A man takes a picture with his mobile phone of a pro-democracy protest on Nathan Road, a major route through the heart of the Kowloon district of Hong Kong, on September 29, 2014. Police fired tear gas as tens of thousands of pro-democracy demonstrators brought parts of central Hong Kong to a standstill on September 28, in a dramatic escalation of protests that have gripped the semi-autonomous Chinese city for days. By Alex Ogle/AFP/Getty Images.
— Erin Hale (@erinhale) September 29, 2014
In the wake of March’s Kunming train station terrorist attack, in which 33 people died, the Chinese government decided to provide guns to the country’s previously unarmed patrol officers. William Wan warns that “the flood of newly armed police — combined with poor training and the government’s take-no-prisoners attitude – could become as fearful a problem as the terrorism it is intended to combat”:
China’s removal of a ban on police guns came in response to a gruesome attack on a train station several hundred miles from here, but it has given the police almost blanket authority to shoot whenever they see fit. … In the latest police-related violence, at least 40 people died [two Sundays ago] in China’s restive Xinjiang region, according to state-run news media, which attributed the incident to terrorists and identified the deceased as “rioters” shot by police or killed in explosions. By contrast, the sleepy village of Luokan is about as remote and unlikely a place for terrorism as can be found. Yet when police fatally shot a man recently in the middle of a busy market here, they declared him a terrorist as well and abruptly closed the case.
Wan and Xu Jing observe that many newly armed officers express “a surprising aversion” to their guns:
“I’ve never liked guns,” said one nine-year veteran. Until this year, guns were forbidden to most police – except for SWAT units and teams on special missions. “Even in past special operations, when we were ordered to have guns, I let co-workers take them instead. You have to worry about it misfiring, about it getting stolen or someone dying improperly.”
A retired officer from Hangzhou City suggested there’re tricky issues of pride at play. In the past, police were praised for daring to confront criminals without firearms, he said. And whenever bad guys got away or a situation spiraled out of control, police could always fall back on the excuse that they were unarmed, unlike police in many countries. “Now that they have guns, they’re in a tighter spot,” said the retired officer. “If you shoot, the public may question whether it was necessary. If you don’t, they may say, ‘You can’t even control criminals with the power of a gun?'”
The FT relays the latest:
The Chinese government faces its biggest challenge since Tiananmen, as tens of thousands of people on Monday joined the huge democracy protests in Hong Kong. Peaceful protesters poured into Admiralty – the scene of Sunday’s tense stand-off – on Monday after the Hong Kong government withdrew platoons of riot police whose use of tear gas generated sympathy for the demonstrators.
Tens of thousands of protesters, calling for “true democracy” – that is, no Beijing-led nomination process in the planned 2017 election for the city’s chief executive, its top government official – confronted the police in the heart of Hong Kong. The smell of tear gas hung in the air near Prada and Gucci shops in glitzy Central area. Police in full riot gear marched on thoroughfares normally congested with traffic in the Admiralty district, where the government is headquartered. By midnight, hundreds of protesters blocked the main roads in Causeway Bay and Mongkok, two bustling shopping areas favored by locals and tourists alike.
A Hong Kong resident sounds off over at Fallows’ place:
When the police decided to retake the street, they sprayed chemicals in our faces, pointed rifles at us, smashed our limbs with batons. While they were throwing tear gas with reckless abandon, our side threw not one rock, not one bottle, not one egg, nothing. None from our side brandished a firearm, a knife, a club, anything at all. I have neither seen nor heard any reports of protesters looting, burning cars, destroying property, or intentionally injuring police.
Young women felt safe enough to doze off during the lulls. In what other city would tens of thousands of ‘rioters’ act with such restraint?
The government warned against the chaos Occupy Central would cause. It’s all too clear to me which side is supplying the chaos and which side is conducting itself with dignity. These demonstrations may have been sparked by anger, but they’re sustained by compassion and love.
Max Fisher identifies the primary purpose of the protests:
That public opinion split among Hong Kong residents is what makes this week really important. The protesters were hoping to galvanize public opinion against Beijing’s plan for the 2017 election, and against China’s more gradual erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms. But Beijing (and Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing chief executive) seemed to hope that, by unleashing this highly unusual crackdown, they could nudge Hong Kong’s ever-conservative mainstream against the protesters and in favor of the status quo.
In other words, both the pro-democracy protesters and Beijing are hoping to force Hong Kong’s public to choose whether or not to accept, at a fundamental level, China’s growing control over Hong Kong politics. If the public tacitly accepts Beijing’s terms for the 2017 election, it will likely be taken as a green light for more limits on Hong Kong’s democracy and autonomy, however subtle those limits end up being. But if Hong Kong residents join the protesters en masse, they will be rejecting not just the 2017 election terms, but the basic terms of Hong Kong’s relationship with the central Chinese government.
Bruce Einhorn doubts China will cave:
[T]he Chinese government has very publicly intervened in the Hong Kong fight, first with its controversial white paper asserting locals had a “confused or lopsided” understanding of Hong Kong’s autonomy, later with its decree that any candidates running for chief executive in 2017 must first win majority approval by a pro-Beijing nomination committee of 1,200 people. That makes it virtually impossible for Chinese President Xi Jinping’s government to make any concessions.
Zoher Abdoolcarim adds that “Hong Kong is pushing for democracy precisely when China is becoming more authoritarian at home and exercising a sterner diplomatic approach abroad”:
Beijing is cracking down hard on dissent at home. The latest example: the life sentence handed to moderate Uighur academic Ilham Tohti allegedly for advocating “separatism” for Xinjiang. China has also become more assertive, even aggressive, over its maritime disputes with its Asian neighbors, essentially refusing to negotiate and imposing its own boundaries. Thus, Hong Kong — which, with its 7 million people, is just a tiny corner of China — can expect no quarter from Beijing over its fight for democracy.
