Brisbane, October 5, 2014 (Alochonaa): In September, a mass protest movement began in Hong Kong. Tens of thousands of people have now come onto the streets, blockaded buildings, occupied public spaces and clashed with police. The protests, directed against the election laws and leadership of Hong Kong, have earned the label the ‘Umbrella Revolution’. The ‘color revolutions’ of the past decade have attempted to challenge authoritarian leaders from Kiev to Beijing, and ‘occupy movements’ have recently riddled Western democracies, but their successes have been uneven and unpredictable. Will Hong Kong’s protesters spark a genuine revolution in their own city or the Chinese mainland, or will these protests be just one more of tens of thousands of ‘mass incidents’ which the Chinese government successfully represses each year?
To be frank, there is no way of predicting the success or failure of a revolution, and by that we mean we cannot know when or how exactly a government will collapse, yield power, make major or minor concessions, use force, appease or simply ignore challengers. Despite the massive literature on revolutions and their tactics, it is not easy to explain how a street vendor setting himself on fire led to the Arab Spring, whilst the death of Neda Agha and many other protesters in Iran in 2009 little impact. The fact is, the outcome of revolutions depends on the confluence of so many small events that broad theories and predictions are always hazardous. The unpopularity of a government or the dedication of security forces matter a lot, no doubt, but so do the actions of protestors, the rival parties’ media skills, technology, creative or unexpected strategies and international interests. The following paragraphs summarize some issues which will determine how far this latest protest movement will go.
The Government – Popular or Hated? Does it Matter?
Calling any government body in China ‘popular’ is a stretch, and the number of protests against local, provincial or national officials and institutions each year attests to that. However, the mere presence of dissatisfaction doesn’t mean there is fertile ground for open revolt. The Chinese leadership has a lot of supporters, not only among the vast Communist Party membership but also amongst the upper and middle classes who have prospered under the regime. Some polls have suggested that less than one in three people in Hong Kong support the protesters. That could be because of fear of economic disruption and the belief that resistance to Beijing’s authority is ultimately futile. In that sense, the apparent strength of Beijing’s position could lead to a self-fulfilling prophecy – Beijing is perceived as too strong to challenge, so challengers always back down in the end which undermines the chances of successful challenges later.
The Security Services – Clever or Stupid?
Sometimes, shooting protesters works out very well for the government. The massacres in Syria in 1982, Burma in 1988 and in Beijing in 1989 are good examples. At other times simple brutality is counter-productive, such as in Libya and Syria in 2011. Sometimes arresting the leadership of a protest movement will break it, at other times it galvanizes the opposition around a hero. Sometimes time is on the security service’s side and they can wait out the opposition, at other times resistance is emboldened by government inaction leading to defections and a death spiral of declining fear and respect for authority. Knowing when force will work and who to direct it against is an art not a science. At this point it seems the local police are taking the lead and authorities might believe that time in on their side. Whether or not this is a clever judgment only time will tell.
Technology – Revolutionary or Liability?
Most protest movements of recent years have used social media and mobile phones to organize and confront security services. Indeed, we could call them ‘Facebook revolutions’ but this masks the inherently two-sided nature of digital technologies. A mobile phone is a great tool to organize a rally, but it is also a wonderful bugging and tracking device. Conveniently, China’s versions of social media can, like Facebook, help mobilize friends and followers but they also allow the government to know exactly who you are talking to and where they are. I no longer have to torture someone to find out who they have invited to a protest, instead I can simply look at their message boards and recent calls and texts. In short, it is debatable whether technology materially weakens a clever government and its security services by the fact of its existence and use – the application will matter.
Foreign Support – Lacking and Unlikely
Many revolutions need foreign support to succeed, whether they are armed insurrections or merely protest movements. Foreign support made Saddam Hussein feel (correctly) that no one would oppose his gassing of the Kurds in 1988 whilst eastern European governments felt they could hide behind Soviet support until 1989. In Ukraine, European support for the Maidan protesters was as important for them as Russian support for the counter-revolutionaries in eastern Ukraine. In Hong Kong’s case, foreign support will be minimal so long as security services are restrained to using standard tools like tear gas, batons and targeted arrests. Irrespective of Western states’ democratization agenda for Asia, few countries, the USA including, see chaos in China as desirable. We can expect weak statements about the need for ‘dialogue’ or ‘peaceful settlement’ from Western states but that is code for ‘we do not care what happens as long as there aren’t lots of dead unarmed teenagers on CNN.’ That would complicate domestic politics in Western states but short of drastic action by Chinese authorities most Western governments will ignore the protests as much as possibly without openly abandoning liberal sounding rhetoric.
Overall, revolutions are unpredictable and most protest movements fail miserably. We should, therefore, be skeptical about the prospects for reform in Hong Kong. In counter-insurgency theory a good insurgent is not a dead insurgent, but rather, an insurgent who has been made irrelevant. The same could be said about insurgent protest movements. The key for the Chinese government will be to continue the business of governing, hold onto their domestic supporters, keep international support and make the protesters appear to be troublemakers, an ignorant minority which is out of touch with the rest of China. Absent some random street vendor setting himself alight, this should be possible. We could still have some time to wait for Hong Kong’s democratic reform.
*Dr. Simon Leitch is the Editor in Chief, Foreign Policy and International Affairs,Alochonaa. He taught International Relations and Security Studies at Griffith University. His research interests are in foreign policy and strategy with a particular interest in the interaction of the great powers.
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