From politics to protest: taking it to the streets

IvanKrastevThe pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong are just the latest in a wave of political protests that has swept the world since late 2010. In “From Politics to Protest,” Ivan Krastev (left) examines why people have been taking to the streets, not only where they are denied the right to freely elect their leaders (as in Hong Kong), but also in countries where they fully enjoy the right to vote. Krastev suggests that elections are losing their capacity to make voters feel that their voices are being heard, and he explores what this may mean for the future of democracy.

India’s sixteenth general elections heralded a new era in the country’s politics: The Hindu-nationalist BJP won an unprecedented absolute majority in parliament, while the long-dominant Congress party suffered a stunning defeat. Four essays by leading experts explain the electoral outcome, look at the economic implications of the BJP’s victory, weigh the possibility of renewed communal violence, and give a big-picture assessment of India’s future.

jodoctIndonesia held successful parliamentary elections in April and presidential elections in July. Yet the news is not all good. The parliamentary contest was marred by pervasive “money politics,” as Edward Aspinall explains in “Politics and Patronage,” and the presidential race was nearly won by Prabowo Subianto, a populist who “promised to undertake the radical and dangerous experiment of restoring Indonesia’s pre-democratic order.” In “How Jokowi Won and Democracy Survived,” Marcus Mietzner cautions that “Indonesian democracy is still vulnerable, and will be for years to come.”

Elsewhere in the issue, Ghia Nodia writes on “The Revenge of Geopolitics,” part of a set of articles on “External Influence and Democratization” that also features pieces by Jakob Tolstrup and Steven Levitsky & Lucan Way; a pair of essays by João Carlos Espada and Liubomir Topaloff examine the rise of Euroskeptic parties in the EU and what it means; Richard Joseph explores the prospects for democracy in Africa through the lens of Nigeria; and Javier Corrales & Michael Penfold detail the growing trend in Latin America to relax or eliminate presidential term limits.

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China’s Hong Kong conspiracy theories a familiar ruse

china hk march july 2014Rather than address the underlying grievances motivating Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests, China’s ruling Communist Party is promoting predictable conspiracy theories about the demonstrations.

Accusing opponents of foreign meddling has become an increasingly popular tool for the Chinese Communist Party under President Xi Jinping, David Pierson writes for the Los Angeles Times:

Xi has ordered his censorship apparatus to bar discourse on Western democracy, one of several forbidden topics deemed threatening to China’s heightened nationalistic temperament. That narrative emphasizes a Western world intent on containing China’s rise. ….

Beijing has long been wary of American influence in the color revolutions that swept Eastern Europe and the Arab world. Beijing supporters accuse nongovernmental organizations such as the Washington-based National Endowment for Democracy of channeling money to advocacy groups to destabilize China. (The NED denies this.)

“After 110 years of foreign predation, the communists took power [in 1949] arguing that China has stood up,” said Clayton Dube, executive director of the USC U.S.-China Institute. “Blaming the foreigners plays into all of that.”

With the 25th anniversary of the 1989 June 4th crackdown still fresh in memory (at least outside mainland China), much coverage of Hong Kong’s Umbrella protests has been shadowed by fear of a similarly harsh response, notes China Digital Times:

Voices of some of those involved in the events surrounding Tiananmen have been prominently featured, while others have offered counsel on avoiding the same fate. While the outcome of the protests remains uncertain, any threat of a military response seems to have receded. At Foreign Affairs, in any case, Jeffrey Wasserstrom urges the use of wider, more varied historical lenses for viewing the Umbrella Movement:

Although there has been some excellent on-the-ground reporting by journalists who know China and its past well, this time around, much media commentary of the protests in Hong Kong has locked onto the Tiananmen-reborn analogy. …. That analogy works fine when there is a direct repeat of something that happened in 1989, such as when Beijing tries again to portray peaceful students as following in the footsteps of the Red Guards. But when something new happens, observers are at a loss and look, once more, beyond China’s border for explanation, which helps explain why journalists have made so many references to the Color Revolution, despite the fact that the protesters themselves insist that the analogy is misleading, since they are just asking for Beijing to live up to the One Country, Two Systems promise it made in 1997. [Source]

The Diplomat’s Ankit Panda argues that the 2011 uprising against local officials in Wukan offers a better guide:

Structurally, the “Umbrella Revolution” in Hong Kong bears several similarities to Wukan–merely on a different scale. Both communities rose up after sensing that the Party had reneged on a prior understanding. In Wukan, there was no community input before the land sale and Hongkongers were stripped of their democratic right to freely stand for election without Beijing’s prior approval. Both communities protested peacefully (with a few exceptions, to be sure). Indeed, the two instances are so similar that Chinese President Xi Jinping reportedly has tapped Wang Yang, the governor of Guangdong during the Wukan protests and currently a vice premier on the politburo, to “remain on standby” to handle the situation in Hong Kong…….. [Source]


How China’s Communist Party keeps lid on Western-style democracy


chinacongressExposure to Western-style university education in China does not arouse democratic aspirations among students because Communist Party control remains surprisingly tight, researchers say.

