A Fresh Start For Sri Lanka?


In a surprise upset on Friday, the country’s strongman president, Mahinda Rajapaksa, was voted out of office, losing to his opponent Maithripala Sirisena, who had promised much-needed reforms and reached out to the country’s marginalized Tamil and Muslim communities:

Sirisena, a one-time ally of Rajapaksa who defected in November and derailed what the president thought would be an easy win, took 51.3 percent of the votes polled in Thursday’s election. Rajapaksa got 47.6 percent, the Election Department said. … Like Rajapaksa, Sirisena is from the majority Sinhala Buddhist community, but he has reached out to ethnic minority Tamils and Muslims and has the support of several small parties.

Kate Cronin-Furman stresses what a mess of things Rajapaksa made during his decade in office:

Over the course of 10 years in power, Rajapaksa had undermined the institutions of South Asia’s oldest democracy, beefing up Sri Lanka’s already robust executive presidency. He also consolidated power in the hands of his family. One brother served as secretary of defense, a second the speaker of Parliament, a third a cabinet minister, and numerous sons and nephews were installed in positions of power. Potential opponents to the dynastic project were bought off or brutally silenced. Election Day fell on the sixth anniversary of the killing of well-known journalist Lasantha Wickrematunge, who accused the Rajapaksas of his killing in a chilling posthumous editorial. Independent media have since learned to self-censor. …

The first few days of Sirisena’s presidency have already brought change.

By Saturday, long-blocked Web sites were suddenly viewable, surveillance of journalists had been officially discontinued, and political exiles had been invited home. Word spread that a reinstatement of impeached Supreme Court Justice Shirani Bandaranayake was in the works.

The editors of the Christian Science Monitor pray Sirisena will move Sri Lanka forward in the healing process after its lengthy and bitter civil war:

While his victory was a rejection of the power grabs and corruption under his predecessor, Mahinda Rajapaksa, just as noteworthy is the fact that he won a majority of votes from the country’s major ethnic and religious groups. This brings some hope that Sri Lanka will finally allow a full accounting of a war that lasted nearly three decades and took an estimated 80,000 to 100,000 lives. Sri Lanka’s government has not come clean on civilian casualties toward the end of the war. It needs that kind of truth-telling for social healing, as other conflict-scarred nations, such as South Africa and Brazil, have discovered.

The editors of Bloomberg View are excited at the prospect of turning the South Asian island nation away from China’s sphere of influence:

Whether the U.S. and India can exploit this opportunity, however, will depend on whether they recognize what’s unique about Sri Lanka. The first thing to appreciate is that voters weren’t necessarily driven by resentment of China. They elected Maithripala Sirisena as president because they had tired of the opacity and perceived cronyism of Rajapaksa’s administration, symbolized in part by multibillion-dollar projects handed out to Chinese companies with little oversight. Elites had begun to fear that Beijing would soon demand more political and military influence as part of its largesse. Yet, unlike Myanmar, which shares a land border with China, such concerns remain somewhat theoretical. Sri Lanka has vast infrastructure needs — and therefore good reason not to reject Chinese money entirely.

Harsh Pant observes that it won’t be easy to disentangle Sri Lanka’s extensive ties to the Middle Kingdom:

China’s support was crucial for Sri Lanka during the last phase of the war against the LTTE [Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam]. Chinese support has also been invaluable for Sri Lanka to Screen Shot 2015-01-12 at 10.00.42 PMconfront U.S.-backed resolutions at the UNHRC [United Nations Human Rights Council]. As a result, the two nations now have a declared “strategic cooperation partnership.” For China, its ties with Sri Lanka give it a foothold near crucial sea-lanes in the Indian Ocean, as well as entry into what India considers its sphere of influence. China is financing more than 85 percent of the Hambantota Development Zone, to be completed over the next decade. This will include an international container port, a bunkering system, an oil refinery, an international airport and other facilities.

Indian policymakers will be mistaken if they think that a change of regime in Colombo will lead to a dampening of Sino-Sri Lanka ties. China’s role is now firmly embedded in Sri Lanka – economically as well as geopolitically. India will have to up its game if it wants to retain its leverage in Colombo.

Alyssa Ayres links the China question back to Sri Lanka’s lingering challenges regarding good governance, human rights, and transitional justice:

Sirisena defeated Rajapaksa with a platform focused on ending corruption, restoring Sri Lanka’s image and its relations abroad, and renewing a “compassionate governance” in the country. The perception of the Chinese financing itself became part of the Rajapaksa regime’s weakness—the perception that Sri Lanka’s ruling family had not only mortgaged the country’s economic security but had enriched themselves. Sirisena’s manifesto speaks of a 90 percent pilfering, for example (p.8). (These are all allegations, not proven facts.)

We can expect a Sirisena government to launch inquiries, and likely cancel the more than $1 billion contract with China to build a new port city, as promised by then-opposition leader Ranil Wickramasinghe, now prime minister, in mid-December. While the new Sri Lankan government is not looking to end its relations with China—after all, it is the second priority country listed in the election manifesto—it will be very difficult to mount anti-corruption investigations and unwind these sorts of contracts without introducing tension into Sri Lanka’s relations with China.

