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Hong Kong Protests - China's New Tiananmen Moment

01/10/2014 14:42 BST | Updated 01/12/2014 10:59 GMT

Karl Marx once famously said: 'History repeats itself, the first time as tragedy, the second time as farce.' I wonder if China's second Tiananmen moment would be a tragedy, too. Because I do believe that what's happening in Hong Kong at the moment bears all the hallmarks of a Greek tragedy. Except that the heroes who will die will not be in Hong Kong but on the mainland. Because this where the real battle will be fought.

The Hong Kong protesters have performed the ultimate sacrilege - they spoiled China's National Day, the birth of the People's Republic on October 1st 1949, by showing defiance to the leadership in Beijing.

The decision about how to deal with the Hong Kong protestors will be the hardest for the communist leadership since 1989. It will be a test for its commitment to reform. If it chooses to be soft, it may encourage similar protests on the mainland. If it uses violent force, it may precipitate unforeseen cataclysmic events. Whatever it is, it will have a profound effect on the political scene in China itself. That's why the Beijing government is scared.

Reports and pictures of the Hong Kong protests are banned in China. A total blackout similar to that imposed on information from the West in Stalinist Russia has been in force.

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Photo AP

Amnesty International has reported that in China at least twenty people have been detained by police for posting pictures online with messages of support for the protesters, shaving their heads in solidarity, or for planning to travel to Hong Kong to take part in the protests. A further sixty individuals have been called in for questioning by the authorities, known in China ironically as being 'invited for tea'. What Amnesty called the unnecessary use of tear gas and pepper spray by police at the weekend against a peaceful protest only brought more people onto the streets. Amnesty is also calling on the UK government to suspend the export of tear gas to Hong Kong.

A former leader of the Tiananmen student protest twenty-five years ago, Wang Dan, who's now in Taiwan, has said that the Hong Kong protests inspire a new generation on the mainland. This new generation, which does not remember the Tiananmen massacre, known in China euphemistically as 'the June 4th incident' is hungry for democracy.

China wants to have its cake and eat it. On the one hand, it liberalised the economy and encouraged free enterprise. That created a large middle class, which enjoys a standard of living unknown in China before. On the other, it wants to preserve the dominant role of the Communist Party and is prepared to use its vast state security apparatus to stifle political descent.

People like me believe that economic freedom always leads to demands for political freedom. No matter how long China's leadership manages to delay it, a break up of the political system is inevitable.

The Chinese Communist leadership conducted in-depth studies of the collapse of the Soviet Union so that it can manage the transition to market economy without the cataclysmic events, which led to the break up of the Russian communist empire. It hoards money and tries to look at least 20 years into the future with its plans for economic development. But there's no plan for social and political transition and granting its citizens essential freedoms like freedom of expression and freedom of association.

There's another problem, too. China is the last colonial empire, which holds countless nationalities and ethnic groups, ruled by the centre and kept obedient by the biggest army in the world. As economic prosperity spreads to the far-flung parts of the empire, demands for self-determination will become louder and louder.

China may try to stem the flow of information from Hong Kong to the mainland but the seeds of discontent have already been planted.