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How the Hong Kong Protesters Can Win

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How the Hong Kong Protesters Can Win

Over a century's worth of data shows that the Umbrella Revolution needs business, satire, and a whole lot of patience.

"Don't think that this will be over soon. This is fundamentally a war of patience and a test of our endurance," 17-year-old Joshua Wong, student leader of pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, tweeted on Thursday. For the past several weeks, the protesters have been putting on a clinic in organized, disciplined civil resistance: Tens of thousands of activists continue to throng the downtown streets and thoroughfares, demanding the resignation of Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying and threatening to occupy government buildings. Occupy Central, student coalitions, and other opposition groups have called for mass strikes while insisting that they will not back down until their ultimate goal of universal suffrage is achieved. Still, as momentum has slowed, the lingering question is, what next?

Beijing probably expects to wage (and win) a war of attrition against this civilian uprising.

Beijing probably expects to wage (and win) a war of attrition against this civilian uprising. The main challenge now for the Hong Kong democracy movement is to maintain pressure while withstanding inevitable repression and finding ways to erode Beijing's pillars of local support. It needs to find the right balance of disruption and engagement, to work inside and outside of traditional political and legal institutions, and to prepare for a multi-year struggle.    

In the face of a Goliath as formidable as the Chinese state, though, do the polite and savvy oppositionists of Hong Kong really have any hope of succeeding? My Why Civil Resistance Works co-author, Erica Chenoweth, and I found that similar nonviolent campaigns from around the world that challenged incumbent regimes from 1900-2006 succeeded about 53 percent of the time. During that same time period, nonviolent campaigns were more likely than armed ones to be followed by democracy within a decade -- even when the nonviolent campaigns failed. This highlights the importance of creating and sustaining civic space as a key factor in bringing about democracy.

Victory, in this case, means achieving genuine universal suffrage and democratic governance in Hong Kong. Even if sustained pressure forced the embattled chief executive to step down, the movement still would not have achieved its ultimate goal of a self-governing polity that freely elects its leaders. Studies have found that the average nonviolent campaign takes nearly three years to run its course (versus armed campaigns, which average nine years). As such, our definition refers to the long view: This isn't a struggle that will be won (or lost) in a weekend. Wong, for one, has said that electoral reform will be a "generational war."

The movement is off to an impressive start. The Hong Kong democrats have exhibited remarkable creativity and organizational prowess. Although Hong Kong is famous for its protest spirit, the level of participation and self-organization in the "Umbrella Movement," as it has been dubbed, is unprecedented. Months of studied and organized mass actions paved the way to huge National Day rallies. Youthful audacity and fence-jumping, followed by a police response that backfired, caused the number of protestors to spike. 

With a bevy of local and international journalists on the scene, unfettered access to internet (inside Hong Kong, at least), and the clever use of "Firechat" intra-movement messaging, the pro-democracy movement has won some serious media points. The movement has maintained the strictest nonviolent discipline -- making the riot police behavior and Beijing's claims that the protestors are ruffians all the more outrageous.

Still, there is much more that the movement can do to apply lessons from the strategies of campaigns that succeeded against similarly overwhelming odds.

The size and diversity of participation in civil resistance movements is strongly correlated with success, and the Hong Kong movement needs to grow. The mass protests in Hong Kong have featured tens of thousands -- maybe even hundreds of thousands -- of participants, spanning young and old, men and women, Christian, Taoist and Buddhist, white and blue collar workers. But who the protesters are matters just as much as how many of them there are, and right now, the democracy movement needs to attract support from key pillars in the business community that are either on the fence or currently supporting Beijing. When citizens of the Philippines challenged the "crony capitalism" of the Ferdinand Marcos regime, they did so with the help of the business community from the powerful Makati financial district, and small and medium enterprises in Ukraine played a key role in sustaining the Maidan movement. A targeted consumer boycott of businesses most closely aligned with Beijing, combined with the creation of a "white list" of the most pro-democracy businesses in Hong Kong, is one way to create economic leverage.

Doing so would also give more the movement more tactical diversity: another key ingredient of successful civil resistance.

Tactical innovation keeps movements energized and resilient, and their opponents off-guard, and pressure points maximized.

Tactical innovation keeps movements energized and resilient, and their opponents off-guard, and pressure points maximized. So far the Hong Kong democracy movement has relied heavily on methods of concentration like sit-ins and street demonstrations. These are hard to sustain and, particularly as participation levels dwindle, easy to target with repression. The one major tactical mistake the Chinese students made in 1989, some analysts have suggested, was occupying Tiananmen Square for too long. 