(Photo: The new president of Sri Lanka, Maithripala Sirisena, gestures to supporters after speaking outside of the Buddhist Temple of Tooth in the central town of Kandy on January 11, 2015. Sri Lanka’s new government on January 11 accused toppled strongman Mahinda Rajapakse of having tried to stage a coup to cling to power after losing last week’s presidential election. By Ishara S. Kodikara/AFP/Getty Images)

And You Thought They Just Used Soy Sauce …

Keating flags some odd news out of China, which is planning to do away with its 2,600-year-old state monopoly on table salt:

The salt monopoly began during in the Qi state on the Shandong peninsula around the seventh century BC and may have been the first ever state-controlled monopoly. During the third century BC, the Chinese imperial state sold salt at a markup, effectively levying a tax used to pay troops and, perhaps, the early stages of the Great Wall of China.

Several centuries, dynasties, and revolutions later, the world’s oldest monopoly is still in place. Under the policy’s current incarnation, the China National Salt Industry Corp. designates who is authorized to produce salt and is the only entity allowed to sell it to consumers. These consumers often pay three to four times more than what the CNSIC does. The new plan will liberalize the industry and scrap price controls starting in 2016.

Some Chinese netizens, Bethany Allen-Ebrahimian observes, are concerned that opening the salt market will just lead to more food safety scandals:

“There will soon be frequent cases of industrial salt” — far cheaper than table salt — “being mixed with edible salt,” went one popular comment on Weibo, China’s huge, Twitter-like microblogging platform. Another userwrote, “Soon the media will be putting out articles called ‘How to tell industrial salt from table salt.'” The topic seemed to resonate; “salt monopoly abolished” became a top-trending hashtag on Weibo, and one related post on CCTV’s official Weibo account quickly garnered over 1,300 comments. One user commented cynically, “I’ve eaten all kinds of fake products; now I will finally have the opportunity to eat fake salt!”

But Austin Ramzy notes that ending the monopoly might actually help fix this problem:

Some scholars have argued that the state monopoly system actually contributed to the phenomenon of tainted salt, and that overhauling the system while enforcing food quality laws should help improve safety. In a 2010 paper, Sun Jin, Fan Zhou and Qin Li of Wuhan University noted that the monopoly meant that the price consumers paid for salt was three to four times higher than the price the China National Salt Industry Corporation paid for salt from authorized producers.

While the average consumer does not feel the price difference because salt makes up such a small portion of a typical grocery bill, the markup supports a vast and pernicious underground market, the authors wrote. Such salt often does not contain iodine and can have harmful impurities, they noted.

Singles And Onlies In China

Alexa Olesen explains why having only one child remains so common in China, despite the retracted policy:

China’s state-run news service Xinhua published an article Nov. 10 with the headline: “Why aren’t we seeing the expected baby boom?” The news agency said it had sent reporters fanning out in four provinces to ask why eligible couples were hesitating.

The respondents fell into three general categories:

those afraid to have a second kid, those who don’t want to, and those who just can’t decide. Among the “afraid” group was a 32-year-old IT worker in the rust belt city of Shenyang in northeast China who said he thought it would be too expensive to have a second child. “It’s easy to have another one, but it’s hard to raise them,” said the man who was only identified by his surname, Zhang.

Another man, surnamed Wang from Yantai, a coastal city in eastern China’s Shandong province, said it would be too exhausting to have another child and he was perfectly happy to just have his daughter. He was in the “don’t want” camp. Wang also told Xinhua he didn’t see anything wrong with raising an only child. “Our generation is all only children, and we’re doing just fine,” he said.

Representing the undecided camp was Wan Yan, a 36-year-old university lecturer who said she felt she was probably too old for a second child but hadn’t ruled it out yet. “If we can’t give the second child the best of everything, it would be very hard to commit to having another one,” she said.

Previous Dish on China’s child policy here. Meanwhile, Ben Richmond describes the country’s Singles Day holiday, comparing it with Black Friday:

It’s a young holiday, thought to date back only to 1993, when Nanjing University students picked November 11—11/11 is four singles, see?—as a sort of “anti-Valentine’s Day” where single people could buy things for themselves.

While, to me, that sounds like pretty much every day for a single person, it has blown up in China thanks to the backing of Alibaba. Since 2009 the ecommerce giant has used Singles’ Day as an excuse for a big one-day sale in order to get people buying stuff in their online Tmall—and it’s caught on. It took just 17 minutes of Singles’ Day for Alibaba to record a billion dollars in sales, according to CNBC. It took just an hour and eleven minutes to top $2 billion. According to Forbes, by just after midnight Beijing time, Alibaba was reporting that sales reached $9.3 billion, a 60 percent increase in revenue over just a year ago.

Alison Griswold adds:

The craziest thing about Singles Day is that its huge sales so far have been almost entirely driven by Chinese shoppers. What Alibaba is looking to do now is grow Singles Day from a Chinese phenomenon to a global one—an expansion that’s all the more important after Alibaba debuted on the New York Stock Exchange in mid-September. That IPO rang in as the biggest ever in the U.S. and investors across the world are watching closely to see if Alibaba can maintain its breakneck pace of sales growth.

Previous Dish on Singles Day here.

Republicans Refuse To Save The Planet

Beutler passes along the above video, a “supercut of Republicans citing China as an excuse to ignore climate change.” His takeaway after watching it:

[T]he problems that climate pollution causes are real, and even the least accountable governments in the world understand that they need to be addressedeven if not for the purest, most idealistic reasons. Once you accept the alarming implications of climate science, then trying to avert them becomes ineluctable. And the only way to explain away how wrong conservatives were here is to conclude that they had actually internalized the view that climate change isn’t a big deal, and might just be a big hoax.

