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Lessons From Moscow: How China Might Handle Hong Kong

Large crowds are taking to the streets—outraged by how the place they live is being run, angry that police are beating up protesters—and railing against a broken system they say needs to be made more democratic. The local leader in charge is beholden to a distant capital, and is out of touch with the populace.

A worrying question begins to be asked: Will we see a repeat of what happened in June 1989, when Chinese authorities violently put an end to weeks of overwhelmingly peaceful protests in Tiananmen Square and plazas across the country?

This scenario is relevant to Hong Kong right now, but could also have been written about a place at the other end of Eurasia 30 years ago.

When the protest wave that ultimately led to the fall of the Berlin Wall began, people feared that East Germany’s leaders might take a page from Beijing’s playbook. Riot police stood ready. Masses of people were on the streets in cities such as Leipzig. East German leaders had openly expressed support for how the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) had crushed the Tiananmen upheaval, and the term Chinese solution began to be uttered to describe the use of violence to stop the struggle.

In the end, the East German authorities did not kill protesters. They went another way, in part because Mikhail Gorbachev sent signals that while Moscow had backed repressive moves in Soviet satellite states and allies before—sending troops to East Germany in 1953 and to Hungary in 1956, and allying with other Warsaw Pact armies to crush the Prague Spring in 1968—the situation now was different. The Soviet Union was changing; he was a new kind of leader; and he did not want to be seen as just like his predecessors. Gorbachev even refrained from suggesting, as Leonid Brezhnev did to Poland’s Communists in 1981, that while troops were not en route, Moscow was willing to see local officials get as tough as they wanted to in trying to restore order.

The similarities with Hong Kong are clear, yet no analogy from the past will provide a definitive answer to the question of which path Beijing will take. History does not repeat itself, in part because situations are always changing and current actors are aware of what has happened before. Still, as specialists in the history and politics of Eastern Europe and East Asia, respectively, we think it is useful in this case to look to the old Soviet bloc as well as to China’s own past when grappling with possible developments in Hong Kong.

Read entire article at The Atlantic