I watched and read the reactions of press and public to the student protests against tuition fees in London in December last year with great interest. It seemed astonishing to me that, after just one day of students protests, there was talk of the police being powerless to tackle the demonstrators, and discussion of more aggressive control measures such as the water cannon being used to control future protestors. And the more I thought about it, the more I was struck by the parallels and contrasts to another student protest.
It took six weeks of constant student demonstrations in Tiananmen square that brought the entire centre of Beijing to a standstill in 1989 before the Chinese government escalated to the use of force – and that was after avenues such as a live television discussion between the Premier Li Peng and the leader of the students had been exhausted (the student leader stated that he was unable to negotiate on behalf of other students, and that as long as one student wanted to remain in the square, they would all remain).
The massacre around Tiananmen square was a horrific event, and reflected horrendously on many of the Chinese leaders of the time (not on all, for there were of course many in the Chinese leadership who argued vociferously against the use of force). It is also probably the single historical fact that all western people know about China: to us in the west, “Tiananmen Square” is a byword for the despotic extremes of a dictatorship.
But on the basis of this escalation in acceptable crowd control tactics from “kettling” to water cannons after just one day of protests, can we really be so sure that the British government, police and even citizens would not be calling for the military to regain control of the capital after six weeks of incessant protests? I hope they would not, but the reaction that I saw from the press and the public makes me unsure.
And while ruminating on the methods used to control protesting students, it is worth remembering another historic moment: the violent suppression of Chinese student protestors on the 30th of May 1925 by the British police in the international settlement in Shanghai. That is an event of far more powerful cultural significance to the Chinese than what happened in 1989 – it set off a train of events that led eventually to the Communist party coming to power.
Of course, much information about the Tiananmen massacre is tightly controlled in the Chinese media, but even without such controls, how many British people know of the killings committed by our own police in China?