Do You Hear the People Sing, Mr. Friedman?
Updated: Feb 17
As a Beijing resident who witnessed the Tiananmen Square Protests from start to finish, I tend to describe the movement in more detail than a headline would do. In 1989, college students in Beijing took to the streets demanding more freedom. They occupied Tiananmen Square and started a hunger strike. The government responded by imposing martial law. Citizens swarmed to the outskirts of the city to block the army’s approach. On the night of June 3rd, the army began marching toward Tiananmen Square, killing anyone who tried to stand in their way. When they finally arrived, they reached an agreement with the students and let them retreat peacefully.
The Chinese government dared to claim that the Tiananmen Square Massacre never happened because most of the killing happened en route to the Square. That's the risk of reducing a complicated historical event to a headline. Once the headline is proved not entirely correct, the whole account would be discredited. Thankfully the world wasn’t fooled that time, but they’ve played that same trick again and again and sometimes they get lucky.
That’s my impression of Thomas L. Friedman’s opinion piece, "Hong Kong’s Protests Could Be Another Social Media Revolution That Ends in Failure," published in September 17th’s New York Times. In the first half of the article, Mr. Friedman argues that the Hong Kong protests are doomed to fail because social networking has deprived the movement of centralized leadership capable of cutting a deal. In the latter half, he illustrates how Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp failed to make a deal with Beijing in the past.
I’d like to analyze the second half first. The example Mr. Friedman presents is the rejection of an electoral reform plan proposed by Beijing on Aug. 31, 2014. The proposed compromise would have created a 1,200-member electoral committee with the power to choose candidates before Hong Kongers would be able to vote. Hong Kong’s pro-democracy citizens called the plan “pseudo-universal suffrage.” They wanted a “one person, one vote” system which they termed “genuine universal suffrage.” The plan sparked a two-month occupation of central Hong Kong, which is known as the “Umbrella Movement.” The plan was finally defeated at the legislative level on June 17, 2015. Mr. Friedman argued, “Imagine that the Aug. 31, 2014, compromise had been accepted. Mainland Chinese would be watching Hong Kongers vote directly for their leaders...”
Mr. Friedman is correct that the pro-democracy lawmakers rejected the bill, but what really happened is far more complicated than a headline could tell us. There are 70 lawmakers in Hong Kong’s legislative body, and the bill needed a 2/3 vote to pass. On June 17, with less than a minute remaining to cast votes, most pro-Beijing members suddenly walked out. Only 37 of 70 members remained. The bill was easily defeated with 8 votes for and 28 against. It could be claimed that the bill was doomed to be defeated with or without the pro-Beijing camp, but why did they leave? My guess is they weren’t sure about the bill’s fate and wanted to secure its failure.
Michael Forsythe and Alan Wong of the New York Timeswrote an article on the session entitled, “Hong Kong Legislature Rejects Beijing-Backed Election Plan.” They refer to the mass exit as a “last-minute parliamentary blunder by allies of the Chinese leadership.” If you only read the headline, you would be quick to assume that it was the pro-democracy camp that rejected the compromise. That’s not entirely untrue, but there’s more at work. The truth is that Beijing didn’t want the bill to pass any more than it wants it to fail, and they have such an impressive creativity to make sure it fails. That way, they could claim that the pro-democracy lawmakers rejected the only hope for Hong Kongers to vote directly for their leaders, just as what Mr. Friedman disapprove of.
Let’s look at the first half of Mr. Friedman’s article, where he argues that Hong Kong’s protests are doomed to fail because there isn’t centralized leadership, and he attributes that absence of leadership to widespread reliance on social media. “Facebook and Twitter make it much easier to get lots of people into the streets fast. But when everyone has a digital megaphone, it is much harder for any leader to aggregate enough authority not just to build a coherent set of demands but, more important, to make compromises on them…Because there is no leadership, there is no ability to cut a deal, and anyone who tries to compromise will get torched online.”
