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Beijing, Moscow, and Shades of the ‘80s

The present-day protests are a nightmare scenario for the authoritarian regimes.
August 9, 2019
Beijing, Moscow, and Shades of the ‘80s
Protesters hold up umbrellas and American flags in the face of advancing riot police in the district of Yuen Long on July 27, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. (Photo by Laurel Chor/Getty Images)

In the early 1980s, there was, of course, no internet, no e-mail, no cell phones (much less smartphones), and not even many fax machines. Rebellions against dictatorship depended on age-old mechanisms to communicate the word of the opposition: leaflets, word of mouth, and secret meetings in cellars.

By January 1983 the anti-communist Polish Solidarity movement was slightly more than two years old. As with any communist-style dictatorship that demands total control over the press—the act of printing or passing out anti-government leaflets was illegal. But the movement was impossible to contain. A bundle of leaflets thrown through the open window of any street-level apartment in Warsaw would result in the occupant of that residence, whoever it might be, distributing a copy to every apartment in the same building.

At this point, explained one of my graduate school professors, “everyone is complicit in and is part of the revolution—and you cannot put everyone in jail.” Six years later, in 1989, Poland’s communist government collapsed along with the Berlin Wall. The following year, Lech Walesa, a simple electrician who began this popular revolt at the Gdansk shipyards was elected the first president of post-communist Poland. A year after his election, the Soviet Union imploded and the Cold War was over.

It’s no surprise that in the same year that Poland’s Soviet puppet regime collapsed, China used its military to massacre untold thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators at Tiananmen Square in central Beijing. Why let a small revolt that begins in an obscure location or over some small matter boil over and topple a regime?

Of course, that is the nightmare scenario for the current regimes in Beijing and Moscow, almost 30 years later, as protests have roiled both countries recently. The protestors have plenty of support at this point. On August 7, thousands of Hong Kong’s legal professionals marched on the Department of Justice to accuse the police and the city’s government of arresting protestors on politically motivated charges that have no legal basis. Hong Kong citizens have been placing adhesive Post-It notes on the exit maps in the city’s MTR subway stations to warn them which exits are under assault by the police. Others have been purchasing single-trip MTR fare tickets and leaving them on the ticket machines for protestors to use so that they cannot be tracked if they use their magnetic “Octopus cards.”

Once again it begins to look like “everyone is involved in the revolution.”

Thirty years after the Tiananmen uprising—an event that the government in Beijing refuses to acknowledge ever happened and has spared no effort to wipe from the nation’s collective memory—the Chinese Communist Party once again sees the legitimacy of its rule threatened, this time in Hong Kong.

A popular revolt against the city’s government of local Hong Kong quislings hand-picked by the Communist leadership in Beijing has brought the city to a standstill. Months of protests have led to violent confrontations with the Hong Kong police, and the representative office of the Beijing government was occupied and ransacked, albeit briefly. A general strike on August 5 caused the cancellation of hundreds of flights from Hong Kong’s glittering showcase Chek Lap Kok airport.

Given that China is already in the middle of a trade war with Washington and feeling increasing criticism over its encroachment on disputed territory in the South China Sea, the upheaval in Hong Kong comes at a difficult time for Xi Jinping. The Hong Kong and Macao Liaison Office in Beijing that handles affairs for the former British and Portuguese colonies had largely been silent. But on the same day as the lawyer’s march in Hong Kong, the office director, Zhang Xiaoming, addressed a select audience of Hong Kong’s establishment in the bordering mainland city and special economic zone of Shenzhen.

“Hong Kong’s crisis … has continued for 60 days, and is getting worse and worse,” he said. “Violent activities are intensifying and the impact on society is spreading wider. It can be said that Hong Kong is now facing the most severe situation since its [1997] handover.” 

However, the official statement issued by a spokesman from Zhang’s office the day before was far less restrained in its rhetoric. The protestors “are extremely rampant and deranged,” said the spokesman, and a “blow from the sword of law is waiting for them in the future.” Zhang also was quoted as saying that the movement in Hong Kong is assuming the character of the color revolutions in Eastern Europe of almost 15 years ago and echoing the accusations of others in Beijing who claim that the usual “evil” suspects that are trotted out by Soviet-style regimes – the CIA, Wall Street, etc. – are behind the movement.

When the former British colony was handed over to Beijing in 1997, China’s leadership pledged not to disturb Hong Kong’s special status, legal system, freedom of expression and other traditions for a period of 50 years. The arrangement, called “one country, two systems” was supposed to be the mechanism to bridge the rather considerable gulf between this island nation steeped in British colonial tradition and the “harmonious society” ruled by a dictatorship in Beijing. The agreement was designed to safeguard the city from precisely the kind of authoritarian threats that the Liaison office issued Tuesday.

Unfortunately, even impartial observers now conclude that Beijing has failed to live up to its end of the agreement. Hong Kongers have seen their legal rights and that special status slowly eroding. The latest of these encroachments was an extradition bill that would have required the former British colony to hand over any criminal suspect to mainland Chinese authorities and leave those persons at the mercy of Beijing’s system of summary justice.

