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Hither and Yon

A tale of two Hong Kong demonstrations

By Donald Kirk, East-Asia-Intel.com
The democracy demos in Hong Kong evoke so many memories going back to the late 1960s when I saw thousands pouring on to the streets of what was then a British crown colony brandishing copies of Mao Zedong’s “little red book.”
That was the era of the Great Cultural Revolution, and the message then was quite the opposite of what we are hearing now. In those days, Mao was the hero for zealots to whom British rule was anathema. They yearned for Hong Kong’s return to Chinese governance, as happened 30 years later when thousands more poured through Hong Kong’s Central District celebrating the end of colonialism.
The concept of “one country, two systems,” worked out by Deng Xiaoping to reassure the colony’s British overlords, guaranteed that Hong Kong could exist as a capitalist enclave in a communist country. That arrangement was to last for 50 years after China formally took over in 1997. China might be the People’s Republic, but Hong Kong would always be Hong Kong.
Sooner or later, Hong Kong would have to wake up from the dream. China might go capitalist under Deng and his successors, but the issue was about control. The Chinese, whatever the system, cannot tolerate Hong Kong as an enclave really separate from the rest of China.
The issue is not ideology or appreciation for doing things differently. The issue is power. The immediate reason for the demonstrations is that people in Hong Kong do not want people in Beijing deciding who is eligible to run for office in Hong Kong, and they want to elect their own chief executive, not some Beijing appointee or surrogate.
I have seen so many democracy protests that comparisons are inevitable. In the People Power Revolution in the Philippines in late 1985 and early 1986, hundreds of thousands, maybe more than a million, swarmed the 12-lane avenue that runs north-south linking the major entities of Metro Manila. And in Seoul, during the Gwangju Revolt of May 1980 and the democracy revolution of June 1987, millions called for an overhaul of what was basically a quasi-dictatorship led by former generals.
The protesters in both those outpourings had powerful support. The People Power Revolution was essentially a contest among elitist factions. Followers of Benigno Aquino, who had been assassinated after getting off a plane to challenge the dictatorial rule of Ferdinand Marcos, coalesced into a force led by some of the country’s strongest military and political leaders. They had the backing, moreover, of U.S. officials, who whisked Marcos, his wife Imelda, family members and cronies, out of the country to sanctuary in Hawaii, from which most of them returned after Marcos died.
Regionalism was a critical factor. The Gwangju revolt revealed the explosive frustrations of people in the Jeolla provinces and the city of Gwangju in the southwestern corner of the Korean Peninsula. Democracy protests in Seoul seven years later showed how far the discontent had spread.
I also watched the protest at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989 and later visited Shanghai and other cities. Like the young people who had seized control of Gwangju nine years earlier, the mob in Tiananmen rampaged over much of the Chinese capital. And, just as the South Korean army, under orders from President Chun Doo-Hwan and his military ally, General Roh Tae-Woo, brutally suppressed the Gwangju revolt, so the People’s Liberation Army wiped out the protesters in Beijing.
However, the Chinese protest ended very differently. While China followed through on some of the pragmatic economic reforms initiated by Deng Xiaoping, there would be no democracy. Korea introduced democratic elections, but Chinese leaders ruled by intimidation and force.
China’s President Xi Jinping is more ruthless than his immediate predecessors. Protest from the Uighur region in the northeast to central Hong Kong cannot be tolerated. Xi undoubtedly does not want “another Tiananmen” in Hong Kong, but he feels compelled to stamp out dissent wherever it appears.
The protest in Hong Kong confronts Xi with his most severe dilemma. You wonder if the mood of revolt has a chance of spreading — perhaps to neighboring Guangdong Province, dominated by Guangzhou, China’s third-largest city, and Shenzhen, the manufacturing center bordering Hong Kong. What if the central government faces revolt throughout the southeastern region?
Unlike protest in South Korea and the Philippines, the protest in Hong Kong cannot have a happy ending. You cannot quite imagine a bloody outcome similar to that of protests in Bangkok, or in Tiananmen Square 25 years ago. If the protest were to succeed, however, you can very well imagine a central government so weakened as to undermine China’s image as a burgeoning world power.
Columnist Donald Kirk has been covering war and peace in Asia for decades. He is at kirkdon@yahoo.com.
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