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.”

Hong Kong lawmaker seeks ‘democracy within China’s embrace’

china reginma i- 2Former colonial official and now pro-Beijing lawmaker Regina Ip is one of the few establishment figures seeking to meet with leaders of Hong Kong’s Occupy Central movement to find a way to end the protests that have caught the world’s attention, Michael Forstythe reports for the New York Times.

More than a decade ago, as Hong Kong’s top security official, she led the government’s push to pass a law on subversion and treason, despite widespread concern that it would erode the city’s civil liberties, he writes:

She was also hobbled by her public statements, at one point remarking that democracy helped Hitler’s rise to power in Germany in the 1930s and led to the subsequent Holocaust, and that it was not “a panacea for all problems.” She later said she regretted making that comparison, but maintained.

It was an unusual remark coming from someone who in the 1980s as a civil servant under the British helped set up some of Hong Kong’s first democratic institutions — elections for local councils. She then went to Stanford University and took a seminar on democracy taught by two prominent scholars on the subject, Seymour Martin Lipset and Larry Diamond [the founding coeditor of the Journal of Democracy and the co-chair of the Research Council of the International Forum for Democratic Studies of the National Endowment for Democracy.]

And after her resignation in 2003 she went to Stanford again, that time to study under Mr. Diamond for a master’s degree. Her thesis was on how to build democracy in Hong Kong.

“She came here very burned and kind of wanting to withdraw and contemplate, and kind of recovered some political creativity and energy,” Mr. Diamond said in an interview. “And as a result of her thinking, began to develop what she thought was some kind of middle way or independent path that could navigate this difficult contradiction between hopes for greater popular sovereignty in Hong Kong and a pace and level of reform that Beijing could be comfortable with.”

In her master’s thesis, Ms. Ip argued for a stronger political party system in Hong Kong and a chief executive, much like in the United States, who was also a party leader, giving him or her more authority, Forsythe adds:

She viewed democracy as more of a tool than anything — a mechanism to help Hong Kong’s leader govern more effectively. She concluded in the thesis that “if this opportunity is seized to good effect, the spinoffs for the future democratization of China are immeasurable.”

Now, though, she makes it clear that democracy has to be more than something nice to have in principle — it has to deliver. “While I fully support and understand the normative justifications for a democratic system, having seen Hong Kong’s democratic transformation, the big question in my mind is in what way more democracy added value,” Ms. Ip said in the interview.


China’s ‘trapped transition’?

CHINA HK CDTIn 2006, Minxin Pei’s “China’s Trapped Transition: The Limits of Developmental Autocracy” invoked the most established “law” in political science — that countries that grow economically tend to become more democratic, writes Fareed Zakaria.

Pei predicted that problems would emerge in six to seven years — in other words, right about now. So, I asked him, is what we are witnessing in Hong Kong a major crisis? Zakaria writes for the Washington Post:

Pei cautions that the events in Hong Kong are unlikely to spill over into the mainland. “The system of control, patronage and surveillance on the mainland is too strong,” he says. (I would add that there is also considerable support for a status quo in China that has quadrupled the average person’s income over the past two decades.) But, he argues, the Communist Party could develop rifts on how to deal with the protests and how to ensure that they don’t happen on the mainland. The Communist Party is going to have to prepare for a much more systematic program of repression if it intends to continue on a path of no reform. “And things will get even more tense within the party if economic growth starts to slow,” Pei adds.

The solution for China is obvious: political reform, says Zakaria, the host of CNN’s Fareed Zakaria GPS and editor at large of Time magazine  [but that’s highly unlikely]. 


The parallels between 1989 and 2014 are “eerie” and unsettling for Beijing, according to FT analyst Gideon Rachman.

“Once again, the demonstrations are led by students demanding democratic reform. Once again, the central authorities have lost control — and risk facing a choice between repression and a humiliating climbdown,” he writes. “Once again, the ultimate question is the power and authority of the Communist Party in Beijing.”

“The current crisis in Hong Kong poses the most serious threat to the Chinese Communist Party since Tiananmen Square” and it all goes back to the conflicting interpretations of the British handover, according to Keith B. Richburg, The Post’s Hong Kong bureau chief from 1995 to 2000 and China correspondent from 2009 to 2013:

Consider the pledge in the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, that says: “The ultimate aim is the selection of the chief executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.” Read the most favorable way, that provision sounds as if Beijing agreed to soon let Hong Kongers freely choose their leaders. To the students and others who have taken to the streets, China’s legislature reneged on that promise in August when it ruled that a nominating committee controlled by Beijing would remain in force even after Hong Kong elections shift to a one-person, one-vote system in 2017.

