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In China, 2019 is not 1989



The 2019 Hong Kong protests will be written about for decades to come. They are not, as Beijing claims, another color revolution: They do not seek to replace the national government. Nor are they, as the mainstream media dubs them, a product of a US / CIA plot to undermine China, a claim absurd on its face. Most importantly, even though there are some irresistible parallels to the student-led protests of 1989 (threatening troop movements, stumifying political pronouncements by Beijing, the glare of the international media), those similarities do not describe the Hong Kong protesters.

Unlike 1989, the 2019 "water revolution" has been fueled by moderation and constant updating of tactics and the correcting of tactical errors in real time. To cope one example, the occupation of Chep Lap Kok airport was a powerful move, but by its second day, it was creating a serious optics problem and posed a risk of costing international support. The protesters responded to these new realities with extraordinary speed and coordination. By contrast, the 1

989 protests went down a singular path of increasing radicalization. Beijing, China, China, China, Beijing, China, Beijing, China.

The key inflection points of the 1989 protests were shaped by a group of increasingly radicalized students who took the spotlight away from their more thoughtful and responsible colleagues.

The protesters in 1989 were thus more naïve and less worldly than the 2019 protesters. Their initial reasonable demands were often overshadowed by the personal drama of key protest leaders, culminating in the televised "debate" between protest leader Wu'er Kaixi and PM Li Peng,

By contrast, The Hong Kong protesters are extremely savvy in their use of symbols and the messaging of their unhappiness. With Carrie Lam's formal withdrawal of the extradition bill from the docket three of the remaining four demands – an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality, amnesty for arrested protesters and a government edict against describing the protests as "riots" – are eminently reasonable.

Finally, the protesters' use of social media is more likely to be in a social movement rather than provide a dark platform of conspiracy theories that threaten to corrode the movement from within. This open, non-hierarchical organizational structure is only available because of the last few years. Hong Kong look more like Beirut than a post-Tiananmen Beijing.

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First, the act of defacing symbols of the Mainland The purpose of the protests is a threat to stability. Although the 2019 protesters have largely avoided the temptation of gratuitously embarrassing their opponents, lapses in this regard are dangerous and provide little if any lasting benefit.

Second, the use of American flags and other U.S. patents. symbol is a wrongheaded tactic. It is currently playing in Beijing's unfounded narrative that the protesters are being organized and funded by Washington, a claim that has widespread traction in the Mainland. And it betrays a misunderstanding of the U.S.'s willingness to provide anything more than a leaf to the protesters.

Trump privately equates these protesters with the 2017 anti-white nationalist protesters of Charlottesville: troublemakers who make absolutely no sense to him. Unlike the deep ambivalence but robust action of the George H.W. Hong Kong in 2019.

Third, although Beijing, the introduction of the extradition law in the first place, the protesters' legitimate, ongoing frustrations are nonetheless complicating prospects for a positive outcome. It seems to be some daylight between Ms. Lam and Beijing, as well as a face-saving way to meet, but not all, the protesters' demands (the demand for the right of Hong Kong citizens to elect their own political leaders, for example, is a political non-starter).

Beijing is going to pay, no matter what.

Andrew Mertha is Hyman Professor of China Studies and director of China studies and director of SAIS China at the School of Advanced Studies at Johns Hopkins University.


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