30 years ago this month, I was in Beijing as a British development minister for the annual meeting of the Asian Development Bank (ADB). But what took place at that gathering – including the seating for the first time of a delegation from Taiwan – was overshadowed by what was happening across the city. And what happened in China in 1989 continues to resonate deeply today, not least in Hong Kong.
The big event in Beijing in late May of that year was supposed to be a state visit by the Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev; the Chinese leadership was keen to show him how an orderly communist regime ran a great country, in comparison to the dissolution occurring in the Soviet Union under perestroika (political movement for reformation). But like an enormous unexpected fireworks display, an almost festive explosion of yearning for freedom greeted both sides.
Prompted by student demonstrations, much of Beijing’s population seemed to turn out in the streets to call for greater liberty and more democratic accountability. The show of people power spread to other cities. It was exuberant and spontaneous. And no one – neither the regime nor the demonstrators – seemed to know what to do next.
As a delegation of development ministers, we met the Communist Party general secretary – the charming, reform-minded Zhao Ziyang. He expressed sympathy with some of the demonstrators’ arguments and grievances, and later went to Tiananmen Square to say much the same to the students. As often happens in mass protest movements, they were divided between those who regarded compromise with the authorities as surrender, and those who believed that choosing freely to return to work or studies would secure them the moral high ground for the future.
We know what happened next. The elderly hardliners in the communist leadership were terrified that they were losing their grip, as indeed they were. They brought in the tanks, and the People’s Liberation Army massacred the people they were supposed to protect. No incident better demonstrates the crucial distinction between the Communist Party of China (CPC) – no longer particularly communist, but increasingly Leninist – and China’s great civilisation.
To hear Chinese communist leaders tell it, the party embodies that 4,000-year-old civilisation. It does not. Who was responsible for the murder of landowners after the 1949 communist revolution? Who was to blame for the Great Leap Forward and the Great Chinese Famine? Who instigated the Cultural Revolution, with its accompanying mass violence?
It is not surprising that the CPC has worked so hard to extirpate the Tiananmen Square massacre from public memory. History – including the horrors of Mao Zedong’s rule – is too volatile a substance for the Chinese dictatorship. China’s leaders hold up their system of government as a model for other countries. But how can a regime be confident in the sustainability of its values and methods if it is afraid of its own past?
Many of us used to think that China, growing richer and resuming a central role in world affairs, would slowly but inevitably embrace the same aspirations as most other societies: greater accountability, freedom to speak one’s mind, and a rule of law to which all, including the mightiest, were subject.
President Xi Jinping, however, has been trying to bury that idea by reasserting party control over every aspect of government, jailing lawyers and human-rights activists, cracking down on religious groups, incarcerating hundreds of thousands of Uighurs in “re-education” camps in China’s Xinjiang region, and issuing increasingly bellicose threats against Taiwan. And we have seen the same reversal in Hong Kong.
Communist China signed an international treaty to respect Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy, freedom, and rule of law for 50 years after it resumed sovereignty over the city in 1997. For more than a decade after this handover, things went pretty well, although China retreated from some of its promises about democratic development.
But with Xi’s consolidation of absolute power, things have changed. Most recently, out-of-date public-order charges have been used to pursue democracy campaigners in Hong Kong and silence dissent. The local government increasingly seems to take instructions from the Beijing regime and its local United Front communist activists. The Chinese government’s ham-fisted approach has fuelled misguided calls – never heard when the city was ruled by a distant colonial power – for Hong Kong independence.
The latest blow to Hong Kong’s freedom and identity is the local government’s proposed legislation to allow extradition to China – a possibility that I would have ruled out just a few months ago. The government claims, spuriously, that it simply wants to close a loophole. But Hong Kong’s refusal until now to extradite people to mainland China has been a crucial firewall between a city subject to the rule of law and a country subject to rule by law, with no real distinction between the courts, the party leadership, and the security services.
This threatened change to the law on extradition has led to protests by lawyers, chambers of commerce, and a number of governments. One danger, already highlighted in the United States (US) Congress, is that if Hong Kong is treated like Shenzhen or Shanghai in this respect, then it will be treated that way in terms of economics and trade, too. And Hong Kong should do all it can to avoid being sucked into trade wars between China and the US.
Yet Hong Kong is different from the mainland. On the night of 4 June, as has happened every year since 1990, more than 100,000 people will attend a candlelight vigil to mark the anniversary of the brutal suppression of the 1989 demonstrations in Beijing. In this still-free city, at least, the Tiananmen massacre has not been forgotten. Let us hope that the Hong Kong government does not try to prosecute the vigil’s organisers for conspiracy.
Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong and a former EU commissioner for external affairs, is Chancellor of the University of Oxford.