Kate Galbraith looks at how Republicans might derail Obama’s climate agenda:

If a Republican takes the White House in 2016, he or she could reverse or revise the executive orders that form the core of Obama’s climate push. And it’s going to be a hard fight even before the election: Republicans in Congress, newly empowered after recapturing the Senate this month, are already vowing to undercut the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA’s) regulations to reduce greenhouse gas emissions from coal-fired power plants. Sen. James Inhofe (R-Okla.), the incoming chairman of the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, is already plotting a way out of the U.S.-China deal. He immediately described it as a “non-binding charade.” He also vowed to do “everything in my power to rein in and shed light on the EPA’s unchecked regulations.” Inhofe has limited direct leverage over the EPA, but the Senate could withhold appropriations to the agency.

Rebecca Leber marvels at Inhofe’s grandstanding:

“Why would China ever agree unilaterally to reduce its emissions when that’s the only way that they can produce electricity?” he later asked. “Right nowand I have talked to them before, I’ve talked to people from China who kind of smile. They laugh at us and say, ‘Wait a minute, you say that you’re going to believe us that we’re going to reduce our emissions? We applaud the United States. We want the United States to reduce its emissions, because if they do that, as the manufacturing base has to leave the United States looking for energy, they come to China.’ So it’s to their advantage to continue with their increases in emissions.”

In his speech, Inhofe called himself a “one-man truth squad”twice.

Chait is disheartened by the GOP response:

The Republican Party and its intellectual allies regard close analysis of Chinese internal motivations as a useless exercise. Conservatives oppose taxes or regulations limiting greenhouse gas emissions, therefore they dismiss scientific conclusions that would justify such regulations, and therefore they also dismiss geopolitical analyses that would have the same effect. On the right, it is simply an a priori truth that nothing could persuade China to limit its emission. Obviously, the feasibility of a deal with China is far less certain than the scientific consensus undergirding anthropogenic global warming. What is parallel between the two is the certainty of conservative skepticism and imperviousness to contrary evidence. …

It would be nice to think that evidence like today’s pact would at least soften the GOP’s unyielding certainty about the absolute impossibility of a global climate accord. The near-total refusal of the right to reconsider its denial of the theory of anthropogenic global warming sadly suggests otherwise.

But Drum doesn’t think Republicans can stand in Obama’s way:

Unlike Obama’s threatened immigration rules, these are all things that have been in the pipeline for years. Obama doesn’t have to take any active steps to make them happen, and Republicans can’t pretend that any of them are a “poke in the eye,” or whatever the latest bit of post-election kvetching is. This stuff is as good as done, and second only to Obamacare, it’s right up there as one of the biggest legacies of Obama’s presidency.

Earlier Dish on the agreement here and here.

Our Climate Pact With China, Ctd

Jack Goldsmith calls the emissions reductions “aspirational”:

US China Emissions[T]he two sides do not promise to, or state that they will, reduce emissions by a certain amount. Rather, they state only that they intend to achieve emissions reductions and to make best efforts in so doing.  Whether and how the goals expressed in these intentions will be reached is left unaddressed, and one nation’s intention is not in any way tied to the other’s.  Nor would it be a violation of the “announcement” if either side’s best efforts fail to achieve the intended targets.  As we have seen with a lot with climate change aspirations, intentions are easy to state, and they change over time.  The key point is that this document in no way locks in the current intentions.  In fact it creates no obligations whatsoever, not even soft ones (except that, in a different place, both sides “commit” to “reaching an ambitious … agreement” next year, an empty commitment).  It is no accident that the document is called an “announcement” and not a treaty or pledge or even an agreement.

Tyler Cowen also provides a reality check:

First, China is notorious for making announcements about air pollution and then not implementing them.

This is only partially a matter of lying, in part the government literally does not have the ability to keep its word.  They have a great deal of coal capacity coming on-line and they can’t just turn that switch off.  They’re also driving more cars, too.

Second, China falsifies estimates of the current level of air pollution, so as to make it look like the problem is improving when it is not.  Worse yet, during the APEC summit the Chinese government blocked the more or less correct estimates coming from U.S. Embassy data, which are usually transmitted through an app.  A nice first step to the “deal” with the United States would have been to allow publication (through the app) of the correct numbers.  But they didn’t.  What does that say about what one might call…”the monitoring end”…of this new deal?

Chris Mooney is more upbeat:

[T]he experts underscore that this deal has a symbolic value that goes far beyond the literal emissions cuts (or caps) that have now been pledged, precisely because the world’s top two greenhouse gas emitters have now both come to the table. If the agreement lays the groundwork for a broader global agreement — one that encompasses other major emitters like India, Japan, and Russia — then that is the real payoff. That agreement could happen in Paris in late 2015, when the nations of the world gather to try to achieve a global agreement to cut greenhouse gas emissions.

