A huge and oft-stated fear among Hong Kong's protesters right now is of a Chinese military crackdown like the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre, in which troops killed 2,600 protesters who were asking for a lot less democracy than Hong Kongers are asking for now. Some protesters are already anticipating it, lacing downtown with yellow ribbons marked "they can't kill us all." A WhiteHouse.gov petition circulating in Hong Kong has already drawn 190,000 signatures asking President Obama to "Support Hong Kong Democracy and Prevent A Second Tiananmen Massacre in Hong Kong."
It sounds both outlandish and not outlandish. Hong Kong, a largely-autonomous part of China since it left the British Empire in 1997, has far more freedom than the rest of China, including free speech and the frequently-exercised right to protest peacefully. It's an international city with a free press; any mass violence would disgrace image-conscious Beijing. But Hong Kongers see China gradually asserting more control over their city, and they remember clearly the 1989 massacre, and they worry that Beijing's willingness to use violence against mainland protesters could one day apply to them as well.
It's impossible to say for sure how the Chinese Communist Party leadership will act, but the analysis suggests that the crisis is unlikely to escalate to that level of violence. Still, while the Party leadership will probably succeed in tamping down protests before they cross Beijing's threshold for risking an existential crisis — spreading to the mainland — it is almost impossible to overstate the lengths to which the Party would go to prevent that, potentially up to and including another massacre like the one it executed in 1989.
Two Chinese officials have warned it's a possibility
Back in July, during a previous round of protest in Hong Kong against China's encroachments on the city's autonomy, a Beijing-allied politician there made an alarming statement. He seemed to hint that, if the unrest got bad enough, China's military (the People's Liberation Army, or PLA) could put it down with force.
"A showdown is getting more and more inevitable by the day, and some degree of violence is imminent," said the Hong Kong politician, Lau Nai-keung. "If worst comes to worst, the PLA will come out of its barracks."
Lau, to be clear, has zero authority to call in a PLA crackdown. Neither does former high-ranking Chinese official and diplomat Zhou Nan, who suggested that the PLA could potentially be called up to put down protests. "[The party] would not allow Hong Kong to turn into a base to subvert China's socialist regime under the guise of democracy," he'd said.
These officials are both speculating, so take it with a grain of salt, but the fact that they are discussing this at all is a scary sign that the possibility of another Tiananmen in Hong Kong, however remote, is not entirely out of the question.
Meanwhile, another official, the head of China's liaison office in Hong Kong, menacingly hinted at this when he told a group of pro-democracy lawmakers, "The fact that you are still alive already shows the country's inclusiveness." And Chinese state media has been accusing the Hong Kong protests of being a foreign plot — an echo of similar accusations made against the 1989 student protesters.
The fear of another Tiananmen is already shaping events in Hong Kong
Demonstrators are out in the streets to preserve their autonomy and freedoms, but that implicitly — and sometimes explicitly — includes the freedom from fear of military massacre. You saw this at work on Sunday, when Hong Kong's normally restrained police used nearly-unprecedented force (tear gas, nightsticks, pepper spray, what appeared to be shotguns likely loaded with non-lethal bullets) and the city became outraged, with many residents galvanized to join the protests.
The thing you have to understand is that the memory of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre looms awfully large in Hong Kong. While the city was unaffected by the massacre (it was under British rule at the time), its residents hold an annual mass vigil in memory of the event, which has been so heavily censored in China itself that many young people have never heard of it.
Hong Kongers feel they have a responsibility to keep memory of Tiananmen for the fellow Chinese who cannot, but they also earnestly fear that it could happen to them. That is a big part of why Hong Kong's residents are so upset to see their police donning military-like uniforms and firing tear gas this weekend; it feels like an echo, however faint, of 1989's violence. The drive to preserve freedom and autonomy in Hong Kong is all mixed in with the fear of another Tiananmen.
Would China ever actually do it?