Gordon Chang dreads the Chinese government’s response:
For many, it is impossible to believe Chinese troops would march on the city, but at this moment almost anything can happen, especially as the protests are taking on an anti-China taint. Students now say they will not salute the Chinese flag if it is raised in schools on Monday, and protesters on Sunday chanted anti-Beijing slogans.
If the disturbances continue into the early part of this week and the Hong Kong police are unable to restore order, Xi Jinping may feel he has no choice but to strike hard. As Chan Kin-man, the Occupy Central co-founder, said as he urged protesters to go home late Sunday evening, “It is a matter of life and death.”
by Jonah Shepp
The crises in the Middle East and Ukraine are frequently described in ideological terms, as battles between freedom and tyranny, liberal democracy and illiberal authoritarianism. The latest piece in this vein is from Lilia Shevtsova, who calls Russia “an advance combat unit of the new global authoritarianism, with China acting as its informal leader and waiting in the wings to seize its own opportunities”. I think this argument may give both Russia and China too much credit, especially as the informal leader of the new global authoritarianism is feeling threatened by a pro-democracy protest movement in Hong Kong. Evan Osnos looks in:
On Sunday, the Beijing government rejected demands for free, open elections for Hong Kong’s next chief executive, in 2017, enraging protesters who had called for broad rights to nominate candidates. China’s National People’s Congress announced a plan by which nominees must be vetted and approved by more than fifty per cent of a committee that is likely to be stacked with those who heed Beijing’s wishes. … Hong Kong’s growing activist network, known as Occupy Central (named after the city’s downtown) has increasingly alarmed leaders in Beijing, and they now describe the activism as a brush fire that could sweep over the mainland. In a piece published on Saturday, the People’s Daily, the Communist Party mouthpiece, hinted about foreign agitators “attempting to turn Hong Kong into a bridgehead for subverting and infiltrating the Chinese mainland. This can absolutely not be permitted.”
Osnos analyzes the situation as a competition between nationalism and globalism; his analysis is instructive, but at a time when political thinkers are worrying themselves over the possibility that the Western model of liberalism is in decline or failing to gain traction in the developing world, this long-simmering conflict looks to me like the most clear-cut test case of liberalism vs. authoritarianism in the world today.
When the 25th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square massacre came around in June, Hong Kong stirred. And as Isaac Stone Fish points out, the Hong Kong protests point to the PRC’s bigger-picture problem of containing the demand for democracy, which people tend to like and want to keep once they get a chance to try it out:
Beijing could crack down on Hong Kong, but it needs to be careful not to push too hard — that risks alienating the majority of Hong Kongers who aren’t bothered by the status quo. More importantly, Beijing is very wary of the message communicated to Taiwan, the self-governing island of roughly 23 million people claimed by China. For decades, Beijing’s paramount foreign policy goal has been the reunification of Taiwan to the mainland. Probably the most likely way for that to happen would be a situation similar to Hong Kong — whereby Taiwanese would enjoy significant autonomy and a wide range of political freedoms. But the more Hong Kongers suffer, the more difficult it will be for the CCP to make the case that Taiwanese should voluntarily join the mainland.
Noah Feldman also sees the decision as a message to Taiwan:
The latest Hong Kong development strengthens the case for taking the risk of promoting independence. China is signaling that it will not democratize even at the margins during Xi’s leadership. That means nationalism — Xi’s “Chinese Dream” — will continue to be an important source of legitimacy, and that in 10 years, China will probably only be closer to insisting that Taiwan become Chinese.
And Rachel Lu connects it to Hong Kong’s declining economic clout relative to the mainland, which is highlighted in a new report:
In taking a hard-line stance against granting true democracy to Hong Kong, the Chinese government has made clear to the rest of China — as well as Taiwan, which Beijing considers a rogue province — that threats of civil disobedience will not lead to political concessions. The central government probably also believes that it can now cast a menacing shadow over Hong Kong with its increasing economic weight. The report by Trigger Trend does not appear to be commissioned by the Chinese government, but the report’s conclusions have been widely publicized in mainland media and align nicely with the central government’s unspoken message to Hong Kongers: The special administrative region is no longer very special.
I have little background in Chinese politics or history, so I have no expert insight to render here, but even from casually following the news out of China, one has to wonder how tenable the status quo is. Capitalism has won the day, as it has in most of the world: does liberalism necessarily follow? It certainly hasn’t done so everywhere, but what’s interesting to me about China is that there are about 30 million people in Taiwan and Hong Kong who have long since proven that liberal democracy can speak Mandarin. In other words, one can’t credibly say that China is culturally indisposed toward democracy, as is often said (unfairly, I think) of Russia, Iran, and the Arab world. Of course, the legacy of Maoism and the past half-century of history bear heavily on the politics of the mainland, but it’s entirely possible that a free China could emerge in the long run, provided a catastrophic war doesn’t derail everything.
In any case, again, it’s certainly worth watching. China’s political trajectory has huge implications for American foreign policy (and indeed, for the entire world) in the coming decades. Which brings me to a couple questions I’ve had in the back of my head for a while and would like to pose to the collective brain that is the Dish readership: 1) what do you think of the prospects for democracy in China? and 2) given the choice of an ascendent Russia and an ascendent China, which should the US prefer? My off-the-cuff answer is “obviously China”, but I’d be curious to hear what you all think. E-mail me your ideas at email@example.com. I’ll revisit these questions later this week, hopefully with some brilliant insights from the inbox.