NEW YORK - Former student leaders and activists involved in the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests in Beijing say the biggest danger to pro-democracy demonstrators currently confronting the Chinese authorities in Hong Kong is if they lose support from people in the territory and become marginalised.
They say that is a much bigger risk than any possibility of a violent crackdown by Hong Kong police or Chinese soldiers stationed in the territory.
In particular, if people can't go about their daily business and the economy starts to suffer badly then public support could quickly drop, leaving the students and others in the protests isolated, warned several of the former protest organizers now living in the US.
"If it lasts too long, that will affect the lives of normal people and the movement will meet resistance from a good segment of the population," said Yang JianLi, who was a student activist attending the Tiananmen protests and is now president of the pro-democracy group Initiatives for China in Washington, D.C.
The Chinese government crushed the Tiananmen protests by sending tanks and soldiers into the square in the centre of Beijing 25 years ago. Human rights groups estimated that at least hundreds of people died as a result of the assault. The Chinese authorities have never released an official casualty count.
In Hong Kong, protesters have occupied large parts of the Asian financial hub since Friday as they seek to overturn Beijing's decision to vet candidates wishing to run for Hong Kong's leadership in an election in 2017, and demand the territory's current Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying step down.
Riot police used tear gas and pepper spray to quash protests over the weekend. However, Hong Kong authorities have since pulled back and no longer plan to take immediate action, a source close to Leung said on Wednesday.
Without an expansive location like Tiananmen Square in which to organise, the demonstrators in Hong Kong have often blocked city streets, a tactic that Chai Ling, who headed the protesters' headquarters at Tiananmen Square, warned against.
"People who want to go to work, must be able to go to work,"said Chai in a phone interview from Boston where she runs All Girls Considered, a group seeking to end China's one-child policy.
Students in Tiananmen Square actually helped facilitate traffic on Chang'an Avenue, one of the main arteries leading into the area of the square.
Shen Tong, who co-chaired a delegation of students at Tiananmen Square that spoke with the Chinese government about protesters' demands, said they ran an organised mini-city at Tiananmen for months and "everyone was on their best behaviour."
Shen said he is hopeful Hong Kong protesters, who have been cleaning up trash at their demonstration sites and maintained a non-violent approach, can capitalise on such behaviour.
However, the surge of Hong Kong people who joined the movement to show solidarity after riot police used tear gas on protesters will likely ebb as the authorities have backed off, said Shen, who now lives in New York and runs VFinitiy, a software company.
Zhang Boli, who organised student hunger strikes at Tiananmen and who now runs a Christian church in eastern Los Angeles, said that while protesters may face a battle to maintain the momentum of their movement, he doesn't think they will face a brutal crackdown.
"China will not use tanks and guns in Hong Kong," because the current leadership is more concerned with the potential international response than leaders in 1989, Zhang said.