As the world watches current events in Hong Kong, there is a tendency to regard the situation with dread, fearing a repeat of the tragedy of Tiananmen Square, 1989, when — on Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping’s orders — soldiers massacred peaceful demonstrators calling for democracy in China.
On the one hand, this makes sense seeing as how June 4, 1989 is etched in history as the most famous example of the Chinese Communist Party violently repressing calls for democracy within its borders. Additionally, given that a) Hong Kong represents the single largest challenge to CCP authority since Tiananmen, and b) the Party tends to prefer force over dialogue in resolving “mass incidents,” it isn’t unreasonable to expect the use of force in some form. At the same time, naysayers point out that the current Party leadership couldn’t stomach the sort of international alienation that was a result of violently cracking down in 1989 — doing the same in Hong Kong today would be far worse, not least because Hong Kong is crawling with foreign press and China is significantly more connected to the global economy in 2014 than it was in 1989.
However, despite its allure, Tiananmen isn’t the only model for understanding how the CCP deals with dissent and protest. Another more recent and compelling model is the manner in which the Party dealt with the 2011 protests in Wukan. In trying to understand Hong Kong’s near-future with lessons from China’s recent past, it’s almost certainly more useful to reflect on Wukan than on Tiananmen.
Back in 2011, a small fishing village in China’s Guangdong province with just some 20,000 residents grew fed up with the local government when town officials unilaterally agreed to sell a local farm to a developer for well below market price. This decision by the local government was effectively the straw that broke the camel’s back — similar to the National People’s Congress decision to alter the terms of Hong Kong’s universal suffrage provisions. The rest is history: hundreds of Wukan residents peacefully protested against the local government by staging sit-ins and chanting slogans calling for a greater say in their village’s affairs.
What was notable about Wukan was that the CCP chose to resolve the dispute not with tanks, but with meaningful Party intervention and negotiation. What was ultimately remarkable was that following the intervention of Wang Yang, who was then the governor of Guangdong province where Wukan is located, the village was ultimately allowed to stage municipal elections in which at least 6,000 residents voted for a new committee to represent their community interests. The Wall Street Journal at the time noted that the elections appeared “to be free of the Communist Party meddling that typically mars Chinese election results.” At the time, this was practically unthinkable and was touted as the path to broader grassroots democracy in China.
Structurally, the “Umbrella Revolution” in Hong Kong bears several similarities to Wukan — merely on a different scale. Both communities rose up after sensing that the Party had reneged on a prior understanding. In Wukan, there was no community input before the land sale and Hongkongers were stripped of their democratic right to freely stand for election without Beijing’s prior approval. Both communities protested peacefully (with a few exceptions, to be sure). Indeed, the two instances are so similar that Chinese President Xi Jinping reportedly has tapped Wang Yang, the governor of Guangdong during the Wukan protests and currently a vice premier on the politburo, to “remain on standby” to handle the situation in Hong Kong.
As the Hong Kong city government prepares to meet with student leaders this week, Wang’s hands could be working behind the scenes. What additionally makes Wang’s involvement remarkable is the fact that he is a stalwart Hu Jintao protégé and a well-known “liberal” within the party, owing his rise to power almost entirely to Xi’s predecessor. Wang was the progenitor of the “Happy Guangdong” development model — in resolving the Wukan crisis, he opted for steering the government in a direction that traded harmony for growth, as one scholar put it.
I don’t want to oversell the similarities between Wukan 2011 and Hong Kong 2014. One key difference is the extent to which anti-Beijing/Zhongnanhai rhetoric is prevalent in the “Umbrella Revolution.” Anyone following the protests in Hong Kong will have seen slogans condemning Beijing and the Party. In Wukan, there was no question about loyalty to the party — the demands were effectively much narrower. Additionally, as we potentially approach the “resolution phase” in Hong Kong after 13 days of protest, it’s difficult to imagine the protesters satisfying their preferences and interests in the negotiations with the city government the same way Wukan’s residents did.
For example, one of the protester’s core demands is for current Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung to step down from his post. In a best case outcome for the protesters, this core demand could be met while the broader issue of the NPC’s decision to limit which candidates are eligible for the chief executive post in the future could remain untouched. The reason this could be a viable outcome is because it asks Beijing to neither bend nor break on issues that it would consider its “core interests” in Hong Kong — Leung himself could prove disposable provided Hongkoners acquiesced to the Party’s broader demand that their city abide universal suffrage “with Chinese characteristics,” so to speak.
What sets Wukan leagues apart from the current situation in Hong Kong is the hugely influential personal intervention by Wang Yang himself. Wang, as governor and trusted ally of China’s then-President Hu Jintao, had significant leverage in addressing the protests which took place in a small village within his jurisdiction. Additionally, Wang’s handling and placation of that protest likely helped propel him to his current position on the Politburo. In Hong Kong, there is no analogous power-player, leaving matters far more uncertain. If Wang is indeed playing a role in the upcoming dialogue between protesters and the Hong Kong city government, he will most likely remain in the shadows.
Additionally, while it’s worth remembering Wukan in the context of Hong Kong, it should be noted that Wukan’s ultimate trajectory has proven to be decidedly undemocratic. After elections took place and normalcy was restored, little actually ended up changing for the village’s disaffected denizens. The issue that caused the protests in the first place — misappropriated land — remained unaddressed. If a resolution in Hong Kong emulates Wukan, it will hopefully do so in terms of processes and not actual outcomes. As remarkable as Wukan’s tryst with democracy seemed at the time, it all crumbled shortly thereafter.
As the protests hopefully head toward resolution in the coming days, it is clear that above all we are trending away from a repeat of June 4, 1989. If Tiananmen demonstrated the CCP’s capacity for brutal repression, then Wukan demonstrated its ability to walk a softer path and negotiate, given the right set of circumstances. While Hong Kong’s protesters won’t receive that sort of engagement from the mainland, it is a positive sign that talks will take place with the city government. Some student leaders have already declared this development as a victory for Hong Kong’s civil society. If the protesters win any concessions at all, we’ll have seen in Hong Kong a limited triumph of the Wukan model of restraint and dialogue.