The bill and the fear that it would legitimize the intimidation and kidnapping of citizens is what sparked the current protests. And indeed, in 2018, five local booksellers were taken across the border against their will by mainland Chinese secret police agents for the “crime” of selling books that are banned in the PRC: books that are overly critical of Xi’s Communist regime—but that are completely legal in Hong Kong

Beijing’s options at this point remain limited. A long-time PRC analyst based in Beijing told me that “when it was first handed back to the mainland, Hong Kong alone represented about 20 percent of PRC’s total GDP. Today after many years of China’s runaway economic growth it is only about 3 percent. So, if Beijing goes for the Tiananmen Square option again and sends in the military to put down these protests, it demolishes what is now a small portion of the economy as a whole.”

However, the same analyst pointed out that the numbers are not the issue with Hong Kong. What has made the city an indispensable asset is the number of international banking and financial institutions that made their home there decades ago. Even though it is now a territory of the PRC, “Hong Kong still retains the one colonial-era feature that dictatorships consistently fail to recognise the importance of: the rule of law.”

“If Hong Kong loses this unique legal position then it becomes just another Chinese city,” he said. “The big-name multinationals are not then going to pull up stakes and move to Shanghai. They will relocate to Singapore or Tokyo. China’s big chip in the game will be gone for forever, which is in and of itself a huge blow, to say nothing of those in the elites on the mainland who benefit from Hong Kong being the way it is now.”

Those elites have a lot to lose if that happens, said other specialists on Hong Kong. They will add their names to the growing list of those who resent Xi’s metastisizing dictatorship.

But listing all of the reasons why Beijing would never intervene in Hong Kong does not mean it will never happen. Communist governments are notorious for acting in the interests of their own inner circle ruling class and its survival first and without much regard for the negative impact on their nation as a whole.

What is troubling is when asked if the situation with the PRC’s military, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), is a reluctance to intervene in Hong Kong, or if there are units who would be happy to invade the city to suppress the uprising with deadly force but are kept on a leash for now, a NATO intelligence officer specializing in the PLA stated “it is the latter.”

“What’s more,” said the same intelligence specialist, “the PLA would be likely to use non-Cantonese speaking units whose personnel are not from southern China’s Guangdong province. To make sure they would have little to no sympathy with those protesting.”

Fear of a potential blood-soaked crackdown is even more palpable in Moscow, where at least 2,000 people have been arrested over several weekends of protests against Vladimir Putin’s regime. Another major march against Putin’s regime is scheduled for this coming weekend. 

Opposition leader Alexei Navalny, appears to have been poisoned—one of Putin’s favourite methods for eliminating his enemies. Only this time the act took place while Navalny was in police custody, leaving little doubt as to who was responsible and making official denials that he was purposely harmed while being incarcerated almost comical.

What is not comical is the fact that the organization that would be ultimately charged with suppressing any widescale protest in Russia is headed by an individual with no compunctions about committing murder on a mass scale.

The RosGvardia, or Russian National Guard, was created in April 2016 by taking the large formations of military units that have always belonged to the Ministry of Internal Affairs and placing them under the direct command of the Russian president. “It’s a modern-day Waffen SS,” said several Russian colleagues at the time, referring to the military formations that were responsible for safeguarding the person and property of Nazi Germany’s Adolf Hitler.

The commander of the force is a long-time Putin associate, Viktor Zolotov, who served as his bodyguard for years. In the biography of a senior KGB intelligence officer who later defected to the U.S., Sergei Tretyakov, he recounts a visit that Zolotov made to New York in 2000 during Putin’s first term as president. As the KGB head of station in New York, Tretyakov was required to meet with him.

In Tretyakov’s account, he witnessed Zolotov and another officer from Putin’s retinue of bodyguards discussing the list of influential persons and officials in Moscow who would need to be assassinated—some of them holdovers from the predecessor Boris Yeltsin’s presidency—in order to eliminate any remaining checks on Putin’s absolute power.

The list was apparently very long, to the point where Zolotov stated “there are too many. It’s too many to kil—even for us.”

Whatever remaining inhibitions Zolotov has about eliminating those in positions of power, he is reported as being far less hesitant about using deadly force on the ordinary public. “Not only does Zolotov have the authority as the RosGvardia commander to order his troops to shoot into a crowd of protestors, he would actually be happy to do so,” said one Moscow political analyst.

Which in the end perhaps makes the issue one of who in Beijing and Moscow would have to decide whether or not “there’s too many to kill—even for us” and what their cost-benefits criteria would be for taking that decision. Which makes it doubly critical that the present U.S. administration make it clear to both of those governments that they will pay a price too high to contemplate and suffer a backlash that could threaten their survival if they pursue that option.

Anything less leaves too much room for Xi and Putin to believe that they can—once again—get away with murder.

Reuben Johnson

Reuben F. Johnson is a defense technology analyst and correspondent for Breaking Defense and was based in Kyiv for two decades prior to the Russian invasion. He is currently based in Warsaw.