What Michael Levi will be keeping an eye on:

I wouldn’t expect much more negotiation over either U.S. or Chinese targets, even though European leaders may want to have a discussion. Over the next year, rather than focus on any haggling over emissions numbers, it will be worth watching three things. What will the remaining details of the Chinese plan look like? How will the U.S. goals be received politically – and could they spook a Congress currently considering how much to try to interfere with pending EPA regulations? And, perhaps most important, could this display of pragmatic U.S.-China diplomatic cooperation be a sign of more to come in international climate change diplomacy – which will need to go well beyond target-setting – over the coming year?

Scott Moore reads the fine print:

Other areas covered by the agreement include new partnerships linking water scarcity and sustainable energy, a demonstration project for carbon capture and storage (CCS), and a sustainable cities initiative. Integrating energy and water issues promises to expand U.S. – China climate cooperation from an almost exclusive focus on emissions mitigation to one that also helps both countries adapt to climate change. Greater cooperation on CCS, meanwhile, will help develop a technology that is needed to help wean the world off fossil fuels by storing carbon dioxide deep underground instead of releasing it into the atmosphere.  The sustainable cities initiative, finally, builds on dynamic sub-national action on climate change in both the United States and China, with the leaders of places as diverse as New York and Jiangsu Province pledging to work together to reduce emissions.  Washington must devote serious resources to ensure that these initiatives fulfill their promise.

Max Fisher puts the announcement in context:

[I]t’s a very promising precedent of the two countries working together as global leaders on difficult issues. Over the next century, the US and China are going to face many, many more global issues on which they disagree, but on which they will both be better off if they cooperate. Indeed, the world as a whole is better served by Chinese and American cooperation and joint leadership. That’s why even Chinese state-run media is trumpeting the climate deal as “highlight[ing] a new type of major-country relations.”

But Alexa Olesen finds that China is downplaying the news at home:

Deborah Seligsohn, an expert on the Chinese environment at the University of California San Diego, told FP that Chinese leaders “tend not to enthuse,” so that may in part explain Xi’s reserve. But she also said that Beijing is under fire domestically for its unsuccessful efforts to curb local air pollution, noting that people were furious that authorities managed to clear the air for the visiting APEC dignitaries but can’t do it on a daily basis for their own citizens. ” There may be worries that focusing on climate change rather than air pollution doesn’t meet the public’s main concerns,” Seligsohn said via email.

And Michael Grunwald keeps focused on the role technology must play:

You don’t see the U.S. or China ditching oil yet, because when it comes to transportation, there’s nothing cost-competitive with oil yet. Electric vehicles are getting cheaper, and their sales are doubling every year, but internal combustion engines still rule. No international agreement will change that—and until there are viable alternatives to oil, international agreements that try to change that by fiat will end up being ignored. Ultimately, it’s unrealistic to expect developing countries or developed countries to ignore the short-term economic interests of their people, even when medium-term environmental disaster looms.

After all, the end of the Stone Age had nothing to do with stones at all. It ended when the world found stuff it liked better. It ended when better technology could do the same things more efficiently. Governments can do a lot to promote cheaper alternatives to fossil fuels, but the Fossil Fuel Age won’t end until they’re here.

Everything else is just words.

Earlier Dish on the agreement here.

(Chart from Philip Bump)

Our Climate Pact With China

Jeff Spross summarizes it:

CHINA-US-DIPLOMACYThe pledge commits the U.S. to cut its emissions 26 to 28 percent below their 2005 levels by 2025. This builds on the current target of a 17 percent reduction below that baseline by 2020, and could actually double the pace of emission cuts set by that initial goal — from 1.2 percent a year to as high as 2.8 percent per year. The White House has actually been looking into the possibility of expanding beyond the 2020 target since 2013, and has been involved in occasional interagency meetings to that effect.

For its part, China is committing to get 20 percent of its energy from non-fossil-fuel sources by 2030, and to peak its overall carbon dioxide emissions that same year. China’s construction of renewable energy capacity is already proceeding at a furious pace, and this deal will require the country to deploy an additional 800 to 1,000 gigawatts of zero-carbon energy by 2030. For comparison, 800 to 1,000 gigawatts is close to the amount of electricity the U.S. current generates from all sources combined.

Rebecca Leber questions whether China and the US will follow through:

The administration says this will be achievable under existing law. It assumes the Environmental Protection Agency’s regulations to slash carbon pollution from power plants 30 percent by 2030 are in full swing. But there is also intense Republican opposition to the EPA’s plans, and to Obama’s. The new Congress is led by climate change deniers, who will obstruct the president’s plans. The next Senate Majority Leader, Mitch McConnell, has suggested he will use must-pass appropriations bills as leverage to force Obama into delaying or weakening his own climate regulations.

Xi may not have to deal with Congress, but China has its own challenges ahead. The next step to watch for is specific regulations and goals that are outlined in China’s next five-year plan. It won’t be easy to meet these pledges: Non-fossil fuels made up 9.8 percent of China’s energy sources energy in 2013. To achieve 20 percent of its energy from non-fossil fuels, China will need to add clean and nuclear energy at an enormous scale.

Sam Roggeveen is skeptical:

This deal is good news for all sorts of reasons, but it’s worth remembering that these are just targets (the UK set targets too, and is on track to miss them) which are not really enforceable. And given the long lead times (2025 for Washington to meet its new emissions targets; 2030 for Beijing’s emissions to peak), it’s going to be difficult to hold both countries to their commitments.

