Written by Stephen Morgan.

Speculation is rife about how the Chinese Party-State will handle the Hong Kong protests against the 31 August decision to restrict selection of the candidates for the 2017 election of the Hong Kong SAR Chief Executive. Tens of thousands have filled the streets. The Admiralty area has been shutdown since the weekend, spreading to many other parts of Hong Kong too. This is the largest outpouring of political passion in Hong Kong since the demonstrations following Beijing’s crackdown on the democracy movement in 1989. All too easily, comparisons with Tiananmen come to mind. Many observers – including those who witnessed 1989 – have muttered in Tweets and other media that no good will come of the current protests; that Beijing won’t budge. To think otherwise is naïve. And, this will all end very badly, much as the soothsayers hope in their hearts it won’t come to the bloodshed as we saw in 1989 when tanks rolled into Tiananmen square.

Second-guessing the Party-state, let alone predicting the future, is a mug’s game. But exploring some scenarios may add perspective to thinking through the complexities of what we are witnessing. It is shaping up as a once-in-a-generation test for China and for its strongest leader in recent times, President Xi Jinping.

First, 2014 is not 1989, and Hong Kong is not Beijing. China and Hong Kong have moved on. In 1989 Hong Kong’s economy was about 25% the size of China’s and it accounted for about 85% of China’s foreign direct investment; it was 15% or so the size of China in 1997 when Britain handed back its colony to China, but now is barely more than 3%. So Hong Kong’s importance to China these days is overhyped, at least in pure dollar and renminbi terms. In many ways it has become a troublesome periphery. It is certainly a long way from the centre of political power, from China’s capital Beijing that the students, urban youth and young workers of 1989 had occupied.

Second, often not mentioned in the focus on what China will do is the Taiwan factor. This is the unknown element in Beijing’s decision-making calculus. While the students were gathering in 10s of thousands in Hong Kong the Chinese Xinhua News Agency carried a speech by Xi Jinping lauding the virtues of the “one country, two systems” model for a rapprochement that would “return” Taiwan to China. The timing seemed odd. Hong Kong’s model of governance within Beijing’s embrace that is captured in the “one country, two systems” has very limited appeal in Taiwan. A violent crackdown on Hong Kong would undoubtedly sink any hopes Beijing had for unification under such a formula for at least a generation. I very much doubt that Xi Jinping would like to go down in history as the Party leader who “lost Taiwan”. Though that may well have already happened. Thousands of Taiwanese have rallied in increasingly large gatherings the past few days to express their solidarity with the people of Hong Kong. And Taiwan’s President Ma, hardly an ardent democrat said, “we are watching Hong Kong”.

Third, we should not underestimate the Party-state’s capacity for patience in circumstances such as these where they face tens of thousands of people on the streets. Chinese statecraft has often had a cunningness in seemingly not acting, which is expressed in the classic aphorism 无为而治(governance through inaction) that has echoes of the Daoist strategem 无为而无不为 (do nothing and everything is done). Hong Kong Chief Executive C.Y. Leung’s decision on Monday to stand the police down seems to be in this vein. De-escalate the tension, let the crows exhaust themselves and in their persistence in occupying the streets turn other citizens against them is seemingly motivating Leung’s actions. This obviously becomes a waiting game. The question is, who can circle who for longest? But patience is not unlimited, and the authoritarian Party-state can act swiftly when seized with fear. In 1989 Deng Xiaoping’s patience lasted more than a month. Partly that was from the division and uncertainty within senior ranks as to what to do. But that was broken on June 1 when workers from Shou Gang (Capital Steel) and numbers of unemployed announced they were coming out in support of the students in Tiananmen. Suddenly the Party, leader of the proletariat, was facing a revolt of the proletariat. Deng Xiaoping and his Premier Li Peng acted decisively.

Reflecting on the comparison between 1989 and 2014, I cannot help thinking the differences are so great in time, space and political context that Beijing will not respond to the Hong Kong movement in the way it ultimately did at Tiananmen. I could be sadly wrong, but China, for all the hubris and breast-beating of Party leaders, has a lot to lose in resolving the current crisis with force. It will undermine Xi’s dream of a rejuvenated China walking tall and proud in the world much more than some sort of compromise is likely to, however hard the form of that compromise is to imagine as I write at dusk on October 1, China’s National Day.

Stephen L Morgan is Dean of Social Sciences at the University of Nottingham Ningbo China and Professor of Chinese Economic History at the University of Nottingham.