They carried out anonymous interviews and surveys at the first Western institution allowed to set up in China, the University of Nottingham Ningbo, and found students acutely aware of the party’s power to advance — or blight — their careers, The Australian’s Bernard Lane reports:

In the Nottingham study, the researchers cite evidence that the spread of international education has helped foster campaigns for democratisation in illiberal states, such as in the Middle East.

But they say the Chinese Communist Party effectively discourages this at Nottingham Ningbo through detailed reporting on students and its “student affairs office”, which has power over student employment opportunities and takes control in case of campus emergency.

“Although the university is labeled a UK university in China, it is only the academic provision that is British,” they say. “The university experience and all other facets of the university are Chinese and are under control of the party.”


Letter to Hong Kong students: tonight I picked a side


When the Asia Literary Review asked a mainland Chinese student studying in Hong Kong to write a piece about the Umbrella Revolution, they did so without expectations:”

What we received surprised us. It stood out from the noisy stampede of opinions and perspectives written about the events of the past week. As always, heart and courage have a way of doing just that. The piece, written under a pseudonym, follows.


As a mainlander in Hong Kong, I constantly feel the prejudice and ill will against us but also understand the helplessness that underlies these feelings. For many years, I have lived with the awkwardness of being stuck between two worlds; but tonight I picked a side. Tonight I stand by you, because you are doing what I never dared to dream.

When I first came here, I was impressed by the political awareness and involvement of Hong Kong students. The posts on democracy walls and the frequent political discussions and lectures at the university indicated the major role that students played in leading social development. I was often asked about the political situation on the mainland and even about my own stance. I found the questions very difficult to answer, not only because the situation was too complicated to be explained in a few words, but also because of my ignorance of such issues.

Yet I appreciated your concern and your sincerity in reaching out. Looking back at us mainlanders, not only do we seldom care about Hong Kong issues, we barely understand our own. As a rough estimate, fewer than one in ten mainland university students know in any detail the procedure for electing our leaders. It is not even in our mindset to consider the legitimacy and integrity of that process. We don’t know that it’s possible to ask, ‘What do we want?’ Yet we label our silence “maturity”.

Tonight, I saw more than passion and participation. I saw a determination and solidarity that I have never experienced, and that has not been seen in China for a long time. When the boycott and occupation started, I did not expect it to last long, let alone that it would grow to such an extent. Then I saw the yellow ribbons spreading from universities to all of Hong Kong, not only on students but also on professors, on people who’d just got off work and on tottering grandmas. I saw the crowd refuse to be driven away by tear gas, and watched it create a poignant symbol out of an everyday umbrella. I saw you running around, distributing food and drink to people you didn’t even know. Tonight, I saw you become brothers and sisters.

I asked myself, when did I ever see such a scene back home? When did we ever work side by side for the same goal, other than for our college entrance exam? Sadly, not once in my life. Is it for me to be blamed for regarding bravery as foolishness and courage as naïveté? Some say this is just not the way we deal with things, but seriously, how do we ever deal with anything? I cannot hide my jealousy of you for having the opportunity to fight. In my twenties, I am one example of so many who are going to be the hard core of our society – again, we never knew that there is such an option.

I am also deeply impressed by how calm and disciplined you have been during this revolution. In the occupied area, I saw students doing their reading by the light of cell phones, picking up litter and sorting out the recyclables. In your operation guide I read: ‘Avoid physical confrontation, but also avoid developing hatred in your heart’; and I saw the banner declaring “Equality, Tolerance, Love, and Care.” To stay calm and rational may be the hardest act, for angry youths in particular. But you learnt from previous experience, and you know it is the sharpest weapon. Tonight, you taught me the real meaning of maturity.


