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History is on the minds of the people of Hong Kong and the men who rule Beijing.GREG BAKER/AFP/Getty Images

In the fall of 1956, a popular uprising in Hungary overthrew the Communist regime and the country began moving toward democracy and away from the Warsaw Pact. Then, the Soviet Union sent in the tanks.

Twelve years later, in another Soviet satellite state, reformers similarly tried to end a totalitarian regime. It was the Prague Spring and it bloomed until summer. On Aug. 21, 1968, Moscow invaded Czechoslovakia.

Thirty years ago, protests gradually spread across China, centred on Tiananmen Square and the Goddess of Democracy. On June 4, the ruling Communist Party sent in the tanks. They mowed down people, bicycles and any hope of political change.

Which brings us to the protests in Hong Kong. History is uppermost in many minds, both among the people of the autonomous city and the hard men who rule Beijing. That’s because, while history may not precisely repeat itself, it sure does rhyme.

For Hong Kong’s protesters – last weekend, more than a million people took to the streets – it feels like three minutes to midnight and a last chance to push back before freedom is snuffed. Beijing has been slowly chipping away at the territory’s autonomy. A proposed extradition law, giving China the power to reach into Hong Kong and legally arrest the bothersome dissidents it has until now had to illegally abduct, led many Hong Kong people to conclude that their liberties have been sentenced to death row, execution date pending. It is not an unreasonable conclusion.

Hong Kong knows the fate of those aborted reform movements of the past. If people don’t make their voices heard now, they may never get another chance. If they don’t act, China will.

The protests are driven by the fear of a made-in-Beijing future.

But the hard men of Beijing are also fearful. They, too, have reason to be.

The Communist Party of China, circa 2019, is not the Soviet or Chinese Communist Party of the 1960s. Unlike those earlier communisms, which wanted to overthrow capitalism and separate themselves from the West, today’s China has made itself the centre of world trade and is deeply economically integrated with the rest of the world. Unlike the Soviet Union, whose puppets built an Iron Curtain, millions of Chinese travel abroad every year and return.

But China nevertheless remains a one-party dictatorship, with no rule of law, no free speech and a government whose authority derives not from the consent of the governed, but from the maintenance among them of a certain amount of fear. In the new China, you have the right to make as much money as you want and to take to social media to debate whether your favourite brand is Chanel or Christian Louboutin, Mercedes or BMW. But anyone who wants to discuss the unfriending of the Communist Party will quickly find himself in serious trouble.

In the fall of 1989, a few months after the suppression of the Tiananmen movement, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev did not order the use of force against protesters. The Berlin Wall fell, and then the regimes of Eastern Europe and ultimately the Soviet Union itself. An empire collapsed, overnight. For people from Estonia to Armenia and the Czech Republic to Ukraine, this was one of the greatest moments of the 20th century. That is not the view in Beijing.

That is why, post-1989, China got a massive dose of economic perestroika, but no political glasnost.

Beijing’s fear of the protests in Hong Kong, as expressed in newspaper editorials and official statements, is of what it calls a “colour revolution” – the Orange Revolution that overthrew a pro-Russian regime in Ukraine in 2004, the Rose Revolution in Georgia in 2003, and attempted democratic revolutions that swept across the Middle East and Central Asia. Beijing’s take on them is the opposite of how they are generally perceived in the West. They are disasters to be avoided.

Canada and its allies must stress to Beijing that if Hong Kong is crushed, it will set off a new Cold War. China should be patient and let things be in a city that, by international treaty, is supposed to enjoy autonomy and its traditional civil liberties.

But Beijing may not be able to restrain its fear of democratic protest. It has its history and sees events through 1989-coloured glasses. So do the people of Hong Kong.

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