The Hong Kong pro-democracy movement compared to other nonviolent freedom struggles, part 1

Part 2 is available.

In his “Hong Kong’s Power of the Powerless: Hong Kong’s Last Stand”, Kong Tsung-gan looked at the Indian independence struggle and the US civil rights movement in some detail. He found that both had advantages that the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement lacks:

Gandhi and Indians knew it was just a matter of time. They could outwait the Brits. At the end of the day, there were just so many more Indians than British administrators and resources that if the Indians refused to cooperate, British rule was unsustainable. The Indians had superior numbers on their side. Hong Kong obviously doesn’t. There are 7 million Hong Kong people, and 1 billion mainlanders (or, maybe more to the point, 86 million Chinese Communist Party members). These days, Hong Kong people feel almost inundated by the number of mainland visitors. The number of mainland immigrants per year is about 54,000. One cannot help but think that part of the CCP’s end game for Hong Kong involves the mainlandization of Hong Kong’s population, much as in Tibet and Xinjiang, a process very different from the type of immigration from the mainland to Hong Kong that occurred in the mid-twentieth century.

MLK and the US civil rights movement had as their allies consistently favorable federal court decisions as well as the goodwill and sense of justice of a significant number of fellow citizens in a relatively democratic state where black people were a minority of about 10% of the population. Then, to top it all off, Lyndon Baines Johnson, a southerner from the state of Texas, ‘got religion’ and the mountain was moved. The Hong Kong judiciary will not play a decisive role in the democracy struggle. Formally, their highest authority is the, whoops!, National People’s Congress Standing Committee, the very same big gorilla standing in the way of genuine universal suffrage (the CCP has never been very big on separation of powers or checks and balances- maybe the SC should be renamed the Standing-in-the-Way Committee). The most we can hope for from the Hong Kong judiciary is that it manages to maintain its current modicum of independence. We don’t have the democracy the US had, so the popular will is not reflected in formal political power, and the ruling party, the CCP, is determined to clandestinely set the Hong Kong population against each other—to divide us against ourselves, a typical colonial ploy. On top of this, the prospect of a Hong Kong Chief Executive ‘getting religion’ à la LBJ is remote, to put it mildly.

In addition to numbers being on the Indian freedom movement’s side and a substantial sector of the populace and the federal courts on the side of the civil rights movement, some have noted that neither movement faced such an implacable adversary as the Chinese Communist Party, which in typical Leninist style prioritizes defense of its monopoly on power above all else.

In this sense, one might also compare Hong Kong’s struggle to that of Eastern Europeans against Soviet Communist dictatorship. Czechoslovakia, Poland, East Germany, Hungary, Romania and Bulgaria were essentially controlled by the Soviet Union in ways not dissimilar to how the CCP currently controls Hong Kong. The main difference is that the Soviet empire faced severe economic difficulties that the Chinese Communist Party, the wealthiest political organization in the world ruling one of the fastest growing economies, doesn’t. On top of that, the Soviet empire had Gorbachev, who was intent on political reform from the top down.

All three movements—Indian anti-colonialism, the US civil rights movement, and the Eastern European struggle against Communist dictatorship—are now regarded as successes. After all, their adversaries—respectively, British colonialism, legal segregation and discrimination, and Communist dictatorship—no longer exist, and all of those places—India, the US, and eastern Europe—are thriving democracies (though not without their imperfections and challenges).

But what’s important to point out about all of them is:

1) their struggles were long-term, lasting for decades before achieving their aims, and
2) integral to achieving their aims was a deus ex machina.

The Indian freedom struggle lasted a little under three decades. Its deus ex machina was World War II, which weakened its colonial ruler and was essential to the British decision to pull out of India.

The US civil rights movement lasted thirteen years, if you count the Montgomery Bus Boycott of 1955 as its start and the Fair Housing Act of 1968 (which followed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965) as its end. Its deus ex machina was Lyndon Baines Johnson.

The eastern European freedom struggle lasted a good dozen years too, from Charter 77 in Czechoslovakia and Solidarity (1980) up to the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989. Its deus ex machina, as noted, was Gorbachev.

From these three examples, what can be learned is

1) the freedom struggle is often long and hard, lasting years rather than weeks and months, and
2) rarely are nonviolent direct action movements in themselves sufficiently powerful to achieve their aims. They usually need some other elements that align in their favor, often entirely independently of them. Of the three dei ex machina above, only LBJ could be said to have been an intentional ally of the movement. While Gorbachev was for political reform, he certainly didn’t intend to end Communist dictatorship. And the British got out of India because they were broke and weary, not because they decided Gandhi was right after all.

So you simply don’t know when or how exactly the change you desire is going to come. Lately, some have said, Hong Kong can’t change until China changes. Of course, the two are related, and no one in the movement can clearly envision how democracy will come about in Hong Kong, but we don’t think that the logical conclusion is that we should just do nothing and wait. For one thing, in the meantime, Hong Kong is being rapidly mainlandized and changing for the worse, and one of the objectives of the movement is to resist this process. For another, you just never know. Initially, Charter 77 and Solidarity ‘failed’, but in retrospect, they were catalysts, laying the foundation for change that happened many years later. In the meantime, just resisting, continuing to exist, not allowing our adversary to wish us away, speaking truth to power, refusing to cooperate and not granting an illegitimate system legitimacy count as small victories in the big struggle. We must continue to act mindfully and strategically while recognizing how quickly situations can change and seeking opportunities when and where they arise.

The Indian, US and eastern European freedom struggles have all become iconic successes of nonviolent resistance. Next we’ll look at some of the “failures”, Iran, Burma, Egypt, and, of course, the 1989 Chinese democracy movement.


The views expressed here are those of the author and not necessarily those of Occupy Central with Love and Peace.