Plumer remarks that it’s “debatable whether either pledge is sufficient to avoid drastic levels of global warming — particularly if China lets its emissions keep rising until 2030”:

Some analyses have suggested that China’s emissions would need to peak in 2025 or earlier for the world to meet its goal of preventing more than 2°C (3.6°F) of global warming. (The White House said it thinks China can peak earlier, particularly if it meets that ambitious clean-energy target. But that’s not certain.) And more crucially, the deal only includes two countries. As climate modeler Chris Hope points out, this deal in isolation still puts the world on course for a likely 3.8°C (6.8°F) rise in temperatures. “These pledges are only the first step on a very long road,” he concludes.

Michael Levi analyzes China’s side of the deal:

The difference between a 26 and a 28 percent cut in U.S. emissions is on the order of 120 million metric tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually. That’s smaller than the EIA’s projected annual growth in Chinese energy emissions for each year between 2025 and 2030. Very loosely speaking, a mere one-year shift in the Chinese peaking year could matter at least as much to global emissions as the difference between the various U.S. targets that have now been announced.

And then there’s the matter not of when Chinese emissions peak but where they peak. Do they peak 25 percent above current levels? 15 percent? 10 percent? That makes an enormous difference for global emissions.

Fallows puts the announcement in context:

Many people thought, hoped, or dreamt that Xi Jinping would be some kind of reformer. Two years into his watch, his has been a time of cracking down rather than loosening up. Political enemies and advocates of civil society are in jail or in trouble. Reporters from the rest of the world have problems even getting into China, and reporters from China itself face even worse repression than before. The gratuitous recent showdown with Hong Kong exemplifies the new “No More Mr. Nice Guy” approach.

A nationalistic, spoiling-for-a-fight tone has spilled over into China’s “diplomatic” dealings too. So to have this leader of China making an important deal with an American president at this stage of his political fortune is the first news that even seems positive in a long while.

We’ll wait to see the details. But at face value, this is better news—about China, about China and America, and about the globe—than we’ve gotten for a while.

That progress gives Brian Merchant hope:

The two biggest polluters, who have never agreed on much of anything about climate change at all, are issuing a deal that seriously reflects the scope and depth of the problem. The agreement will have a profound effect on the international community, and it’s already sending cheers through the climate circles around the world. The two immobile pillars propping the up the bulk of the world’s fossil fuel infrastructure finally feel like they’ve budged.

The challenges in meeting the targets put forward—and pushing them further—will of course be myriad. But in the face of an unfolding planetary disaster that can seem immune to government action, this deal is, at the very least, a much-needed beacon of hope.

(Photo: US President Barack Obama (L) and China’s President Xi Jinping reach out to shake hands following a bilateral meeting at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing on November 12, 2014.By Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images)

Hong Kong Heats Up Again

Demonstrators returned to the streets in droves today after the government abruptly cancelled talks with the protest movement:

Crunch negotiations between protesters and Beijing-backed city officials were slated for Friday, but fell apart Thursday after the government pulled out, blaming student leaders for attempting to escalate demonstrations. The decision deepened the political crisis convulsing the Asian financial hub, with the failure of talks expected to reinvigorate mass rallies that have paralysed parts of the city for nearly two weeks. …

Sunny Lo, a political analyst at the Hong Kong Institute of Education, said the government was spooked by a promise from pro-democracy lawmakers Thursday to disrupt the workings of the government in the city’s parliament, known locally as LegCo, in a show of support for protesters. “This is not a good sign now. The temperature is rising both inside and outside LegCo,” he told AFP. “If (the) Occupy Central movement drags on for a few more weeks I’m afraid police action would be inevitable. It would just be a matter of time,” he added.

In a roundup of expert opinion on the current situation, George Chen doubts that Occupy Central is coming to an end anytime soon:

By all means, we are now seeing the protest movement becoming a very long-term political struggle in Hong Kong. I’m not talking about two months or three months. You may see fewer protesters blocking the roads by the end of the year but the Occupy Central movement means a new era for Hong Kong — we will see more on-and-off protests, of a large or small scale, around the city, and for different causes. It is unfortunate to see Hong Kong becoming a less happy and more divided society. It’s even more unfortunate to see that the governments in Beijing and Hong Kong perhaps haven’t really realized what Occupy Central means for Hong Kong. Simply labeling it an “unlawful” event won’t be helpful at all to end the crisis.

Kang Yi expects the government’s decision to backfire:

I talked to a few people shortly after the government called off the scheduled meeting. While some of them supported the movement and others claimed to be neutral, they all perceived the government’s move in a negative way, criticizing it for “being hypocritical” and “throwing its weight around.” The government’s flip-flop may incur a strong feeling of aversion among citizens. Also, Carrie Lam may have misjudged the situation by commenting that “the number of protesters has seen a decline.” In an era where the Internet’s public sphere has flourished, online mobilization can be accomplished swiftly. People could come back to the street at any time.

And Allen Carlson advises the demonstrators to bide their time and let the authorities keep making mistakes:

For now, I would tell them to do nothing. If the rug is being as unceremoniously pulled out from beneath the talks as now appears to be the case, it is the Hong Kong government and Beijing that will look to all as incredibly disingenuous, clumsy, and uncompromising. In other words, this has the potential to be a public relations disaster for the government. Anything the protesters do, in terms of taking to the streets, would only, for the time being, undermine the crystal clear nature of such a blundering move. This being said, once the dust settles the protesters will be in a stronger position to make their case to the people of Hong Kong and the rest of the world about the legitimacy of their concerns and misgivings about a government that they no longer trust.