HK democracy protests face test of stamina

china hk march july 2014Pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong rolled into early Tuesday with hundreds of students remaining camped out in the heart of the city after more than a week of rallies and behind-the-scenes talks showing modest signs of progress, Reuters reports:

Student-led protesters early on Monday lifted a blockade of government offices that had been the focal point of their action, initially drawing tens of thousands onto the streets. Civil servants were allowed to pass through the protesters’ barricades unimpeded.

Despite its many incentives to maintain the status quo in Hong Kong, concerns are rising in Beijing about the territory becoming a base for what it sees as subversion.

Police cook, prosecutors serve, courts eat

More dangerous is the potential impact of the deep differences between China and Hong Kong’s judicial systems, Demetri Sevastopulo and Tom Mitchell report for the FT.

“The separation of powers left behind by the British means that when the police catch someone, the courts do not automatically buy it,” says one mainland resident. “Here the police cook the food, the prosecutors serve it and the courts eat it.”

As hundreds of protesters continue to occupy the streets of Hong Kong, challenging China’s Communist Party leaders with calls for greater democracy, much of the world anxiously awaits signs of how Beijing will react to their demands, Andrew Jacobs writes for the New York Times:

But the anticipation is perhaps most keenly felt along the periphery of China’s far-flung territory, both inside the country and beyond, where the Chinese government’s authoritarian ways have been most apparent. Among Tibetans and Uighurs, beleaguered ethnic minorities in China’s far west, there is hope that the protests will draw international scrutiny to what they say are Beijing’s broken promises for greater autonomy.

“We’ve seen this movie before, but when people stand up to the Chinese government in places like Lhasa or Urumqi and meet brutal resistance, there is no foreign media to show the world what’s happening,” said Nury Turkel, a Uighur-American lawyer and activist, referring to the regional capitals of Tibet and Xinjiang. “The difference here is what’s happening in Hong Kong is taking place in real time, for all the world to see.”

Willy Lam, a China expert, says Xi Jinping, China’s president, wants images of people blocking roads in the commercial center to disappear before Beijing hosts the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit in November, the FT reports.

“His hands are tied,” says Mr Lam. “If he moves to send the PLA in, it is possible that [Barack] Obama and other people might not show up at Apec.”

Mr Lam says Mr Xi faces additional pressure because some senior party figures unhappy about his anti-corruption campaign would use a failure to quell the protests in Hong Kong against him.

On Friday the People’s Daily, warned that “the illegal gatherings … are aimed at challenging both China’s supreme power organ and Hong Kong citizens’ democratic rights, and are doomed to fail”. It echoed comments from Chinese officials.

Such rhetoric, which routinely blames “bad elements” and “foreign forces” for stirring up trouble, is similar to that which preceded the Tiananmen Square massacre 25 years ago.

“The central government’s bottom line will not change,” says Wu Qiang, a political-science professor at Beijing’s elite Tsinghua University. “If the occupation continues, the central government will consider all sorts of measures to reinstate order. That includes the possibility of intervention by PLA troops stationed in Hong Kong.”

Human-rights activists expressed general satisfaction with the White House’s response to the protests, particularly, said Sophie Richardson, the China director of Human Rights Watch, because it linked the lack of democracy in Hong Kong with the lack of democracy in China, The Times reports:

But other experts said the White House should have spoken out sooner, after China’s Parliament proposed the new voting law, which would require candidates for Hong Kong chief executive to be cleared by a nominating committee — effectively ruling out anyone the Chinese government deemed unacceptable. Critics also note that the United States has said little about Mr. Xi’s broader crackdown on civil liberties.

“China right now is undergoing the harshest political repression it has seen since 1989,” said David Shambaugh, director of the China policy program at George Washington University, citing the year of the Tiananmen Square massacre. “The situation has gone from bad to worse from Hu Jintao to Xi Jinping, and the administration isn’t speaking out about that.”

To authoritarian mind spontaneity is impossible

To a Western audience, all of this looks very much like the work of what we would call “civil society”: unofficial, self-organized groups that have joined together to press for a political change that cannot be accomplished using normal political tools, writes Anne Appelbaum:

But is this what the government of China sees? Not necessarily. According to Foreign Policy, one widely read Chinese article describes the events in Hong Kong not as a spontaneous outpouring of public opinion but as a conspiracy of Hong Kong separatists, backed by “an America hoping to push [the movement] to its height.” With sideswipes at the National Endowment for Democracy and the CIA, the article goes on to accuse the U.S. government of causing “multiple troubles for China, making China unable to pay attention to its great power struggle with the United States.”