Tactical shifts are highly practical. The copper miners in Chile, who played a critical role in the pro-democracy movement that ousted Augusto Pinochet, knew when to avoid direct confrontations with the security forces. Instead of pitched battles, the miners and other democracy leaders called on the Chilean population to walk slowly in the streets to show their rejection of the Pinochet regime, while banging pots and pans at a designated hour to create a national chorus of defiance. Turkish anti-corruption activists managed to get a significant portion of the population to switch their lights on and off for one minute every night as part of a successful campaign to shine light on corruption in 1997. These symbolic tactics help maintain unity and solidarity while helping prepare for possibly more complex (and risky) actions.

At the end of the day, the democracy movement needs to create cracks and fissures within the Hong Kong political and economic elites in order to achieve its aims. Targeted consumer boycotts of select businesses in apartheid South Africa forced white business owners to pressure the government into negotiations with the African National Congress (ANC), for example. Clever, satirical media spots and street theater poking fun at the most corrupt members of the government and business communities is another tried and true method, used by pro-democracy groups in Serbia (against Slobodan Milosevic) and Ukraine (against Viktor Yanukovych). Establishing public awards for whistleblowers and pro-democracy business and labor leaders is another way to incentivize loyalty shifts within the pillars propping up Beijing's power in Hong Kong.

All of this has to be done while holding the movement together. Most popular struggles grapple with staying unified around goals, leaders, and tactics  -- particularly with an opponent that is skilled at combining cooptation with repression. There will likely come a time when the Hong Kong democracy movement will have to choose whether to accept concessions short of full victory, and when it does, it will help if all the major elements in the opposition have a say in the decision. When the Polish Solidarity movement, led by Lech Walesa, became so strong that it forced its way to the negotiating table, the actual talks with Communist regime members were broadcast via loudspeaker to ordinary Poles so that they knew what was going on. One could imagine a modern day equivalent to this communications strategy in Hong Kong.

The Polish Solidarity movement is also instructive because of the level of self-organization and governance that happened outside of communist government control. Kosovo Albanians, similarly, created a parallel parliament and other governance institutions as a way to de facto break away from Belgrade before the territory achieved independence. The Hong Kong democracy movement has already launched a successful, albeit unofficial online referendum about the future political system. And its civil society is clearly well organized. While territorial independence is not the goal of the movement, creating a participatory, representative system of governance inside the city-state clearly is. Some combination of working within official political and legal institutions and outside them, via parallel structures and institutions, is a strategy that dates back to Gandhi.

The Hong Kong democracy movement has no shortage of talented, strategic thinkers. The movement has already demonstrated maturity and cleverness. But it faces a stalwart, well-resourced opponent. It remains to be seen whether, and how, Hong Kong's civil resistance movement will outmaneuver its authoritarian opponent and keep the flame of democracy alive and well. But if the umbrella-wielders are in it for the long haul, their chances of victory might be better than you think.

Unlike Ukraine, The Hong Kong Protests Will Almost Certainly Fail

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Ukraine’s Euromaidan protests—taking place in Kiev from November 21, 2013 to February 22, 2014—aimed to break Ukraine out of Vladimir Putin’s sphere of influence. They succeeded, although how well depends on the West’s response to Putin’s ferocious counterattack. Hong Kong’s Democracy protests (August 31—?)  are being carried out by Hong Kong students protesting for a semblance of freedom from the autocratic control of Communist China under its flawed “one country, two systems” formula. These demonstrations were sparked by China’s reneging on its promise to restore the democratic election of the Hong Kong governor by 2017.

Unlike Ukraine, the Hong Kong protests will almost certainly fail. Euromaidan was a rare exception of success carried out under more propitious circumstances. The questions for Hong Kong are: how soon will the demonstrations be put down and at what cost in terms of blood and loss of economic freedom?

The parallels between Euromaidan and Hong Kong’s Umbrella Revolution (so called because demonstrators carry umbrellas) have not gone unnoticed in China.  Chinese commentators dismiss what they call Maidanocracy as “the rule of the square, from the infamous Maidan in central Kiev where the Ukrainian protests began. If carried out to its full extent, it will not end well for Hong Kong.” The Communist Party of China’s (CPC) fear of Maidanocracy is reflected in its complete news blackouts of both Maidan and the Umbrella Revolution. In its official diplomatic pronouncements, China has followed the Russian line that no government established by the mob rule of Maidanocracy is legitimate. Inherent in this claim is that both Russia and China are ruled by legitimate regimes, whose overthrow would be illegal and contrary to international law.