The ultimate question here is whether, or when, the central Chinese government in Beijing would ever decide to use force against protesters. That would seem unthinkable, given the global backlash that image-conscious China would face for using force in a city full of foreigners and foreign media.
But perhaps the most essential eternal truth for understanding China's government is that the ruling Communist Party prioritizes the preservation of one-party rule way before anything else, including the outrage of the entire world, to the extent that it will sacrifice just about anything to maintain the system. The world has changed a lot since 1989, and so has China's role in it, but it was also true in 1989 that Beijing was full of Western journalists and China knew it would pay heavily for massacring protesters, but did it anyway.
The Communist Party government fears democracy and popular unrest as existential threats — perhaps deeply enough to once again put protests down with tanks and machine guns. But the important difference here is that Beijing probably does not see Hong Kong protests, in themselves, as a threat. What likely would terrify Beijing is the "risk of contagion," as the Economist put it: the danger of protest and unrest spreading from Hong Kong into the mainland.
You could see that fear in early 2011, when Chinese authorities launched one of their toughest clampdowns in years in response to the Arab Spring protests thousands of miles away in Egypt and Tunisia. Now the protests are much nearer and in a Chinese-speaking city — a place where lots of mainland Chinese travel every autumn for holiday shopping. The risk of "contagion" is much, much higher. Chinese officials have already started clamping down on news and social media censorship to prevent word of the protests from spreading.
If the Chinese leadership believes that unrest is spreading from Hong Kong to mainland cities, then it could start to see the events in Hong Kong as an existential threat to them and their system. That would make the unthinkable thinkable: a military crackdown on Hong Kong.
The one other possibility that could lead Chinese leaders to consider a military crackdown is if they believe that the protesters are seeking, and could potentially get, full independence. That's extremely unlikely, as protesters aren't even asking for this, but keep in mind that Beijing is hyper-sensitive about this. Protester acts like turning the national Chinese flag upside down over government buildings risk sending the wrong signal.
China's leaders will probably win before a crackdown becomes imminent, but that could involve violence
The good news is that this a full, Tiananmen-style crackdown is probably unlikely. The bad news is that it's unlikely because China's Communist Party, perhaps the most skilled authoritarian regime in modern history when it comes to self-preservation, will probably succeed in either negotiating calm or dispersing the protesters non-violently before it got to the point of seriously considering a military crackdown.
China has been managing unrest in its imperial periphery for years: in Tibet, in the predominantly Muslim region of Xinjian, in Inner Mongolia. It has done so ruthlessly, and abetted by near-total media blackouts that would be impossible in Hong Kong, but the point is that it has found a way. It put down mass labor unrest in the early 2000s in northeast China.
Maybe the most instructive example is from late 2011, when China managed to successful put down a peaceful uprising in the southern Chinese village of Wukan, which at first looked like a revolutionary new mode of Chinese protest. The village was stuffed full of Western reporters, limiting China's ability to crack down as violently as it might have liked, much as in Hong Kong now. Beijing negotiated a palatable enough outcome that the protests ended and the reporters dispersed, then gradually reneged on its promises and reasserted control over the village to prevent another protest. It worked.
But violence is still possible. Political scientist Jay Ulfelder, who helps run a statistical forecasting project that is designed to evaluate risks of mass atrocities, says that the events in Hong Kong elevate the possibility of "state-led mass killing." He walks through several possible outcomes, but suggests that the most likely outcome is that China will ultimately succeed in quashing the protests. In what passes for optimism these days, he concludes that this could well include state violence against the protesters, but that it will probably not kill enough people to count as a mass atrocity.
"I still don't expect that [a state-led mass killing] will occur, but not because I anticipate that Beijing will concede to the protesters' demands," he writes. "Rather, I expect violent repression, but I also doubt that it will cross the 1,000-death threshold we and others use to distinguish episodes of mass killing from smaller-scale and more routine atrocities."