Wednesday, October 22, 2014

The two roads of protest

The umbrella movement has had two choices. One was to try to force the government’s hand to produce a more democratic system for the 2017 elections. Occupy Central tried to use the threat of civil disobedience to make the NPCSC promulgate democratic rules. On this, they failed. Some conservatives claim their very threat made the NPCSC fear allowing more democracy in Hong Kong, so had an opposite effect of what was intended.

The alternative was to create paradigm shift, to change public opinion so much that the government would have to change its position and allow more democracy. The political scientist Kuan Hsin-chi has written:

Gandhi put it nicely that a Civil Disobedience (CD) movement (more precisely, he called it satyagraha) succeeded not because of the powerful pressure exerted directly by the acts of the CD participants on the government, but rather because of a "change of heart" of the majority of the people who eventually became convinced of the morality represented by the movement. Once this change of heart happens, the government has no other choice but to agree to a change. In a nutshell, the impact of CD on social or political development is indirect, rather than direct. Social or political change often starts with advocacy of the minority against the powerful establishment with the indifferent majority of the people caught in the middle. Winning their heart is crucial for sociopolitical development.

The problem for the protesters is that they have viewed their movement as seeking to force the government. They believe they already represent the majority opinion. But there are many who believe Beijing will not yield. The People’s Daily has made it clear that Beijing views any compromise as a sign of weakness. Leaders feel they cannot compromise or it will encourage similar civil disobedience in other restive areas, from Xinjiang to Tibet. China already has thousands of protests flaring up every year. (Nevermind that this approach also makes the situation in Hong Kong seem even more hopeless and frustrating, and can lead to tragedy.)

The occupation of parts of Admiralty, Mong Kok, and Causeway Bay inconveniences some people. Others are simply offended that the protesters are breaking the law with impunity. Unfortunately, many who did or would support the movement have grown exasperated with the protests. And because the protests are spontaneous and the leadership is so diffuse, protesters are not focusing on educating the public about democracy and universal suffrage. They fail to rebut the pro-establishment’s anti-democratic arguments about “national security” and the “irrelevance of international standards.”

In the first few weeks of the protests, the idealism of the protesters awakened Hong Kong. Many who resignedly accepted the power of tycoons and the gradual imposition of undemocratic elections as inevitable were awakened and inspired to protest and take action to create better institutions. Many were embarrassed that it took students to wake them up and take a stand. The danger for the protesters is that the longer “occupations” drag on, the more the public’s frustration and anger at the protesters themselves will grow. Believing that they could force change on the government, the protesters have not pursued the Gandhian approach of trying to change the views of the indifferent majority to the pro-democratic cause. 

Many people sympathetic to the students wish they would declare victory and end the occupations, with the possibility of further protests in the future. But the protesters are determined to wring some concessions. They feel they have not achieved anything, because they define success and changing the government's policies. And in fact, if the protests end, there will be no changes; the government and Beijing will simply believe they were right and they won. 

The government has tried to argue that changes can be made in the future, that this is a long process. The protesters note that this has been said before, and they thought they were going to get "universal suffrage" when Democratic Party members accepted a compromise for the 2012 elections. They no longer trust the argument that changes can be made in the future. CY Leung's comments two days ago "that if the government met the pro-democracy protesters’ demands it would result in thecity’s poorer people dominating elections" only casts further doubts on the government's sincerity in promising more democracy in the future.

The comment also reminds us that democracy was nowhere achieved simply from the benevolence of the elites. As "the masses" increasingly viewed the system as unfair, protests for more say in the system erupted, and the elite were forced, step by step, to extend democracy. So maybe the students and other protesters are right that their only choice is to continue to occupy parts of Hong Kong. They are gambling that at some point, the elites will decide they have more to lose from constant protests than they do from elections. That might not be true in this round of protests, but the protesters have history on their side. Even Chiang Ching-kuo, the son of Chiang Kai-shek, decided to allow multi-party elections in 1986, realizing that the protests and problems of authoritarian rule were not worth the costs. In addition, the state was stronger once it had the mandate of the people through real elections. So it is hard to say the protesters in Hong Kong are wrong, though many worry about how these protests can end. And we worry that the result may be Hong Kong losing even more autonomy.

In the meantime, the government and protesters are deadlocked.

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