It is nearly always the case that when a society, or even a section of society, take to the streets to oppose autocracy, the usual cheering from a distant, safe sideline is quickly tempered by prudent apprehension. There are too many examples of human aspiration crushed by brook-no-argument force.
The 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre is one but there are many, many examples. Official records say around 300 people were killed during those pro-democracy demonstrations, other estimates put that figure at around 3,000.
The figure may be disputed but the intent, the culture of suppression that drove the protestors from Beijing’s streets remains intact. Indeed, it may well have grown stronger since that atrocity. Because of that history, it is impossible to watch the protests in Hong Kong without concern.
That lesson must play on protestors’ minds, because China has shown that it is indifferent to any finger-wagging. Hong Kong’s 7.4m residents will be aware too of China’s policy, just like US president Donald Trump’s, of separating children from their families, faith, and language in its far western region of Xinjiang.
According to the BBC, hundreds of thousands of Muslim adults are interned and a rapid, large-scale campaign to build boarding schools is under way to help suppress any culture other than state orthodoxy. Those organising the Hong Kong protests walk a very fine line, wondering how far they can go without provoking a lethal crackdown. It is hard, and frightening, to imagine that the protestors’ demands will be satisfied before that critical point is reached.
The same balancing act played out in Venezuela when hundreds of thousands of people marched regularly to demand that Nicolás Maduro give up the presidency. The forces behind those protests are not beyond suspicion and this drama has yet to reach a closing act, peaceful or otherwise.
That more than 600 people were held over an unauthorised anti-Putin protest in Moscow this weekend suggests, even if it requires some energetic optimism, that the closing act in Putin’s autocracy has at least been imagined. Whether, or even if, that point can be reached without extended bloodshed is an open question.
Putin like, the Chinese administration, may tolerate some dissent as a kind of safety valve, as a moment of harmless optics to placate a watching but powerless world. That indulgence is unlikely, however, to mean that Putin and his Praetorian guard will go quietly into the night.
That list of conflict shows the struggle for dignity and modest freedoms in action. Cheeringly, another event this weekend, one unimaginable as students were massacred in Tiananmen Square, showed what happens when social struggle achieves its objectives. That Taoiseach Leo Varadkar took part in the annual Belfast Pride parade for the first time may seem entirely unremarkable — if you dismiss history.
In 1989, homosexuality was stigmatised in the the North and treated as a crime here. In 1989, a gay taoiseach was unimaginable and even the bravest taoiseach might not have marched through Belfast. This happy moment was not achieved without struggle, the reality inspiring those in Hong Kong and Moscow or anyone else yearning for change.