As events in China dominated headlines in the spring of 1989, many reporters suggested that the best way to understand them was through analogy. Unfortunately, however, they often picked the wrong ones, over-emphasizing parallels to events from the American past or the Eastern and Central European present. There were, of course, international influences worth noting, but observers should have paid more attention to China's own past. The young protesters in China certainly did, self-consciously linking their actions to those of previous generations of Chinese students. They held rallies right in front of a Tiananmen Square frieze celebrating the campus activists of 1919's hallowed May Fourth Movement, for example.
By looking for Western precedents, observers missed the degree to which the struggle, at least at first, was as much about disgust with official nepotism and corruption as it was about democracy. And by looking at Soviet bloc comparisons, they failed to appreciate that the protesters sought not to bring down the Communist Party, but rather to get it to live up to its own professed ideals.
On the mainland in 1989 — and today in Hong Kong — something specifically local was at stake. And that made China's own history the most important place to look for guidance. In both cases, the competing sides were engaged in a high-stakes symbolic battle over the redefinition of China's past and future, albeit the whole country's in 1989 and a specific city's now. When the students of 1989 gathered in front the frieze, they were suggesting, quite daringly, that they, and not Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and his allies, carried the mantle of the revolution. And when People's Daily denounced the protesters as creating chaos in a manner that brought to mind the Red Guard madness of the 1960s, the authorities were trying, in turn, to paint the student movement as a historical catastrophe in the making.
In Hong Kong today, the protesters have again presented their cause as continuing the work of 1919, while also linking it to the events of 1989 on the mainland. They have also evoked the waves of protests that shook Hong Kong in 2003 and 2012 in response to efforts by Beijing to make the metropolis less different from other Chinese cities. Meanwhile, Beijing has been raising the specter of the Red Guards once more.