The Bloomberg View editors advocate a compromise:

To get anywhere, both sides have to climb down from their stated positions. Protesters should temper calls for Hong Kong Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying to resign; an investigation into payments he received from an Australian company could accomplish that for them. Their central demand — that the Chinese government allow future candidates for chief executive to be nominated directly by the public — is no less a nonstarter. For their part, Hong Kong officials must stop tonelessly insisting upon Beijing’s formula for the elections, which allows for only two to three candidates, each of whom must be approved by a 1,200-member nominating committee that is stacked with Beijing loyalists. The city’s leaders should focus on expanding what little wiggle room this framework allows.

Are The Protesters Really Speaking For The People?


Eric X. Li criticizes Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protests for going after the wrong target, arguing that the territory is more democratic today than ever before and that economic stagnation and inequality are the public’s real concerns:

Empirical data demonstrates the nature of public discontent, and it is fundamentally different from what is being portrayed by the protesting activists. Over the past several years, polling conducted by the Public Opinion Program at the University of Hong Kong has consistently shown that well over 80 percent of Hong Kongers’ top concerns are livelihood and economic issues, with those who are concerned with political problems in the low double digits at the most.

When the Occupy Central movement was gathering steam over the summer, the protesters garnered 800,000 votes in an unofficial poll supporting the movement. Yet less than two months later an anti-Occupy campaign collected 1.3 million signatures (from Hong Kong’s 7 million population) opposing the movement. The same University of Hong Kong program has conducted five public opinion surveys since April 2013, when protesters first began to create the movement. All but one showed that more than half of Hong Kongers opposed it, and support was in the low double digits.

But Alvin Y.H. Cheung emphasizes that the movement is about much more than the economy:

Hong Kong’s current system of governance has aptly been described as “the result of collusion between Hong Kong’s tycoons and Beijing’s Communists.”  Half of Hong Kong’s legislature is made up of “functional constituencies” representing “special interests.” The end result of this is that the 1,200-strong Election Committee that currently chooses Hong Kong’s Chief Executive disproportionately favors corporate interests. …

The Umbrella Revolution is the result of this. It is a warning of the comprehensive breakdown of confidence in Hong Kong’s governing institutions – it reflects growing public disillusion with the institutional means of making their voices heard.  The momentum of the protests reflects that disenchantment.

Meanwhile, Christian Caryl wonders why the protest leaders’ Christianity hasn’t gotten more press:

This is myopic. In its origins, Christianity is a product of the Middle East, making it just as “western” as Judaism and Islam. Modern-day Christianity is thoroughly global. The Catholic Church may have its headquarters in Rome, but nowadays the vast majority of Catholics live outside of Europe and North America. Evangelical Protestantism is expanding rapidly in Latin America and Africa — and Christians there see themselves as servants of God, not as “agents of the West.”

The same goes for China. The Pew Research Center’s Forum on Religion and Public Life put the number of Protestant Christians in China at 58 million in 2010 — greater than the number in Brazil (40 million). The scholar Fenggang Yang calculates that China is on track to become the world’s largest Christian country by 2025. Western journalists may not be paying much attention, but that’s one mistake the Chinese Communist Party isn’t about to make. The Party regards religion, and Christianity in particular, as its greatest rival. It’s probably right to do so.

Peter Rutland scrutinizes the movement through the lens of nationalism and identity politics:

Since Hong Kong joined the People’s Republic 17 years ago, young people have been taught Mandarin in school (in contrast to the Cantonese spoken by most residents of Hong Kong) and have had much more direct exposure to Mainlanders, who travel to Hong Kong as tourists in huge numbers. This experience seems to be reinforcing the sense that Hong Kong citizens have a distinct identity and not just a different political system. In recent years polling data have shown a steady rise among those who see themselves first and foremost as “Hong Kong citizens” rather than as Chinese. As one demonstrator, Ashley Au, recently told a journalist: “We don’t feel like we’re a part of China, and I don’t feel Chinese.” This fact is now colliding with frustration over Beijing’s efforts to tamp down the space for political participation.

And Anne Applebaum mulls Beijing’s impulse to paint the protests as part of an American conspiracy:

To the truly authoritarian mind, “spontaneity” is impossible. The state can and should control all organizations. There is no such thing as a self-organized crowd. If people are sleeping in tents in Hong Kong’s central business district or Kiev’s Maidan, somebody must be paying them and directing them, and if it isn’t our state, then it must be someone else’s. I don’t know whether those who talk like this necessarily believe it (for the record, I’m guessing Vladimir Putin does but Hong Kong’s leaders don’t). The vision of foreign conspiracy is self-serving: If there is a foreign power directing the protest, then the government can legitimately destroy it. The conspiracy narrative has an explanatory purpose, too. If the Hong Kong protests are an American plot, then mainland Chinese can safely ignore it.

Follow all of our Hong Kong coverage here.

(Photo: A pro-democracy protester takes part in a protest in the Mongkok district of Hong Kong on October 6, 2014. Exhausted demonstrators debated the next step in their pro-democracy campaign as their numbers dwindled after a week of rallies, and the city returned to work despite road closures and traffic gridlock. By Xaume Olleros/AFP/Getty Images)

Are Hong Kong’s Protests Out Of Steam?

