 1984 and implemented in 1997.
But the Joint Declaration was vague on the question of democracy, stating that the people of Hong Kong would have a say in choosing their chief executive through “elections or consultations,” but that he or she would be appointed by the central government in Beijing. It also specifies that the local legislature would be chosen through elections, but it does not define who can vote or run for office.
In the waning years of colonial rule, British officials began to expand democracy in Hong Kong, and as that process continued after the Joint Declaration was negotiated, Chinese leaders were not happy.
From China’s point of view, “the British seemed to be wanting to fundamentally change the deal that the Chinese felt that they had been signed up to,” Wye said.
“The British belatedly wanted to introduce some new element of democratic politics into Hong Kong,” he said. “The Chinese felt that they had signed up to ‘no change for Hong Kong,’ but the Hong Kong of 1985.”
Initially, China accepted the changes, but after the Tiananmen movement and crackdown in 1989, and protests in Hong Kong supporting the movement, the two sides’ views on the city’s democratic future diverged.
Still, after 1997 China introduced some reforms to further expand democracy in the territory. But they did not go as far as today’s activists want. Specifically, although it has expanded voting rights to allow everyone of age to cast a ballot for the next chief executive, China wants a loyal committee to decide who can run. That is what sparked the latest protests.
Some in Britain still feel a special responsibility toward Hong Kong, just 17 years after the handover.
Deputy Prime Minister Nick Clegg said, "The Chinese authorities in Beijing seem determined to refuse to give to the people of Hong Kong what they are perfectly entitled to expect, which is free, fair, open elections based on universal suffrage."
“I think Hong Kong's prosperity and future is dependent on some of those basic freedoms around the freedom to protest and the freedom to participate in their government," added Finance Minister George Osborne.
Similar statements came from the White House.
“The United States supports universal suffrage in Hong Kong and we support the aspirations of the Hong Kong people,” said Press Secretary Josh Earnest. He added, "We believe that an open society with the highest possible degree of autonomy and governed by the rule of law is essential for Hong Kong’s stability and prosperity."
In Brussels, Francoise Lauwaert said the West does not have any special responsibility to Hong Kong because of its former colonial status. Rather, she said, “Western people have a responsibility toward China as a whole.”
“China became a very big power and a very big economic power and there is nothing said about human rights and democracy in China,” Lauwaert said. “For me, it’s not because Hong Kong was a colony. It’s more we have a responsibility toward Hong Kong and toward Xinjiang and toward China as a whole.”
But there is little Britain, the United States or any other country can do, aside from trying to pressure China to protect Human Rights and avoid violence.
And in Beijing, spokeswoman Hua Chunying rejected even that.
“Hong Kong affairs fall entirely within China's internal affairs,” she told reporters in Beijing. “We urge relevant countries to be prudent in words and deeds, refrain from interfering in Hong Kong's internal affairs in any way, and do not support the illegal activities such as the ‘Occupy Central’ nor send any wrong signal.”
The rhetoric has not change much since 1989. At that time, China was a still relatively young country with much turmoil in its short history, and the Tiananmen movement was centered in the heart of Beijing, not far from the leadership’s walled compound.
When millions of workers from all walks of life joined students protesting for democracy on the square and throughout the country, its arguably insecure leadership saw “chaos” and used force to end it.
Western protests and sanctions were no more than an inconvenience.
Now, the demonstrators in Hong Kong – most of them not yet born at the time of the protests 25 years ago -- will have to face the Chinese authorities on their own, much as their predecessors on Tiananmen Square did.
They can only hope that officials in Beijing in 2014 are more concerned about the consequences of a crackdown, and see their demands for their small enclave far from the capital as manageable -- not as the kind of threat a previous generation of Chinese leaders perceived and crushed in 1989.