'It's Impossible Not to be Reminded of Tiananmen'

A commentary by Hu Ping
2014-12-04
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The Occupy Central pro-democracy movement's main protest site in Hong Kong's Admiralty district, Dec. 4, 2014.
The Occupy Central pro-democracy movement's main protest site in Hong Kong's Admiralty district, Dec. 4, 2014.
AFP

Where is the [Occupy Central] movement headed? When will the fight for genuine elections withdraw from the occupied areas and channel itself into other forms of protest? This is an urgent problem facing the participants, but also the current focus of attention in Hong Kong.

[A few weeks] ago, I wrote an article calling for the establishment of an exit mechanism. Judging from the situation on the ground, they haven't so much set up an exit mechanism as an anti-exit mechanism.

As early as Oct. 12, Lester Shum of the Hong Kong Federation of Students (HKFS) told a ...TV program that any motion to withdraw from the Occupy sites would be defeated for as long as any one of the student leaders opposed it.

According to my understanding, the majority of student leaders of Occupy Central have supported leaving in a number of recent votes, and only a minority want to stay. Nonetheless, the motion has been rejected.

This seems pretty ridiculous on the face of it. How could a group holding high the banner of a democratic mass movement willingly fall into the trap of accepting minority rule? Doesn't this look a lot like an anti-exit mechanism?

It's impossible not to be reminded of the events of 1989 [in Beijing].

On May 19, 1989, student representatives met with leaders of the [ruling Chinese Communist] Party. Student leader Wu'er Kaixi told [then] Chinese Premier Li Peng: "The issue isn't about persuading us to leave the Square. We want to tell the students to leave the square, but right now the 99.9 percent is following the wishes of the 0.1 percent."

"If a single hunger-striking student remains on the Square, then the thousands of other hunger-striking students won't leave either," he said.

Winning or losing together

How did such a strange situation come about in both the [1989] Tiananmen Square protests and Occupy Central, such that the majority were willing to obey a small minority, making a timely exit impossible?

One of the reasons is very simple. It is that the majority, who want to leave, feel that they can't in good conscience leave the minority, who want to remain, behind to weather the elements and bear all the risk alone.

So they have no choice but to bow to the wishes of the minority and to stay at their posts, in order to share their suffering.

But those who do not learn from historical experience can easily wind up repeating the mistakes of their predecessors. It seems that Occupy Central haven't drawn the necessary lessons from the Tiananmen Square protests, and are just repeating its mistakes, and their exit mechanism has become an anti-exit mechanism.

Even now, some of the Occupy Central leadership speak of "leaving or going together." This means that if a single person refuses to leave, then everyone stays to keep them company, even if those wishing to stay are a very small minority, and a very large majority wishes to leave.

Euphemistically, this is known as "Winning or losing together." Never mind if the bar to winning is so unrealistically high that it's unattainable. If we can't win, then at least we can all wait to lose together.

The question is, whom does such a strategy benefit? Clearly, only the [Chinese] dictatorship. Certainly not the people of Hong Kong, nor democracy. How did things come to such a pass?

The student leaders said they did not intend to surrender, but would rather wait to be arrested in police clearance operations.

Occupy founder Chu Yiu-ming strongly disagreed. He said that waiting to be arrested during clearance operations would make the Occupy movement look weak, whereas quitting while they were ahead would give the impression that there was still some energy in the movement, and pose a real threat to the government.

This is where the problem lies. There will be no closing banquet for those who hang on, but there is such a thing as active or passive withdrawal. There is a difference between withdrawal at a time of rising momentum and withdrawal on the wane, and the effects of each are totally different.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie.

Hu Ping is the New York-based editor of the Chinese-language monthly Beijing Spring, and is a member of the board of directors of Human Rights in China.

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Anonymous Reader

Demonstrators should have declared victory and departed Tiananmen Square in May 1989--that would have reduced the Party hardliners' ability to purge so easily many of the relatively reform-minded officials. Similarly, Occupy Central demonstrators should declare victory and leave the streets they have been barricading and camping in.

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