This morning, the city awoke to sparser crowds of demonstrators in the streets and uncertainty about what happens next:

Schools reopened and civil servants returned to work Monday morning after protesters Screen Shot 2014-10-06 at 12.10.37 PMcleared the area outside the city’s government headquarters, a focal point of the demonstrations that started the previous weekend. Crowds also thinned markedly at the two other protest sites, and traffic flowed again through many roads that had been blocked.

The subdued scenes left many wondering whether the movement, which has been free-forming and largely spontaneous, had run its course — or whether the students have a clear strategy about what to do next. Early talks between the government and the students have started, but many disagreements remain. Students say they will walk away from the talks as soon as the government uses force to clear away the remaining protesters.

Alex Ogle, an AFP photographer, captured the above photo with the caption:

ghost town hong kong, sunday morning, haven’t seen this area of occupation site so empty all week

Heather Timmons is also on the ground:

Protesters cleared a corridor through the blockades outside one entrance to the government’s headquarters building on Sunday night, after protest leaders and government representatives agreed to meet for the first time. On Monday morning, makeshift tents and supply centers still dotted a main highway in the center of town, and protesters were sprawled in the middle of key roads as government employees filed in to work.

“We’re going to see how the government reacts,” said one 19-year old protester at the entrance, who said his surname name was Lui, sitting near the cleared corridor. Because of the corridor, government employees “can go back to work, and other citizens won’t blame us,” he said. Lui said he and the scant dozen protesters sitting near him had decided to clear the corridor themselves, rather than acting on specific directions from student leaders or Occupy Central, the groups that started the protests. “We don’t know what direction this is headed, and we don’t know what to do next,” he said, so his group was acting on its own.

Hannah Beech also sees the protest movement winding down:

As the workweek began in Hong Kong and traffic snarled because of the protest roadblocks, patience from a sector of ordinary citizens may wear thin. Already, some Hong Kong residents were quietly criticizing the continuing shutdown of major business and tourist areas. “Of course I support more democracy for Hong Kong and am not opposed to [the protesters’] ideals,” said a woman surnamed Liu, who came with her 11-year-old son to look at the occupied site in Mongkok district. “But we need to eat, to do business. How can we do that when they take over the streets?”

Whatever happens, Hong Kong’s political consciousness has been awakened. Emily Lau, a veteran local legislator, jokes that she’s been labeled “a head-banger” for her decades of pro-democracy work. “It’s very invigorating to have such a spontaneous, peaceful movement full of young people,” she says. “Once people have been shown their power they will know how to use it again and again.”

Friday’s violence, which continued late into the night, may also have put a damper on the protests. Ben Leung listens to how Hong Kongers are talking about the attacks, in which the city’s infamous organized crime syndicates (the “triads”) are believed to have been involved:

Over dinner, an elderly waitress at a nearby restaurant thought the timing of the attack was suspicious. Hong Kong Chief Executive CY Leung refuses to quit, and the next day this happens, she said: “The two events are linked. Whoever did this are not human – they must be the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] from China; Hong Kong people don’t do these things to one another!” But what everyone is talking about is what role the notorious triads played in Friday’s violence.

The question was put to the police at a press conference on Friday night. “None,” said spokesman Kong Man-keung, “and to say we allow them to operate is grossly inaccurate.” He claimed there was no evident to support the rumors. But hours later, shortly after 4:00 a.m. Saturday morning, the police issued a statement saying 19 people had been arrested, and of those at least eight are reportred to have links to the triads.

William Pesek argues that it’s time for the protesters “to face reality and plot an endgame”:

Why not parlay what’s been achieved so far into meaningful concessions from the government? These could include access to affordable housing and education, efforts to redress inequality, improved public services and a genuine framework for political reform and engagement with Beijing. The first direct talks between the protest leaders and government officials began Sunday night. Now, leaders should demand to plead their case directly to Leung.

Critics will say such concessions have nothing to do with democracy — and thus would render the protests futile. But any movement toward egalitarianism in oligarched Hong Kong would be a vital step toward genuine representation. By winning an accommodation or two from China, student leaders like 17-year-old Joshua Wong can demonstrate that they gave Goliath a good fight and achieved something substantial.

While Hong Kong’s protest leaders have appreciated the international attention being heaped upon their movement, Ishaan Tharoor observes that they’re less appreciative of its portrayal:

They are sensitive to how the protests are being received both by other Hong Kongers as well as authorities in the mainland. China’s rulers do not countenance such challenges to the status quo; the Hong Kong public, meanwhile, isn’t interested in prolonged, destabilizing upheaval either. The idea of a “revolution” on China’s doorstep may play well before the lenses of the international media, but it does not help the students, who are seeking reform and practical political gains.

“This is not a color revolution,” Lester Shum, the deputy leader of the Hong Kong Federation of Students, referring to the generic term used for transformative political movements elsewhere. “This is a citizens’ fight for democracy.”

Larison recalls that we’ve made this category error before, to ill effect:

When the Green movement protests began in Iran, there was a strong desire among many in the West to see those protests as a complete rejection of the regime and as an opportunity to bring the regime down, and they dubbed this “the Green Revolution.”

