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The hidden history of protest in China and Hong Kong

A protestor directs crowd movements during a Hong Kong protest.
A protestor directs crowd movements during a Hong Kong protest.
Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

The protests in Hong Kong would seem to be, in many ways, about the city's special status: it is largely autonomous from the rest of China, has vastly greater freedom (including the freedom to protest), and even has a promise from Beijing to have free elections in 2017. But it's not just Hong Kong: mainland China has a long history of democratic protest, and knowing that history is essential to understanding what's happening in Hong Kong today.

To that end, I spoke to historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom, the Chancellor's Professor of History at UC Irvine and author of China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know. Wasserstrom's research focuses on protest in China. We discussed why these protests are happening now, why the Chinese government is so worried about the demonstrations, and the unique role students play in Hong Kong and Chinese protest more broadly. What follows is a transcript of our conversation, edited for length and clarity.

Zack Beauchamp: There's been tension between Hong Kong and Beijing for some time. When did it start becoming acute, and why is it boiling over now?

Jeffrey Wasserstrom: There are several milestone moments. One of them, early in the 21st century, came when there was a plan to impose a Patriot Act-style set of security measures on Hong Kong. The people of Hong Kong pushed back courageously about that. The security measures, called Article 23, were tabled. I think that was important because it was a protest generated by an effort to curtail civil liberties, and it showed how determined Hong Kong people were to maintain the things that make political life in their city very different than political life in the mainland.

The real turning point, I think, came two years ago, when there was a pushback against efforts by Beijing that were seen as threatening the difference between Hong Kong and mainland cities. That was efforts to bring Beijing-style "patriotic education" curriculum into the local schools. There were very bold protests then, largely involving students — including secondary school students, which is where the group Scholarism, which has been important, was formed. One of the leaders of student activism, who's now 17, was a leader then at 15.

Riot police Hong Kong

Riot police versus protestors. (Anthony Kwan/Getty)

Once again, the protests did succeed, leading to a pullback of this effort to impose something on Hong Kong. Those are things that have been flashpoints, but there have been continual efforts by people in Hong Kong to demonstrate — quite literally — their determination to keep a greater degree of political freedoms in the territories. And we've seen that every year, when there are vigils held to commemorate the June 4 massacre of 1989 [near Tiananmen Square], which cannot be commemorated in any other part of the People's Republic of China. That's in part to honor the memory of the students and workers slain by the Chinese army, but it's also a way of reminding themselves and Beijing that this is a place where things can be said and done on the mainland.

In the last decade, there's been a stronger and stronger sense of a distinctive Hong Kong identity. The current protests link up with long traditions of Chinese struggle for democracy, but are also an expression of a sort of more local pride.

ZB: Is this a student movement? And more broadly, what are the demographic bases of support for protest groups like Occupy Central?

JW: What we're seeing is a dovetailing of a couple of different strands. Occupy Central with Peace and Love is a group that's totally led by intellectuals who are well past student age. But university students had launched a class boycott ahead of any concerted action by Occupy.

The protests have been a student-led movement, or a student-sparked movement, but now there are members of all kinds of social groups joining them on the streets. That's something we often see in Chinese mass movements: students are seen as intellectuals in the making, and intellectuals are seen as having a particular role to serve as the conscience of the nation or the community. Unlike in the United States, members of other groups tend to think that students have a natural role in speaking out on political issues.

Hong Kong students outside government house 9-26

Student protestors in Hong Kong. (Xaume Olleros/AFP/Getty Images)

In China, some of the great, most celebrated actions in the Chinese past began with student activism. If the state uses repressive actions against students — even if the official press just denigrates the students — then it can lead to large numbers of sympathizers joining the students on the streets.

This is something that happened in Beijing, and many other cities, in 1989. But it happened as far back as 1919, when there was an initially student-led movement that led to a general strike in Shanghai.

ZB: Is this part of why these protests are so concerning from the Chinese government's point of view? You've got something that seems like it has a lot of resonances with a deep tradition of protest in China, so it can't easily be dealt with by force.

JW: That's a concern. But I think we should also see it as related to other things that are haunting the Chinese Communist Party right now.

Moves away from authoritarianism in parts of the world other than China, for example, that involve large gatherings in central squares. There's a way in which this links up to things from the specifically Chinese past, but it's also something that links to the images of crowds in squares, whether in Ukraine or in Egypt. Those kinds of images are also on the minds of Chinese leaders.

