Ripples From Kowloon Bay?

As Beijing worries over the Hong Kong protests emboldening democrats and separatists in the hotspots of China’s periphery, Isaac Stone Fish interviews a leading Uighur independence activist about how she views the past week’s events:

According to Rebiya Kadeer, the exiled leader of the movement for Uighur rights, the ideals of the Hong Kong movement are already influencing the northwestern Chinese region of Xinjiang. “Because of the brutality and wrongfulness of the Chinese government, the Uighur people have concluded that their only option is independence,” she said in a Sept. 30 interview with Foreign Policy. The protests in Hong Kong “are very inspiring” to Xinjiang, she said. Uighurs, a Turkic-speaking Muslim group who make up roughly 43 percent of the population in Xinjiang, think that “if Hong Kong wins, it will benefit Uighurs as well, and then the Uighurs can strengthen their own movement.” …

“I saw what happened in Hong Kong and Taiwan,” she said, referring to protests in Taipei this spring, and “I wished” that Xinjiang could also have Western journalists reporting there. “Our people can’t do what the Hong Kong people are doing because they’re getting killed by the Chinese government,” and there are no outsiders to observe it.

Alexa Olesen looks to Macau, the former Portuguese colony and current gambling mecca just up the coast from Hong Kong with a somewhat similar governing arrangement. For now, at least, a battle for democracy doesn’t seem to be in the cards there:

[O]ver the past year or so, Macau has seen the emergence of an aggressive labor movement fond of protests and strikes and the stirrings of a political opposition with democratic ambitions. It remains to be seen how Hong Kong’s experience — massive protests over many days that police have tried to beat back with pepper spray and tear gas — will color those developments. What’s clear is that Macau is watching intently. …

Is Macau ripe for a Hong Kong-style Umbrella Revolution? Alex Choi, an assistant professor in public administration at the University of Macao, told FP that while the territory’s labor movement gathered steam, he doesn’t expect them to shift their focus from better wages to universal suffrage any time soon. Choi said it would be “a big jump” to go from labor issues to “a fight for democracy and against Beijing.” So far, he said, the labor movement hasn’t appeared eager to take that leap.

Taiwan, of course, is not part of China, but Beijing would like it to be, and so Taipei is also keeping a watchful eye on the Hong Kong standoff. Taiwanese activist Lin Fei-Fan explains why:

The main goal of the “one country, two systems” policy by which China governs Hong Kong is to provide a template for Taiwan, but the developments of recent years clearly show China placing increasingly tight restrictions on Hong Kong’s self-governance. It’s not just that China has reneged on its promise that Hong Kong’s system would remain “unchanged for 50 years.” A more serious problem is that conflicts within Hong Kong society have proliferated. The wealth disparity there cannot be solved via existing structures, and the huge influx of mainland tourists, as well as mainlanders who become Hong Kong residents, have also created even more social problems. Taiwan faces similar concerns. We have seen that Taiwan and the Chinese government have signed a number of trade agreements exposing Taiwan to industrial outsourcing, falling salaries, increases in the disparity between rich and poor, national security risks, and other crises.

Should Washington “Speak Out” On Hong Kong?

Pace the WaPo editorial board, Larison doesn’t want the US to involve itself in the standoff, which he calls “exactly the sort of tense, potentially explosive situation in another country that the administration shouldn’t be talking about publicly”:

It would be appropriate for the administration to convey its concerns to Beijing through diplomatic channels, and perhaps they have already been doing this, but there is absolutely no need for public declarations or “explicit support” for the protesters. How could that benefit the protesters? The Post doesn’t even pretend that it would. As ever, the desire to have our government “speak out” in support of foreign protesters trumps all other considerations. It’s not as if Beijing will react well to be warned by Washington about how it conducts its own affairs. We know very well that the Chinese government reacts angrily to any hint of foreign interference in their internal politics. Indeed, there are few governments in the world less likely to respond well to statements from U.S. officials about its internal affairs than the Chinese government.

Before meeting with John Kerry yesterday, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi warned Washington to back off and respect Chinese sovereignty. There is also a conspiracy theory, encouraged in the pro-Beijing press, that the protest movement is an American plot. David Wertime situates this theory within the context of negative reactions to the demonstrations on the mainland:

A vocal but not negligible minority genuinely believes that foreign forces are behind recent events. A widely circulating article, originally penned in June and republished Oct. 1 on, a major news portal, ably summarizes the attitude of some Chinese conservatives toward Hong Kong. The accusation-packed piece, called “Who really is the black hand behind Hong Kong independence?” begins, “Recently, gangdu – Chinese for Hong Kong separatists, who do not appear to actually be a driving force behind the current protests — “have been happily making trouble, and behind it is an America hoping to push [the movement] to its height.” It goes on to name a great many bogeymen: Paul Wolfowitz, the National Endowment for Democracy, George Soros, and the CIA. The article accuses the West of making “cultural products” in a “war of ideals” that it then foists on unsuspecting overseas populations. The goal, the article declares, is to then “stimulate Taiwanese independence, Xinjiang independence, and Tibetan independence” to cause “multiple troubles for China, making China unable to pay attention to its great power struggle with the United States.”