This mistaken belief was broadcast far and wide for months. Hard-liners in the regime also perceived–or claimed to perceive–the protests as a “color revolution,” which they understood to mean that the protests were sponsored and fomented by foreign powers aimed at the destruction the regime. The destruction of the regime was never going to happen, but the point is that this wasn’t what the protesters were seeking. It did the regime a favor that it didn’t need and shouldn’t have been given to suggest otherwise. Many Westerners took an interest in the Green movement because they wanted it to be a regime-changing revolutionary force, and then lost interest in the Iranian opposition when the latter failed to share their preoccupations. For the same reasons, Western coverage of the protests in Hong Kong shouldn’t try to turn them into something that they’re not.

“Government Thugs” On The Attack

Sit In Protest Continues In Hong Kong Despite Chief Executive's Calls To Withdraw

Some of Hong Kong’s protest camps were assaulted today, not by police, but by groups of “anti-occupiers”, mostly men, who said they were fed up with blocked roads and wanted the demonstrators to disperse:

The protesters said the attackers were pro-government gangs, and several of the groups leading the protest issued a joint statement warning that they would call off proposed negotiations with the government “if the government does not immediately prevent the organized attacks.” A week after the pro-democracy protests started at a student rally, the movement showed increasing strains on Friday from both external blows and from internal discord and exhaustion, even before the attacks began. …

As skies darkened and rain fell, a couple of dozen men stormed the encampment in the middle of Nathan Road, a major thoroughfare usually packed with traffic and shoppers. The men pushed and pummeled the protesters, grabbed the scaffolding of canopies and pulled until the tents collapsed in heaps.

Lily Kuo and Heather Timmons report from the scene:

Some anti-occupiers insisted that they had not been paid to be there. Lau Lee Keung who lives in the New Territories said he was there because the occupation in Mongkok disrupted his commute home from the airport where he works.”I came on my own. No one paid me,” he said, showing Quartz his Hong Kong identity card to prove that he had not been sent from mainland China to protest. “I support the Hong Kong government,” said 51 year old Cheung Chiu Wan, who also showed his Hong Kong identity card.

Other residents didn’t believe the protest movement in Mongkok disrupted their daily lives as much as the anti-occupiers said. “It’s actually nice. The air is fresh,” said David Chen, 35, who works at law firm nearby, referring to the lack of traffic.

Ben Leung has more on the state of affairs:

There are, of course, inevitable doubts about where some of the anti-protest protesters come from. Some are genuinely aggrieved by the disruption caused to the transport system. “Wanting democracy is fine—just don’t affect the rest of us!” said one of them. Others point to the “silent” majority who had never taken part in the protest to demonstrate that the little anti-protest movement is “not alone.” Others seemed to be performing bombastic recitals of their grievances as if they were ill-trained actors or undercover agents.  And these kinds of people—thugs, mercenaries, undercover agents, and paid informants—are exactly the kind of provocateurs that pro-democracy activists say they fear will bring on real chaos.

Kaveh Waddell, meanwhile, wonders whether the protest movement’s commitment to nonviolence and orderliness hasn’t somehow undercut their message:

Taken to an extreme, nonviolence can have the same effect on media coverage as physical confrontation. Just like it might have been if the protests were characterized by clashes, Hong Kong media coverage has been focused on demonstrators’ tactics. Instead of showing burning tires and rock-throwing, however, stories like this one from the BBC described “things that could only happen in a Hong Kong protest“: students who sat in the street to complete their homework, demonstrators who posted apologies on makeshift barricades for inconveniencing commuters, and complete compliance with a sign that asked protesters to keep off a neatly trimmed grassy plaza. In this and other stories, the movements’ goals are relegated to a footnote or aren’t mentioned at all.

Zack Beauchamp interviews Erica Chenoweth on how the protesters could prevail:

There’s a common misconception that non-violent movements win by showing the other side the light: in this case, persuading Hong Kong and mainland officials that Hong Kong really deserves democracy. That’s wrong. “The pressure works by imposing enough costs on their opponents that there are loyalty shifts,” Chenoweth explains. “The people on whom that the opponent relies on to implement its power locally change their mind about whether it’s a good idea” to go along with the repressive program. … Chenoweth thinks that, if the pressure stays on, Hong Kong and mainland elites may end up deciding that handing the protestors a partial victory makes more sense than dispersing them with a full-on, Tiananmen-style crackdown.

And William Pesek points out that China’s already tarnished reputation in the region is on the line here:

Even China’s Asian neighbors — many of whom, like Vietnam, don’t spend much time worrying about human rights — haven’t forgotten 1989. That legacy explains why China’s strengthening economic relationships aren’t translating into genuine soft power across the region. In one recent survey of elites in 11 Asia-Pacific nations, more than 60 percent thought China was having a negative impact on regional stability. …

In that sense, China has more to lose from another Tiananmen than Hong Kong’s 7 million people do. Any move by Xi to crack down on students would be carried live on BBC, CNN and networks in Taiwan, where the mainland is trying to curry favor. It would have the vast majority of Asian governments edging closer to Washington as the U.S. seeks to shore up its position in Asia.

Perhaps that’s why they’re counting on the “anti-occupiers” to crack down for them.

(Photo: Local residents and pro-government supporters scream at pro-democracy protesters on October 3, 2014 in Mong Kok, Hong Kong. Fights broke out between local residents and pro government supporters when they attempted to force pro-democracy activists from their protest site. By Chris McGrath/Getty Images)