Commentary: The Hong Kong pro-democracy movement compared to other nonviolent freedom struggles, part 2

In my last piece, I compared the Hong Kong democracy movement to other nonviolent freedom struggles, focusing on three ultimately successful ones, the Indian independence struggle, the US civil rights movement, and the eastern European fight against Communist dictatorship. While these movements are today regarded retrospectively as successes, we noted that what they have in common is that 1) they took decades to accomplish their aims and 2) they required a deus ex machina beyond their control as a catalyst for realization of their aims (respectively, World War II, Lyndon Baines Johnson and Gorbachev). The conclusion drawn from the comparison is that freedom struggles are often long, hard and uncertain, and rarely are freedom struggles powerful enough in themselves to accomplish their aims; they usually need other forces to align with their interests. Those struggling for freedom must persevere even when the outcome appears highly uncertain and distant. They must continue to exist until the opportune moment.

Today I look at some ‘failed’ freedom struggles, namely China ‘89, Iran ’77-‘79, Burma ’88-’90, and Egypt ’11-present. Note that all four of those countries are still ruled by authoritarian regimes.

A significant similarity between Iran and Egypt is that both nonviolent revolutions initially succeeded in toppling the dictator, the Shah and Hosni Mubarak. In both countries, an Islamist government eventually replaced the dictator. In Iran, this Islamist government quickly became a dictatorship in its own right and more than three decades later still rules the country. In Egypt, the Islamist government was overthrown by the military, which has imposed its own dictatorship not much different from Mubarak’s rule.

In both Burma and China, people’s uprisings were crushed. The Burmese military dictatorship allowed a free election to be held, but when it lost, it refused to accept the results and put the winner of the election, Aung San Suu Kyi, under house arrest. Recent moves have been made by the military rulers (now in civilian clothing) to liberalize politically, including releasing ASSK from house arrest, but up to now, these changes are largely cosmetic and the regime continues to hold all the reins of power. In China, demonstrations arose quite spontaneously in 1989. As in the case of Burma, the regime initially showed some weakness, due to a power struggle within the Communist Party, but when Deng Xiaoping sided decisively with the hardliners, the demonstrators were crushed, hundreds or even thousands murdered by the People’s Liberation Army and thousands of others sent to prison. Since then, there has been no large-scale uprising of any sort. It is frequently noted that every year in China, tens of thousands of small protests occur, but these tend to express localized grievances and rarely have to do with so much as questioning the dictatorship’s right to rule.

Looking at Iran and Egypt, we can see that initially successful nonviolent revolutions can quickly be reversed. Victory can easily turn to defeat, and there are often powerful, opportunistic anti-democratic forces seeking to turn the situation to their advantage. Looking at Burma and China, we can see that when regimes recover from moments of weakness and act decisively, they can defeat nonviolent freedom movements, and in doing so, consolidate rule for years to come. In all four countries, the dictatorships responded with massive violence, killing thousands.

In their seminal study, Why Civil Resistance Works: The Strategic Logic of Nonviolent Conflict, Erica Chenoweth and Maria Stephan note that between 1900 and 2006, nonviolent campaigns for democracy were more than twice as likely to succeed than violent ones. But they also note that in order to succeed, the campaigns have to get important players to switch sides or at least to withdraw their support from the regime. The most important of these actors are usually the military and the police—the people with the guns who protect the regime–, but there are also business elites and the media. If we extend this concept a bit more, we can see that the broader issue is leverage, changing the power dynamics so as to change actors’ calculations and render the survival of the regime unsustainable. Other elements can contribute to this, for example, support from abroad. In the Philippines, for example, when the dictator, Ferdinand Marcos, realized he no longer had the unconditional support of the United States, he decided it was time to go.

