Publication Date

May 30, 2024

Perspectives Section

Perspectives Daily


  • Asia


Current Events in Historical Context

As 2024 began, we anticipated spending a lot of time thinking about youth demonstrations. We expected this year to bring debates over ways generations of students were similar and different when it came to politics. And we thought we would find ourselves talking to colleagues a lot about the meanings of arrests and uses of force.

Mongkok neighborhood on the Kowloon Peninsula, one of three Umbrella Movement occupy zone encampments in Hong Kong in 2014.

Mongkok neighborhood on the Kowloon Peninsula, one of three Umbrella Movement occupy zone encampments in Hong Kong in 2014. Jeffrey Wasserstrom

This was not because we are clairvoyant. It is because we are historians of East Asia, and 2024 marks significant anniversaries of three major East Asian youth movements: the 35th anniversary of the June 4, 1989, massacre that ended the Tiananmen Spring and the 10th anniversaries of Taiwan’s Sunflower Movement and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement.

None of those events is being replicated now on American and European campuses, yet we find ourselves seeing connections and drawing comparisons. Thinking about today’s protests outside of Asia with Asian examples in mind reminds us that repertoires of youth resistance do not stay within geographic borders. When searching for even imperfect historical analogies, going global can help bring into sharper focus stories about protests and patterns in how authorities respond to them.

The Chinese youth movement of 1989 began with protests on various college campuses in mid-April and ended in a massacre near Beijing’s Tiananmen Square on June 4. The struggle in China differed considerably from the current movement in countless ways. To cite just two, the protests focused on domestic issues, not foreign policy, and at its height large contingents of workers and members of other urban classes joined student-led actions. There are, however, instructive parallels. For example, while the term “encampment” was not yet in vogue, many protesters in Tiananmen Square slept out in tents (an “occupation,” in the language of Occupy Wall Street two decades later). Protesters’ tent-filled areas were celebrated as joyous and orderly in some accounts and vilified in others, as they are now. Some observers called for leaving the “patriotic protesters” alone, while others demanded the authorities restore order to “chaos” and end an anarchic situation allegedly created by outside agitators, and do so with force if necessary. By escalating the protest from marches, which have a natural end, to occupation, the students dared authorities to forcibly remove them—and as the tragic events of June 4 showed, the authorities met that challenge with martial law and military action.

By escalating the repertoire of protest from marches to occupation, the students dared authorities to forcibly remove them.

The 1989 protesters set up the encampment not on campuses but in a public space next to the seat of government. A striking parallel with the present, though, is that many Tiananmen activists attended universities famed for having been centers of activism in earlier decades. Many studied at schools that played hallowed roles in the May Fourth Movement of 1919, an event that China’s current rulers view as symbolizing noble protest. As at Columbia University in 2024, before putting up tents in Tiananmen Square some activists had read official school histories and seen promotional materials that extolled incoming classes to take pride in actions that, when they staged what they viewed as variations on them, were dismissed as senselessly disruptive. When those students presented themselves as emulating the historic heroes of May Fourth, their opponents parried by likening their actions to those of discredited historical actors, calling protesters as Red Guards, a negative analogy put forward by referring to them as creators of Cultural Revolution–style “turmoil.”

This year also marks the 10th anniversary of the Sunflower Movement, the biggest student-led protest in Taiwan since the 1990s. In its defining moment, young people took control of the island’s parliament, the Legislative Yuan. Again, an escalatory tactic transformed the protest from an on-campus activity to a more direct challenge to the government. Students were there to voice opposition to a proposed trade agreement with Beijing that they felt would set the country on a perilous course toward domination by China’s Communist Party, which has long claimed that the self-governing island is part of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Hundreds of thousands of Taiwanese subsequently joined the students for a mass rally outside the presidential office. Just as the Tiananmen protesters presented their struggle as a “New May Fourth Movement,” and some US activists now invoke the memory of 1968, the name “Sunflower Movement” paid homage to an earlier struggle in Taiwan with a floral name: the Wild Lily Movement of 1990, a struggle (influenced in part by the Tiananmen protests) that brought real democracy to the island.

The Sunflower Movement ended victoriously in April when the trade bill was withdrawn. That same year, in September, Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement began. Until an even bigger Hong Kong protest wave five years later, this was the largest sustained urban social movement staged in any part of the PRC since Tiananmen. The Umbrella Movement, named for the way youths blocked pepper spray and tear gas with umbrellas, included the creation of three encampments, each largely populated by young people. A catalyst in expanding the scope of the movement was police treatment of the protesters—actions some defended as a valid effort to end troubling disruptions of important activities, but others saw as a disproportionate response to idealistic youths. With roots in a prodemocracy civic action known as “Occupy Central with Peace and Love,” itself inspired by Occupy Wall Street, the youth activists who set the tone for Hong Kong’s movement took more inspiration from the recent Sunflower struggle across the Taiwan Strait than from what had happened in New York City.

As in Taiwan, government buildings joined streets and squares as targets, a trend that resurfaced and took on special meaning five years later in July 2019 in a brief but dramatic occupation of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council. At the same time, Hong Kong students perfected the art of mobile protest, eluding police suppression as they darted around the city, inspired by the motto from a Bruce Lee video, “be water, my friend.”

None of these three examples provide a perfect analogy for today’s protests on US campuses (no historical event does). Nor do they tell us what will happen next. Each ended differently, and each could have developed differently had key actors made different choices at critical moments.

Repertoires and slogans flow across all borders.

Still, looking to past events in China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong can help us put current events into perspective. Tiananmen reminds us that US universities are not unique as places with celebrated histories of protest, which can be one factor in spurring a new generation of students to action. The Sunflower Movement’s role in influencing Hong Kong events (that were also shaped by Occupy Wall Street) reminds us that repertoires and slogans flow across all borders, but they often have special appeal in nearby or connected places. The Umbrella Movement, which did not see police kill protesters, reminds us that while martyrdom has a special power, sometimes anger at police using what seems undue yet not deadly force is enough to ramp up the number of people joining a struggle.

Transnational flows in the repertoires of dissent and repression have always mattered, and they are more important than ever in the era of Gen Z, digital natives for whom the Berlin Wall has always been rubble and the World Wide Web has never been new. It is unfortunate then that, with a few notable exceptions (such as a commentary by Jan-Werner Müller), the forays into comparison dealing with current protests have moved only across time, not space. In the social media age, when students share songs and symbols faster and further than ever before, it behooves us to move across borders more nimbly.

A final lesson that emerges from East Asian examples is the perpetual underestimation of young people. Just a year ago, many would have doubted that Gen Z students in the United States could sustain an activist movement over a foreign policy issue. On the Chinese mainland before 1989, as well as in Taiwan and Hong Kong early in the 21st century, the conventional wisdom held that the current generation of youth were too self-involved and concerned with material things to care about politics. The Tiananmen, Sunflower, and Umbrella Movements proved those assumptions wrong. Young people’s political involvement is underestimated again and again, from the short-lived “White Paper Protests” in China in 2022 to the US students in encampments today.

Therefore, we feel bold enough to venture one prediction. In decades to come, some people who took part in protests during their own youth will claim that a new generation of students are unlikely to follow in their footsteps—and yet again be proved wrong.

John Delury is Tsao Fellow at the American Academy in Rome and professor of China studies at Yonsei University in Seoul, Korea. Jeffrey Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at the University of California, Irvine.

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