But Beijing never had any intention of relinquishing its control over the nominating committee, or its ability to determine what makes that key committee “broadly representative,” Richburg notes.

The latest warning coming from Beijing has been especially reminiscent of the 1989 rhetoric, and worryingly so, analysts say. The People’s Daily, a government-controlled newspaper, said the protests are creating “chaos.” “That is a significant term in Chinese Communist Party ideology, suggesting that the situation could threaten the Party’s hold on power, and therefore that decisive action is required,” writes Al Pessin at the Voice of America.

Former political prisoners Yang Jianli and Teng Biao, writing in The Wall Street Journal, ask the Obama administration to help prevent another Tiananmen by pressuring the Chinese government to allow democratic elections in Hong Kong and “forcefully condemn” violence against protesters.

Why it’s ‘almost impossible to beat a modern autocracy’

kasparovWhy are the pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong enduring where their counterparts in my country failed? asks Russian democracy activist Garry Kasparov, a former world chess champion and the chairman of the Human Rights Foundation.

“Thanks to a decade of anti-democracy propaganda and the annihilation of civil society, Russians worry, not unreasonably, that toppling Putin could lead to something even worse,” he writes for the Washington Post:

But there is something deeper at work. In truth, the Communist dictatorship in China needs its people—especially its young, educated, and global-minded ones—in a way Putin doesn’t….

Decades of economic and political engagement with the West and improved standards of living were supposed to liberalize dictatorships and provide leverage against them. But leverage is only useful if applied, and it is not clear Western countries are willing to do this. .

Europe’s timidity comes at a time when Russia is vulnerable to further sanctions, say analysts.

“The country’s economy has suffered under Western sanctions for Moscow’s role in the conflict in Ukraine,” the Wall Street Journal reports. “Growth is expected to be no more than 0.5% this year; the ruble, pummeled by low oil prices and capital flight, has hit record lows against the U.S. dollar. Russia is on track to drain around $100 billion in net capital outflow this year, its highest amount since 2008.

The citizens of China and Russia have similar social compacts with their authoritarian governments: economic stability in exchange for their rights, Kasparov notes:

They both have heavily censored state propaganda instead of news and minimal freedom of speech and assembly. The key difference is that the Chinese regime is built on a broad collective and ideological base that is unlikely to experience drastic shifts. Putin’s Russia, on the other hand, is the most dangerous and unpredictable form of government: the dictatorship of just one man.

The use of the cliché of a “return to the Cold War”  is ironic, “since it requires forgetting, rather than emulating, how the Cold War was fought and won,” he argues:

Instead of standing on principles of good and evil, of right and wrong, and on the universal values of human rights and human life, we have “engagement,” “resets,” and moral equivalence. The Cold War was won not just by military or economic superiority, but on values that I, a former Soviet citizen, un-ironically call traditional American values. Chief among them is the belief that individual freedom matters and is worth sacrificing for, fighting for, even dying for. For now, the Hong Kong protesters appear admirably willing to test that proposition.

“We cannot resolve the problems of globalization with the tools that created it,” Kasparov insists. “We need new frameworks to confront the globalized dictatorships in Russia and China.”           RTWT

Silencing Hong Kong will hurt democracy, ‘intensify CCP’s authoritarian tendencies’


china wang danThe juncture at which Hong Kong finds itself springs from a change in China’s policy, notes Wang Dan, a student leader during the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests.

The anti-corruption campaign pursued by Xi Jinping is a strategy aimed at killing two birds with one stone. It shores up domestic support  and uses that base of public opinion to assert China’s expansionism through ideology, national development models and political behavior, he writes for the Financial Times:

The strengthening of China’s economy and the mentality of a rising great power have emboldened the ambitions of the Communist party leadership. A new blueprint is gradually emerging; one that envisages the possibility of a new global campaign. China is not about to take charge of a Soviet-style campaign of militaristic adventure. This time the slogans will not be based on the traditional concepts of socialism or communism. Instead they will be packaged around more ambiguous language – the “Chinese model” and “the rise of a great power”. China’s economic achievements will be held up as evidence for the idea that the concentration of power can achieve great things.

The aim of this expansionism is to propagate, however gradually, Beijing’s own style of development and system of values. This ideology, in a nutshell, elevates the primacy of economic growth and a strong state over democracy and human rights. These are the fundamental reasons why China’s policies towards others are growing tougher and tougher.

“For this reason the Occupy Central movement is not merely a matter for Hong Kong, but an issue for the civilized world,” he contends. “The silencing of Hong Kong would intensify the authoritarian tendencies of the Communist party, and this will harm democracy everywhere, starting with Taiwan.”


The writer (pictured above, right, with the National Endowment for Democracy’s president Carl Gershman, was a recipient of the NED’s 1998 Democracy Award.