When we look at Hong Kong in the context of these other freedom struggles, there is cause for pessimism, since the Hong Kong democracy movement possesses few if any of the advantages of successful campaigns elsewhere. We don’t outnumber our oppressor, as in India. We aren’t a relatively democratic society such as the US in the civil rights movement, with courts that can rule laws and political decisions made by rulers unconstitutional; nor is there a large number of mainlanders who sympathize with the Hong Kong freedom struggle (most don’t even know about it, due to strict censorship). Our chances of getting the army, police, business elites and even local media to switch to our side or cease supporting the regime are slim to non-existent. And we exist in the largest, most powerful dictatorship in the world. The regime has no clear weaknesses such as a poor economy, as was the case with its Leninist twin, the Soviet Empire. No democracies elsewhere in the world with the exception of Taiwan have stood up strongly for democracy in Hong Kong. While we have the widespread sympathy and solidarity of people around the world who are paying attention, the same can’t be said of their governments. Also, in few other cases of nonviolent campaigns do the regimes have the advantage of a robust economy on their side: Their people often feel they have little to loose economically by rebelling. Here in Hong Kong, one of the most frequent arguments against nonviolent resistance is that it may disrupt a fairly solid economy and ‘hurt prosperity’. It’s not an argument that stands up to scrutiny, but it doesn’t have to; all it means to do is plant the doubt, You might have more to lose than to gain if you stand up for your rights.

Does that mean the prognosis for success of the Hong Kong democracy movement is poor? Sort of, at least in the short run, if by “success” we mean achieving democracy.

But in spite of our lack of many of the advantages of other nonviolent movements, there are several factors worth taking into consideration that can work as leverage in our favor.

In contrast to most other places where nonviolent movements have occurred, our civil liberties are relatively well protected- though there many signs that they are being slowly eroded- and this gives us space to act that most other nonviolent movements didn’t have (though you could argue at the same time that we don’t have the same sympathy factor since the crackdown on us, at least the short term, will probably not be so hard, bloody, in-your-face and telegenically undeniable).

Another contrast is that the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong is not seeking to overthrow a dictatorship but rather to get a dictatorship to honor the very specific pledge and legal obligation of genuine universal suffrage. In this sense, we appear eminently moderate and reasonable to all except the CCP and its allies. In its intimidation, propaganda and refusal to so much as even negotiate in good faith, the CCP has turned the youth of Hong Kong against it en masse, and this is an adversary it will have to contend with for a generation to come. There is still enough freedom of speech (if not much free press) in Hong Kong that the regime will have difficulty imposing the sort of amnesia among young people that it has with the Tiananmen Massacre on the mainland.

With its broken promise in Hong Kong, China has further damaged its credibility as a country you can trust to keep agreements and legal obligations. This is first and foremost the case in Taiwan, where the CCP has all but destroyed any near-term hope of rapprochement and probably even of sneaky back-door assimilation through trade. Elsewhere in Asia, China is engaged in at times quite vituperative territorial disputes. No one trusts it; it is the neighbor no one wants. This low credibility is something that gnaws away at relations with other countries over time and is a significant setback for a country that has had hopes of making ‘soft power’ gains.

In addition, China needs a government in Hong Kong with at least the veneer of legitimacy, something that it has not possessed with its lackluster appointed leaders up to now. With the NPCSC decision, it will continue to perpetuate this chronic governance crisis. The pro-democracy movement’s ability to deny its governance model legitimacy is, in the long run, something that will slowly eat away at its rule here and always stands the possibility of bleeding over the border to the mainland at one time or another.

The pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong has realistically declared that with the NPCSC decision of August 31, it has entered into an ‘era of resistance’. What that means is the end of hope that China will keep its promise and the beginning of something else. Exactly what that something else is remains to be seen, and an upcoming article will look at what the era of resistance portends, what it might look like, and what its risks and chances of success are. The CCP’s way of dealing with its perceived enemies is to isolate them and grind them down to nothing over however much time it takes. It has been trying that with the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. We have right on our side and the buffer of civil liberties, but we will also need great fortitude and staying power, savvy leadership and strategy.


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