Summarising Zhao Dingxin’s lessons from 1989 for the Hong Kong protests: protest ecology and conflicting state legitimation

Talking about the on-going protests in Hong Kong, pundits love to invoke the 1989 Movement that famously centred around Tiananmen Square in Beijing. I myself have previously argued that it might be more useful to compare the overall effect on Hong Kong of the ‘Hard Had Revolution’ to the effect that the February 28 Incident had on Taiwan. But even then serious scholarship on what happened in the run up to and during the June 4th Incident can still provide us with tools to understand the ‘leaderless protests’ in Hong Kong.

In this post I want to summarise a book by entomologist-turned-sociologist Dingxin Zhao in which he tries to provide an empirical sociological explanation for what happened in Beijing in 1989:

Dingxin Zhao. 2001. The Power of Tiananmen: State-Society Relations and the 1989 Beijing Student Movement. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.

The most important contribution Zhao makes to understanding the events in 1989 is to describe it in terms of what he calls ‘state-society relations’: the way the logics of the state and of society and the nature of their linkage determine how the movement comes into being and unfolds. Although this is a path-dependent process, it is undetermined and highly contingent.

Besides by ‘the authoritarian and democratic dichotomy’, Zhao argues that the nature of a statue is determined by its source of state legitimacy. He highlights three types (putting charismatic legitimacy aside): legal-electoral legitimacy, ideological legitimacy, and performance legitimacy (which has economic, moral, and nationalist components) (p. 22). Since China is a one-party state, only the latter two matter.

Two legacies from the Maoist era led structures which in Western liberal democracies are conformist radicalise Chinese society: the lack of ‘heterogenous intermediate organisations’ meant that there was nothing to channel grievances. Everybody’s attention was focussed on the state (pp. 25–30). Although in Western countries universities work to reproduce the elite, transplanted to non-Western countries they introduce radical ideas with outside legitimacy (p. 98).

The radicalisation was unleashed by the slow accumulation of grievances during the reform period after 1978. Simultaneously, starting from the Cultural Revolution onwards, as far as the people were concerned, the ideology-based legitimation of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regime transformed into performance-based legitimation. The continued dominance of the authoritarian regime, however, meant that people kept looking to the state to fulfil its responsibilities (pp. 47–51).

Zhao spends a lot of time unpacking the various intellectual fevers that swept the newly opened intellectual scene in China and discusses the intellectuals’ and students grievances, as well as the continued relevance of marxism’s linear view of history. There is also a discussion of how the system that previously served to control the students now had the opposite effect. This is more specific to that particular moment and place. What they have in common is that the root cause of the ineffectiveness of government attempts to deal with unhappiness ‘resulted from the presence of conflicting views of state legitimacy’ (p. 209). Both sides were talking different moral languages.

His largest critique of the narratives of 1989 common in the West concerns the commonly referenced ‘factionalism’ theory that pits hardliners in the Party against reformers. I find this flawed understanding of the party reflected in the contemporary debate on ‘engaging’ China, where some argue in favour of taking actions that strengthen the mythical reformers in the CCP. These reformers have never materialised in the present era and Zhao argues convincingly why they did not exist as such in the 1980s either (p. 211).

‘What has been neglected is the fact that the majority of the group had one thing in common—they were absolutely loyal to the CCP and believed in the current political system.’ (p. 213–214) The Party elite, especially the elders, had been through the ferocious battle for control over China together. No one of them was about to follow the path of the Central and Eastern European regimes and lose their hard-won power. Zhao Ziyang was unique in his willingness to compromise, but even in his case—no matter later ruminations while under house arrest—the main point of disagreement, as it was everywhere within the elite, was about the best way to make the problem go away (p. 219).

What the CCP leaders had in common was an absolute ideological commitment to their right to rule. This clashed with the return of moral and ritual performance as the source for state legitimacy among the intellectuals, students, and workers. In this climate, high-handed justifications of state actions based on CCP ideology did not strengthen the Party but only antagonised the people (p. 224).

The PRC system also messed with the information flows in ways that aggravated the movement. On the side of the state elite, ‘[w]ith no adequate information and with a rigid mindset, many movement activities could only be understood as organized conspiracies’ (p. 223). When the state media liberated itself from censorship, its open reporting quelled rumours, thereby stabilising the situation (p. 313). But rumours returned as the main source of information when the Party cracked down and that escalated matters (p. 321).

