Since the current wave of protests began in Hong Kong earlier this summer, many observers have compared it to the Chinese democracy movement of the late 1980s. Numerous media reports have posed the question: will this end like Tiananmen?[1]

The situation in the former British colony remains fluid, and it’s impossible to predict with certainty how the present movement will conclude. But while there are numerous parallels between Hong Kong today and China thirty years ago, I hazard a guess that this time will end differently, for several main reasons.

Economic Issues

In 1989, economic problems including unemployment and inflation were a major factor in the escalation of protests. The Chinese government recognised this and in subsequent years managed to expand economic freedoms while keeping political freedoms off limits. This approach has succeeded at preventing similar mass movements ever since.

Hong Kong’s recent protests are likewise rooted in economic issues: the territory’s wealth gap is at its widest for nearly 50 years, while wage growth has been far outpaced by rising rents and house prices.[2] But unlike the mainland unrest of three decades ago, the solution for Hong Kongers economic discontent is not so clear-cut.

Beijing’s current strategy is to attract Hong Kongers into nearby mainland cities such as Zhuhai, in what it calls the “Greater Bay Area”. But the prospect of investing in mainland property or business is simply not that appealing for many in Hong Kong, concerned about a lack of legal guarantees, or simply unwilling to relocate.  

It’s a similar story for many of the international businesses operating in Hong Kong: the SAR offers something valuable that the PRC cannot. And Beijing is all too aware of that value, not just for multinational firms, but for China. The costs of military intervention, à la Tiananmen, would be enormous, and the head of the Hong Kong stock exchange has explicitly cautioned against doing just that.[3]

Soldiers and locals on the streets of Beijing in 1989 (Liu Heung Shing).

International Involvement

By the time of Tiananmen, China’s borders had barely been open for a decade. Beijing’s primary function was (as it remains) to serve as the Chinese capital, not a global business hub. Although it attracted international media attention and support, the 1989 crisis was basically a domestic affair, involving purely Chinese interest groups.

This contrasts starkly with Hong Kong today. Its role as a major global business centre makes the SAR a truly international space, or “Asia’s world city”, as the territory has sought to brand itself.[4] As a result, the stakeholders in Hong Kong and its politics are also highly internationalised.

Much to Beijing’s displeasure, the international business community in Hong Kong – which is usually quite pro-government – largely sided against the extradition bill. Other countries have voiced their opposition, the UK reiterating its commitment to the rights and freedoms outlined in the Joint Declaration, and the US voicing concerns that troops could be brought in.

Beijing has sought to leverage such international involvement as evidence of “foreign meddling”, specifically targeting Britain and America, a tactic that was also used to explain the events of 1989. But unlike Tiananmen, the international profile of Hong Kong and its valuable business stakeholders make it much harder for Beijing to use military force.

A protester gives the V sign in front of PLA troops at Tiananmen in 1989 (Liu Heung Shing)

Cultural Conflict

At its roots, political contestation is about opposing cultural values. In 1989, that contest was essentially between liberal ideals on the one hand, and conservative principles on the other. This was a conflict that had played out in the PRC on many occasions before. But it was precisely that: a factional dispute within the existing framework.

The Hong Kong protests go much further. They are a direct challenge to the system of governance, and an attack on China. They represent a much greater cultural conflict than occurred at Tiananmen. While China’s democracy activists sought new political freedoms, Hong Kong’s people are asking to preserve a culture they feel they already have.

In Hong Kong, rights such as free expression, assembly and fair trial are not just political liberties; they are fundamental to the city’s cultural identity, referred to as “Hong Kong Core Values”.[5] Rather than try to accommodate this different political culture, Beijing’s long-term aim is to reshape it through ever-closer integration. But doing so represents a much greater task than it was at Tiananmen thirty years ago.

The fact is most Hong Kong people don’t identify as Chinese, and endless repetition that “Hong Kong is part of China” will not change that.[6] Beijing’s use of propaganda and official media is much less effective in Hong Kong than it is in China's internal affairs. Patronising, vilifying remarks by government mouthpieces may have earned the sympathy of some mainlanders, but will only encourage further resentment among people in Hong Kong.[7]

Greater use of the public security apparatus is also likely to backfire. Hong Kongers harbour widespread mistrust of the PRC and perceived dark forces within its judicial and political systems. Attacks by suspected pro-Beijing gangs will have only deepened such fears. A violent, hard-line response may have worked at Tiananmen in 1989, but there is every reason to believe that in Hong Kong it would simply fuel greater anger.

Solders consider their next move after meeting heavy resistance near Tianamen (Liu Heung Shing).

In the long term, it's difficult to know how the Hong Kong situation will play out. Hong Kong remains very important to the Chinese government, mostly for symbolic as well as economic reasons. But the current situation, while critical, does not represent a threat to the CCP's very existence in the way the 1989 movement did. It is for this reason, above all, that a Tiananmen repeat is unlikely. Learning from that episode, Beijing and its current leadership will be desperate to ensure that this year is remembered not for another bloody crackdown, but as the glorious 70th anniversary of the PRC's founding.


[1] Examples include reports in the SCMP, The Independent and Newsweek quoting Ai Weiwei.

[2] For a more detailed analysis of the economic dimension see this recent NYT article.

[3] See comments by Charles Li in this SCMP report.


[5] Antony Dapiran's recent book City of Protest presents an insightful account of these Core Values.

[6] This HKU study suggests an increasing majority identify simply as Hong Konger, not Chinese or even Hong Kong Chinese.

[7] See, for example, these comments (in Chinese) by Global Times editor Hu Xijin.

Header Image: Students on hunger strike in Tiananmen Square, 1989. This and other photos are from A Life in a Sea of Red by Liu Heung Shing.