John Keane | The Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong: a second Tiananmen?
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The Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong: a second Tiananmen?

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umbrellaAre political developments in Hong Kong heading for a second Tiananmen massacre? A fortnight ago, partly to provoke discussion, partly to sound an alarm, I suggested in a radio interview that unless the Chinese government wisely handled the fast-unfolding dynamics, things in Hong Kong might well come to that. At the time, it seemed a rash remark. Given events of the past several days, it is now the most pertinent consideration, the core driver of the fate of what many Hong Kong citizens are calling the Umbrella Revolution.

The uprising is the deadliest challenge to one-party rule in China since Tiananmen. “The outcome of this battle for democracy,” says Hu Jia, a prominent dissident in Beijing now under house arrest, “will also determine future battles for democracy for all of China.” He is right, but because of a total news blackout the uprising has so far left the rest of China untouched.

China’s foreign affairs ministry spokesman Hua Chunying has warned other countries to stay out of Hong Kong’s protests:

I want to emphasise that Hong Kong belongs to China. It is a special administrative region and Hong Kong’s affairs are considered purely for China to handle. I hope other countries do not interfere in Hong Kong’s matters, do not support Occupy Central’s illegal activities, and do not send out the wrong message.

Truth is that Beijing has foolishly picked the wrong fight. It has chosen a showdown with a movement that is difficult to behead. The umbrella uprising is not reducible to Occupy Central.

Digital protest changes terms of engagement

The protest is non-violent, decentralised, equipped with dronesand thoroughly media savvy. The Tiananmen uprisings in the spring/summer of 1989 belonged to the era of the typewriter, mass broadcasting television and radio.

The umbrella uprising is digital. Its networked – dispersed and distributed – structures make for flexibility, mobility and experimentation with new social media. Just like the umbrella of a jellyfish, a gelatinous disc which contracts and expands to move it through water, the resistance is paying close attention to the arts of staying alive, and thriving, through “umbrella media”.

(Image left: The Hong Kong umbrella, symbol of protest on physical and digital terrain.
Click to enlarge)

News of the uprising is currently suppressed in mainland China. The picture-sharing site Instagram and messages posted to Sina Weibo, a Chinese microblogging site similar to Twitter, are being blocked in far greater numbers than normal.

Several days ago, with rumours circulating that the Hong Kong government was planning to cut the city’s cellular networks, citizens responded by downloading the Firechat app (made by the company Open Garden). It allows smartphone users to talk to one another “off the grid”, in the absence of a mobile signal or access to the internet.

By making use of Bluetooth and Wi-Fi, messages are spread in a daisy-chain fashion, jumping from one user to the next. The system is particularly effective when large numbers of people are congregated together. That helps explain why there has been a huge surge in downloads, with more than 100,000 new accounts created in less than 24 hours.

State’s early moves are ominous

What are the chances of survival and success of the umbrella uprising? Plain talking is needed: the umbrellas are up because the application of state force has already begun in Hong Kong. Pepper spray and tear gas are violence. So are arrests, agents provocateurs and the slow-down of the Internet.

(Image left: The umbrellas are to protect the protesters from sun and from tear-gas. EPA/Newzulu/Megan Mair)

These all may be signs that the assassins are preparing their slaughter. If they are, then they should be warned. The systematic use of violence – for instance in the form of armed troops and armoured vehicles of the People’s Liberation Army, which has units stationed in Hong Kong – would not just be a spiritual and political catastrophe for the citizens of Hong Kong, or their economy.

Chinese President Xi Jinping has reportedly said that the reason the Soviet Union fell apart in 1991 was that no-one “had the balls to stand up for it”. For reasons of dealing with his enemies at home and staying on top, he may already have decided that force is now required.

Yet the crushing of the umbrella uprising with violence would be yet another “soft power” defeat and foreign policy disaster for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). It would reveal the hypocrisy of its phantom democracy. A violent clampdown would make a mockery of the claim that “the people” are the basis of its authority.

Crushing the protest would prove, if further proof be needed, that force is the fist in the pocket of CCP power, that violence is its ultimate resource. And a second Tiananmen might well spread resistance.

Fates of Hong Kong and Taiwan are tied

A crackdown would certainly toughen the resolve of democrats in Taiwan. Hence the verbal acrobatics of President Ma Ying-Jeou, who fears that something similar, possibly something much bigger, will erupt in his country, where local elections are scheduled for the last week of November. During the past day, in a rare interview with Al Jazeera, Ma Ying-Jeou acknowledged that thanks to the umbrella uprising, and the stubborness of the CCP, the fates of Hong Kong and Taiwan are tied together as never before.