One element that hallmarked the relatively leaderless movement was what Zhao calls ‘spontaneity’. With that he means that many people did many different things and that it depended on their resonance with the logic of the crowd to what extent they influenced the direction of the movement. Even though several people tried to lead the protests through a variety of organisations, their ability to steer it was limited and the tiger would no longer let them ride if they went against the mood. Because their form invoked traditional cultural values, the failure of the government to respond appropriately to the kneeling petition on 22 April and the start of hunger strikes on 13 May led to great moral outrage. It was this performance failure that empowered the 1989 Movement. One major factor in this process is what Zhao describes as ‘ecology’: the way people were living and what they saw led to certain outcomes.

The logic of ‘ecology’ applied especially to campus: the way dorms were set up with people grouped in rooms, the way students all had to cross the same places, and the way the campus walls kept them in their closed community greatly helped mobilisation (p. 240). There is also the matter of groups getting a mind of their own, one that needs to build courage before it dares to flout the rules by—for example—marching in circles across campus before growing numbers and heightened emotions allow the students to force their way through the barricaded gates.

Hunger strikes by young students, kneeling petitions, and (alleged and real) police beatings had powerful effects because of two reasons: the above-mentioned return to moral performance as a way to judge the legitimacy of the state, and the tendency of people to fall back to familiar, traditional behavioural codes when they are acting emotionally (p. 285). Moral issues resonated more than the high-profile calls for democracy (p. 289). The common people seeing vulnerable young students weak with hunger (real or fake) caused great anger at the unmoved state.

However, because the state elite and the protestors operated in such different moral logics, finding common ground was impossible after the state-society interactions had escalated the movement. Initially, the 1989 Movement was about certain grievances held by the intellectuals and students, but in the end it fundamentally challenged the ideological legitimation to which the Party leaders were absolutely committed. Ideological surrender ruled out, to maintain the coherence of their own legitimation their only solution was a brutal crackdown.

Lessons for Hong Kong in 2019

Hong Kong, too, is facing distorted state-society relations. Whereas the people expect a certain moral, democratic, economic, localist performance from their local government, it in its stead has been co-opted by Beijing into its ideological legitimation of Party-rule.

As I have written before, this creates alienation among a public that hears its elite put out statement after statement invoking justifications people does not subscribe to. Because of inadequate information provision by the police and SAR government, rumours swirl. Riot police brutally beating up and arresting young protestors and bystanders go against the moral code of the Hong Kong public, escalating the movement with every viral incident. When your judgement of the SAR government depends on its compliance with PRC ideology, a group of gangsters beating up protestors in Yuen Long is unfortunate but not really damaging to the government’s legitimacy, since that is based on something else. If you judge the government on its moral performance, the obvious police collusion is damning.

Hong Kong has its own unique ‘ecology’, which helps the movement develop as well. Lennon Walls in highly-trafficked places probably function somewhat like the big character posters at Peking University’s famous Triangle. Fruitful studies could be made of the way the road layout and the MTR system shape the marches. Ecology is also at work in protests that develop out of residents coming down to scold the police gathering below their flats in dense neighbourhoods. Besides a lack of democracy, Hong Kong has built up a large reservoir of economic grievance.

Zhao Dingxin’s account should make us worry about the future of Hong Kong. In the end, thanks to the PLA, the Party elite was secure enough materially to securely hold on to its ideological legitimation. With the PRC behind it, the Hong Kong SAR government also has no reason to waver in its ideological commitment. Those in positions of power who have risen to the top since 1997 have been thoroughly inducted in a system where their commitment to the PRC ideology was a requirement for their rise. At the same time, the ordinary people live in a different moral universe. Under the current mode of state legitimation in Hong Kong, real compromise is not possible. In the case of the 1989 Movement, honest state media reporting and concessions by Zhao Ziyang were enough to halt the progress of the movement. Radicals only managed to fire it up again by initiating the 13 May hunger strikes, helped by the Party creating moral outrage by not responding to them and a pushback in the elite and law enforcement to Zhao Ziyang’s conciliatory tone.

If a hunger strike-like action manages to create a similar moral outrage in Hong Kong, the movement could escalate to such a level that a brutal crackdown will replace the slow-motion crackdown that is currently underway. As Mainland China proves, you can afterwards restore government control and assuage society by delivering on most of the output demanded by performance legitimacy, but absent political reform the dormant volcano created by the chasm of legitimacy remains, waiting.

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