It’s not enough to criticise China – we need to offer a compelling alternative

"We have to jump on anything that might bring instability … And we can't care what foreigners say." – Deng Xiaoping, June 6, 1989

Thirty years ago this month, the world watched as the People's Republic of China staged a bloody reassertion of its power over the bodies of its own citizens. For them and others around the world, 1989 was a year of great hope, when the shackles of communist dictatorship that had bound the peoples of eastern Europe started to disintegrate and the promise represented by the light of a candle in the White House began to be realised.

As hundreds of thousands of people marched in the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday to protest against changes to extradition laws, officials in Beijing were once again throwing around accusations about foreign agents and warning of a descent into "chaos".

After Tiananmen, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the ensuing economic crisis in Russia became a cautionary tale in the hands of Chinese authorities; these days the miseries of Syria and Libya, Yemen and Sudan are used to justify massive oppression of minorities in Xinjiang and to reject foreign input on territorial disputes and such allegedly foreign ideas as freedom of the press, human rights and democracy.

If there seems to be less hope now, perhaps that is because citizens of democracies around the world view the idea of an international community that stands effectively for universal ideals with cynicism. It is harder to claim that extradition to a judicial system administered by the Chinese Communist Party is wrong when the Australian government has also contemplated such a move; it is hard to look at the years of carnage across the Middle East and North Africa and tell ourselves that the Chinese Defence Minister's recent bullish defence of the Tiananmen crackdown as a victory for "stability" is misguided.

"When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength."

The person who uttered these words in 1990 is now the President of the United States. Donald Trump's emergence is just one manifestation of a global trend that puts “strength” and sovereignty above questions of human rights and global co-operation. It is not enough for us to repudiate such sentiments – the challenge is to set out a compelling alternative.

For Hong Kong, the crisis is here and now. But the question of our own confidence in democracy and the quest for liberty will play out for years to come.  Those who insist that this is a matter of different cultures and civilisations must reckon with Beijing's anxious censorship of everything from a song from Les Miserables to the memory of Tiananmen itself. But it is also crucial to reconnect such symbols as Ronald Reagan's candle and Tiananmen's Goddess of Democracy to the substance of changes sought by voices from within China such as Liu Xiaobo, Ilham Tohti, Pu Zhiqiang, Chan Kin-man and Joshua Wong.

Despite the recent controversies over relations with the telco Huawei, such engagement with the thinking of dissidents should not mean we simply disengage from the Chinese state. Rather we ought to recall the Helsinki accords of the 1970s and ask how we might again bring the nations of the world into an agreed framework of principles. It may not happen immediately – and certainly not soon enough for Hong Kong – but we can discover other types of strength.

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