Euromaidan succeeded because of special circumstances: The Maidan Square protests reflected a general and genuine public revulsion with out-of-control corruption that affected everyone from common citizen to oligarch, by the years of national tragedy under Soviet rule, and by a genuine desire to become a part of Europe rather than of the Eurasian kleptocracy of Russia.  Moreover, Maidan took place in the nation’s capital and the center of pro-European, anti-Putin sentiment. It had the widespread support of Kievans who kept demonstrators fed and plied them with moral support. The immediate and perverse source of victory was the government’s loss of nerve when it authorized sniper fire that killed a considerable number of demonstrators and set in motion intensifying violence.

Hong Kong democracy demonstrators also share a deep conviction that Hong Kong, which ranks first in economic freedom, must remain politically free, despite being a part of China. As I write, the number of demonstrators has purportedly dwindled as they unblock government buildings for Monday’s business day, but Maidan demonstrations also ebbed and flowed during their almost three months. As long as grievances are not addressed, the Hong Kong demonstrations will continue, as they did in Maidan Square.

The Hong Kong democracy demonstrations raise the same issue of police response as at Maidan. The Hong Kong police are a British-style law enforcement agency. They are schooled in crowd control using conventional physical barriers, tear gas, and pepper spray. They tend to be neutral  law enforcers, despite protester criticism of going light on rowdy pro-Beijing counter demonstrators.

Notably, Hong Kong authorities lack the special forces – the Ukrainian Berkut or the Russian OMON – trained to apply extreme force for political goals. It was Berkut snipers that turned the Maidan protest into the outrage that brought the Yanukovich regime down. The Hong Kong police – largely unarmed– do not have the will or capacity to turn the Umbrella Demonstrations into a field of dead bodies and burning buildings. If the CPC decides to apply such force, it must turn to nearby garrisons of the Peoples Liberation Army (PLA).

Perhaps the most important lesson from Maidan for the CPC is that violence perversely increases the number and intensity of demonstrators. In downtown Kiev, the deaths of some hundred demonstrators earned them “heavenly hundred” martyrdom and forced the regime to flee. We have already seen something of the same phenomenon in Hong Kong. The use of pepper spray, tear gas, and some head knocking has so far brought larger crowds to the streets.

No matter how great the dedication and enthusiasm, the Umbrella Revolution will fail. President Xi Jinping has made his hardliner credentials a hallmark of his young regime. He could never back down on an issue as important as the control of Hong Kong. Most likely, he will wait to see if the demonstrations peter out by themselves. Only if  he feels he has no alternative will he resort to the PLA, who might welcome the chance to take it out on “spoiled” Hong Kong students.

Such a crackdown will have costs. China has worked hard over the years to create the image of a benevolent one-party technocracy, which makes rational economic and political decisions. This image, it hopes, will outweigh the reality of extreme domestic repression, suppression of the media, ethnic and religious persecution, and territorial adventurism.

Regimes like China’s CPC and Russia’s Putin abhor Maidanocracy.  Even though blood on the streets of Hong Kong would damage China’s image for years to come, any failure to stop the Umbrella Revolution would mean “rule of the square.” And that is intolerable.

Dictators understand that lack of legitimacy threatens their power. They therefore go to elaborate lengths to create the charade of “being chosen by the people.”  Stalin and Mao held celebratory party congresses of thousands of delegates called to “re-elect” them and rubber stamp their programs. Today’s CPC goes through elaborate rituals of secretive meetings at seaside resorts, powwows of regional elites, politburo sessions, and central committee convocations, followed by a national congress to rubber-stamp the new leadership chosen by insiders.

Russian president Vladimir Putin feigns legitimacy differently. He actually allows the people to vote for him atop a candidate list hand-picked by his own electoral commission. Count on the fact that there are no real rivals on the ballot other than a nationalist clown and a tired communist party leader. The choice is either “Putin” or “Anyone but Putin.”

Every now and then, however, something happens that calls into question the regime’s legitimacy and draws “the rule of the square” into the streets. Under such rare and extraordinary circumstances, the people rise up to demand a voice for themselves. In most such cases, the regime suppresses the protest and restores the original order. Just a little hitch, but never mind, the leaders say. Everything is back to normal.

Ukraine’s Euromaidan revolution, which mobilized people power to install a new government with different domestic and foreign-policy values, is the exception. We do not yet know the end result – a democratic government based upon Western values or a reversion to the corruption and absence of a rule of law of the old regime under pressure from Putin and Western indifference.