The void of centralized leadership is more or less how I felt about the Tiananmen Square Protests. On May 27, 1989, an organization called the Capital Joint Conference advised students to retreat from the square and pursue alternate methods. They issued a proposition called the “Ten Declarations.” Declaration Eight suggested that students end their occupation of Tiananmen on May 30th with a massive parade but reserve the right to return on June 20th when the next People’s Congress session began. The document was read aloud by a student leader at an evening press conference, but another leader quickly condemned the declarations and was cheered on by masses of students. When the “Ten Declarations” were formally printed and distributed, Declaration Eight had been rewritten in a much more confrontational manner: “If the People’s Congress does not hold an emergency meeting within a matter of days to discuss the issues at hand, the student occupation will continue until at least June 20.” If I could borrow Mr. Friedman’s wording, I would say that the Tiananmen Square Protests were “crowdsourced but also crowd-enforced,” and “anyone who trie[d] to compromise… g[o]t torched.” The only difference is that there wasn’t an internet back in 1989, so they didn’t “get torched online.”
As the Tiananmen Protests progressed, we often compared the movement to Solidarity, a Polish labor union. Solidarity carried out a successful strike, reached an agreement with the government which guaranteed all workers the ability to return to work. It was their leadership that gave them the qualifications to negotiate with the ruling party, and sadly, this kind of leadership was absent from Tiananmen Square.
I agree that the type of leadership employed by Solidarity is a necessity when negotiating in a single-party state, but I don’t think in a democratic entity people can’t win without it. In a single-party state, building up a leadership amounts to the effort of building up an opposition party from scratch, but in a society where there are already multiple parties in place, all the thing people need to do is to let their representatives in legislature hear their voice. Look at the recent strikes in New York City to protest climate change. That’s how a democratic society works. People shout loudly so that their representatives could hear. Hong Kong is still a semi-democratic entity. While the majority of its members are pro-Beijing, there are multiple political parties in its legislature. Don’t underestimate the strength of a semi-democratic system.
Hong Kong protests started days after the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Massacre. There is a Chinese saying: “to ask a tiger for its hide.” To protest against the Communist Party is like asking a tiger for its hide. The most likely result is being bitten, which was exactly happened in Beijing thirty years ago. As Hong Kong protests unfolded, I’ve seen a familiar progression of events: The people protest, the government ignores them, the protestors attract wider support, the government condemns the protests, then the protestors grow desperate, giving the government excuse to forcibly suppress them. Everything indicates a growing propensity toward more extreme tactics on both sides, just like at Tiananmen. But suddenly, the proposed bill was withdrawn. It blew my mind.
How did Hong Kongers’ achieve victory? This is my educated guess: The proposed bill was supposed to be discussed and voted on in late June. Through Beijing’s meticulous work, pro-Beijing lawmakers outnumbered pan-democratic ones in the Legislative Council. Under normal circumstances, passing a bill is just a formality. The pro-Beijing lawmakers could choose completely ignoring the people, but they couldn’t ignore bloodshed. They had been elected by Hong Kongers, after all. They chose to side with Beijing based on shared business interests, not a shared interest in butchering locals. In my imagination, Carrie Lam must have spoken to legislators one by one, asking each to promise to approve the bill once the demonstration had been suppressed by force, but the number of lawmakers who assured her wasn’t enough to pass. After careful consideration, she (or Beijing) must have decided that losing the legislative battle wasn’t worth the bloodshed.
That’s why I believe that even in a semi-democratic state, a mass movement without clearly defined leadership can still win. The goal of street protests is to get lawmakers to hear the people’s voice, and people can sing with or without a conductor.
Back in 1989, when I walked past Tiananmen Square, I often heard the students singing “The Internationale” together. I was working for a Japanese company at the time, and my boss theorized that the protests stemmed from a longing for democracy and a fear of the market economy. I dismissed his theory, but after hearing “The Internationale” enough times at the Square, I became wary. After all, the song was born in the back-alley uprisings of the Paris Commune, which Karl Marx regarded as an example of a “dictatorship of the proletariat.” As one of very few Chinese people working for a foreign enterprise, I envisioned a society made up of middle-class people and wanted to be one of them. Even though I empathized with the students, hearing them sing, “The Internationale” made me wonder if their ideal world looked the same as mine. For most of the student movement’s existence, I looked on with mixed feelings which seared my conscience.
In this year’s Hong Kong protests, I often hear “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from Les Misérables in videos posted online. The song is powerful and straightforward. It is a demand for people’s voices to be heard. That’s all. I think the Hong Kongers’ choice of this song as their battle cry suggests that they are more focused. Who knows? Maybe the beating of Hong Kongers’ hearts will someday echo across the vastness of the mainland China, just like Mr. Friedman hoped, “The world is flat.”