The Hong Kong and Moscow Protests: In Authoritarian Places, a Yearning for Democracy

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History has its rhythms that can produce extraordinary moments — like the present one. At a time when attachment to democracy is waning in the world’s oldest and greatest democracies like the U.S. and the U.K., the yearning for it emerges in highly undemocratic places like Hong Kong and Moscow.

What a juxtaposition: While U.S. president Donald Trump continues undermining democratic norms (too many to count) and last week British prime minister Boris Johnson made the undemocratic move of suspending Parliament to block further debate on Brexit (and undemocratically expelled 21 members of his own party who opposed him), protesters in Hong Kong and Russia have bravely carried on with their months-long pro-democracy protests — at constant peril of a military crackdown ordered by their strongman rulers Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin, respectively, who are well-known for jailing or even killing opponents.

About this paradox, Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum writes: “While the news at home gets constantly worse, we are simultaneously living in an era when the ideals of democracy have never burned more brightly, especially among younger people — at least those who live in autocracies….. In two of the most authoritarian countries on the planet, unprecedented pro-democracy demonstrations are now unfolding, inspiring precisely the same generation that is bored by democracy in the West.”

The Hong Kong protests has riveted the world with their zeal and numberssome have drawn two (2) million citizens (also here). When Hong Kong reverted from British to Chinese rule in 1997, it was with guarantees that the semi-autonomous island territory would continue enjoying freedoms that the mainland Chinese did not, in a formula termed “one country, two systems.” The tensions in that formula manifested this June, when the Beijing-backed Hong Kong government drafted a bill requiring Hong Kongers charged with criminal offenses be extradited to China for trial. Appalled at the prospect of Chinese “justice,” Hong Kongers of all ages hit the streets. They keep coming because they fear increasing encroachment by China.

While these protests are democratically organized — strategy is aired on-line and a consensus reached, protests surface “like water” around the city — its leaderlessness also accounts for the lapses into violence and vandalism. The world’s heart stops when such lapses occur, when, for example, protesters attacked the Legislative Council or closed down the airport: These unforced errors enable China to label the protesters as “radicals” and “terrorists.” (Some protesters apologized for the “inconvenience” of the airport closing and asked for “understanding and forgiveness as young people of Hong Kong continue to fight for freedom and democracy.”) China also cites “foreign interference,” namely the U.S. The recent protest at the U.S. consulate, with American flags flying and signs saying “President Trump, Please Liberate Hong Kong” — a protest mobilized in support of a bill wending its way in the U.S. Congress, “The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019” — only fuels that claim. (The American heart sinks at any appeals to Trump or Congress.)

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When will China lower the boom? With Chinese troops now massed at the border, and given the “radical” protesters and “foreign intervention,” and given the very real damage done by months of protests to Hong Kong as international banking hub and commercial center — and, crucially, given the imperative that the Chinese Communist Party remain the dominant political force — the world awaits China’s crackdown.

And yet, despite the gathering peril, the Hong Kong protesters keep on protesting, with, again, numerous lapses into violence. Rejecting the recent withdrawal of the extradition bill as “too little, too late,” protesters now issue broad calls for political reform, including universal suffrage, and an investigation of police brutality. In a New York Times op-ed, two lead Hong Kong activists, Joshua Wong and Alex Chow, avow the protesters are “only defending their beloved city.” Calling their resistance movement “a crisis of legitimacy for the Chinese government,” they call for “the rest of the world to support our crusade for human dignity, equality and freedom.” They also cite the bill wending its way through Congress. (Again, the American heart sinks.)

Meanwhile, similar protests in Moscow erupted this summer, in July.

Smaller in scale but no less passionate, and challenging no less a fearsome state in Putin’s Russia, the protests nominally are not pro-democracy but anti-corruption; the protesters call themselves “the opposition.” Yet their objective — to field candidates to run in a local election, rigged though Russian elections usually are — can appropriately be called pro-democracy.

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As Masha Gessen, Russian-American writer for The New Yorker and author of many books on Russia, describes: The impetus for the protests was the “so-called election” for the Moscow legislature (city council), a “rubber-stamping body that effectively reports to the mayor but is, formally, directly elected.” “This year, thirty-nine people who are not in the mayor’s pocket and do not belong to one of the Kremlin-controlled political parties tried to run for seats in the legislature and were not allowed on the ballot.”

Reacting to the farce of gathering constituent signatures only to have them disallowed as non-existent — “even when these people, some of them well-known in the city, insisted that they had indeed signed the candidate’s petition” — in mid-July seventeen such candidates called for a constituent meeting in a central Moscow square, “a gathering that would have been protected by law if the city had actually recognized them as candidates for political office.” But, as the gathering was “illegal,” a police crackdown ensued, turning ensuing protests into bloody melees, in what Gessen calls “a summer of unprecedented brutality.” At one point, eight “troublemaker” candidates were behind bars. Two sets of parents were stripped of their parental rights because they took their children to the protests.

The upshot? In the election, held last Sunday, the anti-Putin opposition scored impressive results, even though the disallowed opposition candidates remained barred from running. Putin’s United Russia party lost 13 seats, down from 38, barely clinging to its majority of 25 seats, while candidates effectively serving as anti-Putin opposition won 20 seats.

How did this happen? Via a tactic called “Smart Vote,” devised by long-time and oft-imprisoned anti-corruption activist Aleksei Navalny (who himself was disallowed from running — again). Noting that Putin’s candidates usually won with just 30–35 percent of the vote, Navalny urged constituents to vote for candidates who were the most credible rivals to Putin and had the best chance to win. While not all these candidates were truly of the opposition (some were from Putin’s party who ran as “independents”) and while regional results were less impressive (all 16 pro-Kremlin governors were re-elected), still, the results were “fantastic,” says Navalny. “We can say clearly that in Moscow this result is a triumph for Smart Voting.”

“Smart Vote”: Any American politico would recognize this tactic as GOTV, “Get out the vote.”

Which brings us back to our own damaged democracy here. Conscientious Americans are keenly aware of the multiple injuries inflicted on our democracy by Donald Trump, aided and abetted by too many Republicans. The disenfranchising of minority voters, the widespread gerrymandering, Trump’s refusal to secure our voting system from (ironically) Russian meddling. The denigration of the races and women, in a nation dedicated to equality for all. The sorrow of Immigrant Nation betraying the immigrant. An Attorney General reinterpreting justice to suit his boss (Trump).

And the sickening spectacle of the president of the United States of America, erstwhile Leader of the Free World, cozying up to the arch-nemeses of the brave protesters in Hong Kong and Moscow, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin….

In this context, the conscientious American can only wish democracy-seeking souls around the world all good fortune, and urge the wisdom of Martin Luther King, Jr., who preached the power of non-violent action. At the same time, we resolve to repair the damage done to our own ship of state. Repair is underway: Voter turnout in the 2018 midterm election was the highest ever, a super-abundance of candidates is running for president in 2020 and for local offices. As I have argued before, it may seem like breakdown, but we are in a reckoning.

Perhaps the world is having its own reckoning, a recognition, to wit: how precious it is simply to have a voice — that is, to have a democracy, a system of government based on the demos, the people.

As with anything precious, once gained, it must be preserved. Courage!

[Breaking news: At posting, there are reports (also here) that Russian security forces have raided and searched 200 homes and all 45 regional offices of opposition leader Aleksei Navalny’s Anti-Corruption Foundation. Purported reason: to further investigate alleged criminal money-laundering at the Foundation. A Foundation spokesman calls the raids an “act of mass political repression” to stop further erosion of pro-Kremlin forces in regional elections. Said a spokeswoman: “We won’t stop.”]

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