Dictators in the Kremlin and Beijing watched with chills running down their spines as hundreds of thousands of people took to Kiev streets – on their own accord – demanding a change in government. National leaders like Putin and Xi Jinping watched in outrage: Who authorized these marches? Who gave them authority to make their demands? We do not like this at all.

The ferocity of Vladimir Putin’s military, propaganda and economic assault on post-Maidan Ukraine shows his revulsion and fear of a successful people’s revolt that unseated a regime he favored. Xi Jinping must have seethed as Ukraine’s popular uprising overthrew a regime that had even more legitimacy than his own. After all, the overthrown Yanukovich regime came to power at the ballot box.

The Putins and Xi Jinpings of this world are afraid because each has had his narrow escape from Maidanocracy.

The spark in China was the expectation that political reform would follow economic reforms in the 1980s. Tens of thousands of young protesters amassed on Tiananmen Square in April of 1989.  After two months of inner-party deliberations and negotiations with the protesters, the CPC put down the people’s revolt using the extreme force of the Peoples Liberation Army at a cost of several thousand lives. Since Tiananmen Square, China has been rocked by thousands of localized protests and revolts, which the CPC has managed by suppressing dissent and resolving where possible the economic grievances that brought the people to the streets.

Putin’s Maidanocracy incident started in December of 2011 after electoral fraud in the Russian parliamentary election brought hundreds of thousands of demonstrators to the streets and squares of Moscow and Petersburg. Putin remained on shaky ground through his reelection to a third presidential term in March of 2012 (after his electoral commission banned real opposition candidates) and opposition blogger Alexei Navalny’s near miss run for mayor of Moscow in February of 2013. Throughout this period, Putin endured placards of “Russia Without Putin” and the widespread description of his party as the “Party of Crooks and Thieves.”

In retrospect, most observers think that Putin’s survival was pre-ordained. In reality, it was a near death experience. Off balance from the hundred thousand protesters, Kremlin Inc. lost its footing for a brief moment. To understand the magnitude of the December 2011, consider a U.S. election in which Republican candidates are banned, and the Democrats vie against the Green, Libertarian, and the Freedom Socialist Parties, and fail to win a majority. The majority of ballots were not for someone but against the Putin regime.

In the confusion that followed, an unprecedented anti-Putin expose ran on Channel 1, and other major TV channels carried videos of the mass demonstrations. A sweating and off-balance Putin faced hostile questions about election fraud in his annual televised tête-à-tête with the Russian people, he encouraged a caller to beat up demonstrators, whom he likened to a tribe of monkeys. He assured listeners that there was no need to worry about corruption. He would take care of it himself.

A few days later, normality was restored. But there was clearly a moment of hesitation. Kremlin Inc. had to decide quickly whether Putin had become too much of a liability. Their answer was no, but it could become a yes.

In the years that have passed since this moment of uncertainty, Putin has put in place security buffers to protect himself from another Maidanocracy. He has used the courts to silence and imprison (sometimes with house arrest) potential rivals such as Navalny. Unfriendly deputies have been drummed out of parliament, alternative political parties have been banned or abolished, and he has raised the price to ordinary demonstrators, who face years of prison or house arrest simply for appearing at demonstrations and throwing a lemon peel.

Putin has created another security buffer by  offering the Russian people the Roman equivalent of bread and circuses. Putin’s circus was the prospect of restoration of a greater Russia, a new Russian empire that would restore Russian national pride and punish those nations of the West that had humiliated Russia when it was on its knees under Yeltsin. This message was drummed home day and night by Russian propaganda, which sought out new enemies – the neo Nazi extremists who took over Kiev and their NATO and CIA enablers. Putin’s greatest circus was the return of Crimea to the bosom of mother Russia and the protection of ethnic Russians in East Ukraine from genocidal extremists. Public opinion polls suggest that a vast majority of the Russian population believe Putin’s alternative universe.

As long as Hong Kong remains an economically-free state, Xi Jinping lacks the tools to emulate Putin’s extinction of political opposition. Hong Kong operates according to a rule of law that would not allow years of prison for participating in a demonstration or writing a blog that is unfavorable to China. The Hong Kong chief of police cannot order the police to beat up opposition politicians and then charge them with assault on police officers.

Hong Kong will answer the question: Can a dictatorship operate according to a strict rule of law? These examples show the answer is no. Under a dictatorship, the dictator is the law. Hence there can be no rule of law. It is as simple as that.

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