Hong Kong and the Arab uprisings

The Hong Kong protesters may be disappointed in their televised talks with the authorities, but I’m not. They have achieved something remarkable:  a widely disseminated (at least within Hong Kong) public effort by the authorities to justify their rejection of democracy. The fact of their  meeting with the students, whose side of the argument was apparently not broadcast by the authorities, speaks louder than words. This is an enormous achievement, even if the talks have inevitably failed to reach a compromise.

The contrast with what is going on in the Middle East could not be sharper. There Islamists are rejecting democracy and secularism, which they associate with autocracy and godlessness. In Syria, Libya and Yemen, large portions of the society (not everyone) have chosen violent means–or tact support for violent means–to achieve their political ends, while in Hong Kong only the police have opted for brutality.

This is as it should be. Nonviolence has a better chance of winning than violence, mainly because some of the forces of law and order will eventually hesitate to use violence against nonviolent protesters. Once a corner of the police is bent to sympathize with the protesters, the Hong Kong authorities will be forced either to call in the army or compromise with the protesters’ demands.

Calling in the People’s Liberation Army would be a clear signal of defeat for the authorities, who have made it clear they fear real democracy would open representation to the votes of the lower classes:

If it’s entirely a numbers game and numeric representation, then obviously you would be talking to half of the people in Hong Kong who earn less than US$1,800 a month.

This remarkable statement comes from the chief executive in Hong Kong, a loyal Beijing supporter. What has Communism come to?

There is room for compromise here. The nominating committee that is to vet Hong Kong candidates for Chief Executive, slated to be controlled entirely by Beijing, could be opened to broader representation and the criteria for rejecting candidates limited to malfeasance. Only a wide open electoral contest will satisfy student protest leaders, but something short of that might represent real progress in the right direction.

Protesters in the Middle East could learn a lot from their Asian counterparts. The disciplined commitment to sustained nonviolent protest in Hong Kong makes good sense, precisely because the authorities have overwhelming force at their disposal. The protesters have clearly thought this through and are looking to maintain mass support that would be l0st quickly if they resorted to violence. A few may lose patience and head in that direction, but so far at least they have mostly resisted a temptation that would inevitably give the authorities the upper hand.

Would that such discipline were available in the Middle East.

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3 thoughts on “Hong Kong and the Arab uprisings”

  1. Daniel,

    I would appreciate a clarification; are you actually implying that the violence that has followed the outbreak of the pro-democracy demonstrations and uprisings across the Arab world are the fault of the activists?

    I do not think that is an unkind reading of what you have stated above – but, I believe it is also something that I would not have associated with your political leanings nor analysis over a long career.

    Arab demonstrators in Tahrir or in Syria were **not** the cause of the tremendous violence that followed. Implying anything along those lines is a reactionary re-narration of the actual events.

    1. No, I was not implying that. The regime in Syria was clearly responsible for initiating the violence, as was Qaddafi in Libya. But the demonstrators did not have the kind of nonviolent discipline that the Hong Kongers are exercising. The result was a vicious spiral that has ended up marginalizing nonviolence and shifting the contest from one favorable to the activists to one favorable to the government. That is regrettable, no matter who started the spiral and no matter what the moral justification of violence.

      1. Thanks for that Daniel, I’m sure you will appreciate my alarm.

        However, as much as I agree with you regarding the heroism of the demonstrators and activists in both milieus, your clarity turns your blog post on its head. In point of fact, your appreciation should also go to the authorities for not escalating to the use of force.

        Even if one opposes the political orientation and / or ideological commitment(s) of the Chinese or Hong Kong authorities, they have a choice to make – not the protestors. Thus far **they**, unlike their Syrian, Egyptian, Libyan, Yemeni or Bahraini counterparts have chosen to jaw-jaw and de-escalate by waiting the protestors out. For that matter, the Chinese authorities also seem to be choosing differently than their Ukrainian counterparts – both the former regime who engaged in violence against protestors on the Maidan as well as the current regime in Kiev who choose to use force against the protestors and secessionists in eastern Ukraine. Analysts and historians can (and will) debate the merits in each case, but state authorities in all these cases have utilized tremendous and often deadly force against protestors and also denied the legitimacy of the protestors political case.

        No need for great platitudes to the statesmanship in China per se, but it is a more accurate reflection of current events in Hong Kong. I find that media and general commentary is so quick to pick sides these days that we neglect to recognize that the use of force is a choice that those of us interested in nonviolence and peace should identify with as much clarity as possible.

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