It's also a moment where there's unrest across and all around the edges of China. You have a very funny moment now where Beijing has been making these efforts to expand the edges of the territory they control, with moves towards asserting control over islands that other countries claim. But at the same time, you have the edges of what they think of as Greater China plagued by discontent of other kinds: places like the [heavily Muslim Chinese province] Xinjiang or Tibet. There were also protests in Taiwan last spring that were in part pushing back against efforts to bring together Taiwan and the mainland at least in economic terms.

So the Hong Kong movement is linked to long-term traditions and history within China, it's connected to things in other parts of the world, and it's connected to quite different but simultaneously occurring challenges around the territory the Chinese government wants to claim authority over.

ZB: Are they just concerned about losing authority in places like Hong Kong or Xinjiang, or is there a different, deeper problem going on?

JW: One of the ways to think about this is that the Chinese Communist Party has a series of stories it likes to tell about what it's done right, and why it's different from the various governments that came before it in China. Some of those stories no longer work very well: the story they used to tell about making people in China more equal no longer works given that it's got enormous gaps between rich and poor.

The one that's really working, though, is an idea that, before 1949, China was pushed around by imperial powers. And that, under the Communist Party's strength, China was able to once again control all of the territory that had been part of China at the largest stage of its traditional empire.

You have two things that are causing problems with this story. One possibility is a kind of breaking away or breaking up of this grand territorial recovery. But at another level, there's also this idea that Beijing is finding itself playing exactly the kind of role that imperialist powers tend to play: trying to quash protests of exactly the kind they used to support when they were the power trying to argue against imperialism.

The protestors in Hong Kong are presenting Beijing as a version of an imperialist or colonial power. The people of Hong Kong aren't nostalgic for a time when they were a colony of Britain: they actually want to be free from domination by any foreign capital. If Beijing is seen as parallel, now, to how London was when Hong Kong was a colony, then that's a real problem for the communist regime. They need to go to great lengths to try to present a counter-story of Hong Kong: something that suggests the protests don't represent the real feelings of the masses of Hong Kong.

But when there are enormous numbers of people on the street, that calls into question Beijing's story. It makes Beijing look more and more like a colonial power.

ZB: To what extent are these protests identifiable to most Chinese people as part of the broader tradition of Chinese protest? What is that tradition like?

JW: When Westerners see these protests, we flash back to the images we've seen of 1989. On the mainland, the images of 1989 have largely been repressed, so you might think these protests wouldn't really have historical resonances. But even though the story of 1989 is repressed, schoolbooks are filled with stories about moments when students rose up to express their love for the community they're part of — to push back against external powers and authoritarian governments.

The images of youth standing up to repressive police forces will resonate even for young students on the mainland who haven't been exposed to images of the Tank Man. They'll connect to other big Chinese protests, like the May 4 movement of 1919 and the May 30 movement of 1925 that are as well-known within China and as regularly talked about in China as the Boston Tea Party is in the US.

student demonstration china 1919 tiananmen

Students protest in Tiananmen Square on November 29th, 1919. (Sidney D. Gamble/Duke University)

Whether Chinese people identify completely with the people of Hong Kong, though, isn't clear. There've been a series of tensions between mainland people and Hong Kong people: some people on the mainland think of Hong Kong people as imagining they're better than mainlanders. That can complicate things, but there will definitely be some sense of familiarity regardless.

ZB: What seems like the million-dollar question, right now, is how this ends. What does success look like for the Hong Kong protestors? What's their avenue for victory?

JW: It's important to make space in our minds for partial victories. It'll be very hard for the Communist Party to say "Okay, there will be open and free elections." That's unlikely to happen.

On the other hand, the protestors are calling, quite specifically, for the current chief executive of the territory to step down. That's very thinkable: he would become a scapegoat for larger problems, but it would defuse some of the anger over the protests. And if even the person who replaced him had similar policy views, it would be a sign to that official that there would be a value in being more responsive to the people.

Even if that doesn't happen, the protestors might accomplish something. If authorities are smart, sometimes they'll try to figure out how to keep the next generation from being as angry as the previous one.

There are very dark scenarios where things lead to greater violence. But if the protests wind down and there's a realization that using tear gas was something that amplified the protests enormously, it's possible that, not winning any immediate goals, the protestors carved out a space where they won't be treated as harshly in the future.