In the footsteps of 1989

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 05 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 05 March, 2011, 12:00am

Who are they? What do they want? How come there are so many of them? Who's really behind this outpouring? Questions like this are being repeated time and again in the wake of the protests sweeping the Middle East and causing tyrants everywhere to tremble. The problem is that it's pretty hard to understand an outburst of revolt that breaks all the old patterns.

In searching for answers, most analysts have failed to identify the mother of this new kind of movement - the protests that swept China in 1989, ending with the massacre in Tiananmen Square. Only with the benefit of hindsight can we see how China's 1989 democracy movement broke the mould of organised revolt.

Previously, revolt came in other ways. Sometimes it arose from a split in the ruling elite galvanising a wider protest movement, which is essentially what happened in the old Soviet Union. In some cases, the uprisings were led by well-known politicians, such as the 'people's power' movement in the Philippines.

More frequently, revolts were led by political parties, such as the Chinese Communist Party or, as in the case of the 1968 events in Europe, the leadership came from tightly organised revolutionary groups. And then there was the familiar procession of military coups which toppled dictators, usually replacing them with new ones.

In 1989, the mould was broken in China as protests emerged, seemingly from nowhere. They were not led by famous dissidents and their demands were vague, albeit clearly aimed at the end of one-party rule. However, within what seemed like the bat of an eyelid, leaders emerged, the protests grew and continued to draw vast numbers of mainly but not exclusively young people who had never joined a demonstration in their lives and had hitherto accepted the status quo.

The Chinese Communist Party under the leadership of Zhao Ziyang was shocked and knocked off balance by what was happening on the streets. Zhao's inclination was to find a way of pacifying the protesters by accepting some of their demands. But the party's hard men were having none of this and insisted that a brutal crackdown was the only way to end the protests and deter further unrest.

If a deterrent warning was required to dissuade copycat protests in other dictatorships, this was it. However, history has a habit of not standing still - the cat was out of the bag. It showed that challenges to dictators no longer had to be based on the old revolutionary models.

Fast forward to 2011 and we see just how well this is understood by the leadership in Beijing, which is mobilising its full might to snuff out Arab protest imitators, even when there is little evidence of a full-scale movement developing within China's borders.

In the Middle East, two governments have already fallen, a third is teetering on the edge and a clutch of others face formidable challenges from the people in the streets. And, as the challenges mount, the myths surrounding the dictatorships melt like fast-burning candles.

It was said, for example, that the alternative to the Middle East dictatorships was going to be rabid Islamic extremism, yet the groups advocating change of this kind have been as surprised as the dictators by the uprising. It was also said protests would never take place in prosperous nations that had a seemingly infinite capacity to buy off discontent - well, if that's so, explain what's happening in Bahrain and, more pointedly, in Libya, where a besieged dictator is promising cash and more cash to persuade his people to let him stay in power.

Then we have the boring litany of cultural explanations for why dictatorships work best in places like Egypt, where there are profound regional and religious divisions supposedly only contained by strong-arm rule.

On top of this is the even more insulting idea that Arabs somehow lack the capacity to handle democracy and could only be ruled by dictators.

We can see that this is largely nonsense; from the Libyan deserts to the shiny metropolitan centres of Jordan and Bahrain, there is a widespread feeling that the time has come to allow the people to rule themselves. And, of course, this is precisely the notion that spread like wildfire in China back in 1989.

Every single one of the tired old arguments about why China is immune to the virus of democracy is being trundled out again today. The proponents of this myth have chosen to forget where this spontaneous movement started. They have clearly not considered what would have happened if, in 1989, the protesters in Tiananmen Square had been armed with the internet, been able to Twitter away and reach the millions of people who were not physically present but avidly watching.

Stephen Vines is a Hong Kong-based journalist and entrepreneur