The Taiwanese leader stated:

We fully understand and support Hong Kong people in their call for full universal suffrage. In the early 1980s, the ‘one country, two systems’ concept was created for Taiwan, not for Hong Kong. But Taiwan has sent a clear message that we do not accept the concept. If the system is good, then we believe it should be ‘one country, one system’.

Yes, but which kind of system, exactly? The great fear of the CCP leadership is that elections with integrity would be established in a major city of China.

The crushing of the umbrella uprising is for the CCP mandatory. It has the mandate of heaven. Otherwise, as the Beijing leadership sees things, the virus of democracy will spread, from village-level elections to major urban centres, with incalculable consequences for the CCP and its deeply held conviction that it will rule over China and its people forever.

World is watching China again

One striking feature of the umbrella uprising is its rapid development into a global media event. There is the usual telling silence from more than a few foreign governments, Russia included. Some are weighing in, but in contradictory ways.

Three weeks ago, the UK Foreign Office urged Occupy Central to calm down and be sensible. During the past day, it has confirmed it is “concerned about the situation in Hong Kong and is monitoring events carefully”. In a statement, a spokesman said it was:

Britain’s longstanding position, as a co-signatory of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, that Hong Kong’s prosperity and security are underpinned by its fundamental rights and freedoms, including the right to demonstrate. It is important for Hong Kong to preserve these rights and for Hong Kong people to exercise them within the law.

(Image left: Protesters mass outside Hong Kong government headquarters demanding that the democratic terms under which China regained the territory be honoured. EPA/Alex Hofford)

Business knows value of open society

The sentiments are welcome, but they airbrush the past. For the sake of the historical record, it should be remembered that the British never expected things to come to this. The British negotiators who crafted the Joint Declaration (deep insiders reliably tell me) supposed that Hong Kong citizens would be more interested in money, filthy lucre, than democracy. They are being proved wrong.

In matters of lucre, foreign companies and some Hong Kong officials have worried that if things “get out of hand” business will be ruined in Hong Kong. It is just the reverse. Hong Kong’s economic success as the eighth-largest trading economy in the world is tightly linked to its anti-corruption culture and the civil liberties its citizens enjoy.

Marx was wrong. When push comes to shove, intelligent businesses prefer to invest in contexts free from predators. They know there are things more important than money. They need non-violence, honesty, predictability, openness, a culture of trust and co-operation.

(Image left: Democracy Hong Kong is the message on the streets of Hong Kong. EPA/Alex Hofford)

That is why the umbrella uprising is for the moment winning support from besuited bankers and business people.

In Hong Kong, everybody is aware that urban geography really matters. They know that if Beijing gets its way, by destroying citizens’ freedoms and weakening their independent judiciary, Hong Kong will bow and kneel to Lee Kuan Yew’s prediction that it is just another Chinese city, a once-dynamic open space, an urban civil society gobbled up by a corrupted Shanghai.

Hong Kong and China at the crossroads

Can this developing life-and-death conflict be resolved? The dynamics are dangerously complex, but the political solution is in a way quite simple.

Beijing should back off. The black-shirted riot police should be ordered to withdraw to their barracks. The government of Hong Kong, and their masters in Beijing, should confirm that masked PLA troops will not be used against the occupiers.

Scheduled negotiations with Occupy Central and other public representatives should be announced. The talks should be genuine. The current electoral package – one person, one vote for candidates approved by the CCP – should be scrapped.

The deepest of all matters – the widespread feeling among Hong Kong citizens that slowly but surely they’re being choked to death by Beijing – must also be put on the table, and discussed openly, over tea.

(Image left: How will this end? No one can say, but the protesters are not giving up their rights without a fight.EPA/Alex Hofford)

Is this scenario a utopian fantasy? Probably. Will the Chinese Communist Party leadership recognise that this is their Gorbachev moment, a chance for them to discharge the threat of violence and make peace with peacefully inclined citizens who want nothing more, and nothing less, than their personal and collective dignity? Most unlikely.

Will the alternative scenario – a permanently damaged economy, millions of broken hearts, collective humiliation – come to pass? That’s what some now quietly suppose.

Yet might things turn out differently? Could fortuna (Machiavelli) and her bag of tricks and surprises prove to be more powerful than all of the current political actors in this unfolding drama? Yes, without doubt.

First Published on THE CONVERSATION and republished on ABC’s THE DRUM 30 September 2014