Noting that Russian state television is also on board with this theory, Bershidsky compares it to similar mutterings about the massive protests in Moscow in 2012 and the Euromaidan revolution in Kiev:

The problem with the U.S. conspiracy theory is that it’s impossible to buy if, like me, you experienced the Moscow and Kiev demonstrations first hand. The leaders were weak and non-essential. The protests would have gone on without them. If not through the leaders, how could any puppeteer exert influence? People took to the streets because they felt cheated, and in every case the deception was real. In Moscow, Putin’s party blatantly stole a parliamentary election. In Kiev, the president reneged on his promise to sign a trade pact that would have put Ukraine on a path toward European integration. In Hong Kong, a plan to vet candidates for the city’s chief executive nullified Beijing’s promise of universal suffrage.

The U.S. neither perpetrated the deceptions nor opened people’s eyes to them. People aren’t as dumb as authoritarian leaders think. The creation of symbols, organization against common ills and the desire to keep protest camps clean are instinctive and universal. They require no more conspiracy or outside influence than a swarm of bees does to organize a new hive.

Leung Stalls

As the midnight deadline set by demonstrators for him to resign approached, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying refused to step down but pledged to hold talks between Chief Secretary Carrie Lam and the protestors:

Leung praised the Hong Kong police and the SAR government for their restraint. He said that the protests would continue to be tolerated as long as protestors do no attempt to occupy important government buildings, such as the police headquarters and the chief executive’s office. Leung said that he did not want a confrontation between police and protestors, and urged protestors not to advance on the police cordons. When asked about reports that the Hong Kong police are armed with rubber bullets, Leung emphasized that the police will continue to exercise restraint. Still, he also urged to protestors to end their occupation of the city center.

Though Leung offered the protestors a dialogue with Carrie Lam, there still seems to be little to no room for compromise. Leung insisted repeatedly that the dialogue and the ultimate solution must follow Hong Kong’s Basic Law and work within the framework of the National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) decision on Hong Kong’s elections. Following these two guidelines is the only way to have universal suffrage in 2017, Leung told reporters. The protestors have already indicated they are not willing to accept the NPSC decision, which would  see all candidates for chief executive be nominated  by a Beijing-friendly committee.

Occupy Central still insists that Leung must step aside in order to break the impasse. Melinda Liu argues that a negotiated outcome is still possible, if only President Xi Jinping will allow it:

In fact, there is some room to maneuver for both sides. Although Hong Kong residents are unlikely to get the precise sort of direct vote protesters are demanding, the composition of the election committee that vets nominees, the number of nominees and the use of secret balloting could be open to negotiation. There’s also a possibility that Leung may be cashiered eventually, though if that happens before 2017 his successor will be chosen the same way he was.

The question is whether Xi can afford to project an image of weakness by permitting such negotiations and considering even minor compromises. The demonstrations that are paralyzing Hong Kong’s Central district today have as many dissimilarities with Tiananmen Square in 1989 as they have parallels. And the world has changed dramatically, as has China. But in the end the outcome may ride on the same question that so frightened the Communist Party mandarins back then: whether the leader in charge of the world’s largest authoritarian nation can stomach an uprising of democracy for very long.

Srdja Popovic and Tori Porell praise the protest movement’s organization, orderliness, and focus:

Although it may seem obvious that a protest movement must win popular support to combat oppression, it is no easy feat, and something we have seen movements in dozens of countries fail to accomplish. The staunch adherence to nonviolence Occupy Central has demonstrated takes preparation, training, and discipline—a combination that’s very rare for many movements. Most of the time, organizers aren’t prepared to handle the crowds that surge into the streets, and with no way to maintain calm and cohesion, too many movements have been derailed by a few thrown rocks or smashed storefronts. Governments seize on the smallest acts of disorder or violence as excuses to crack down. However, Occupy Central’s organizers seem to have come prepared. By issuing the manual and attempting to train their activists, they have maintained a united front and warded off the pitfalls that plague too many social movements.

But Richard C. Bush fears that this won’t last:

The unity and leadership of the opposition camp is a matter for concern. The New York Times had a good article this morning on the amorphous, loosely led character of the movement (“Hong Kong Protests Are Leaderless but Orderly”). Those who are seeking more democracy than Beijing is willing to grant are quite “democratic” within their ranks. The pro-democracy camp has suffered serious fragmentation over the last two decades, to its own detriment. This is a cause for serious concern. The beginning of the current crisis began when one faction of the pro-democracy camp decided on Friday evening to independently undertake action that was more radical than other factions preferred.

Chris Beam spots some hostility toward mainland Chinese around the edges of the movement, which could hurt its image:

Occupy Central organizers have done their best to distance themselves from the anti-mainland movement and keep the focus on election reform and universal suffrage. … But pro-democracy ideas and anti-mainland sentiment can be difficult to tease apart in Hong Kong. Many protesters want autonomy for Hong Kong in order to boost policies that will mitigate the influence of mainland Chinese on the island. For example, they support liming the number of properties that mainlanders can buy in Hong Kong and tightening visa regulations. (Ironically, the much-denounced chief executive C.Y. Leung has promoted some of these policies.) Of course, defensive policy positions easily blur with personal feelings toward mainland Chinese.

On the other hand, James Palmer argues that “Hong Kong is in many ways more Chinese these days than mainland China”, and that “might be what scares the authorities so much”:

The shrines and altars that dot Hong Kong speak to the richness of Chinese custom, annihilated between 1949 and 1976 in the mainland. … Hong Kong preserves hobby clubs, literary societies, family associations, clan ties and ancestral temples that once made up the fabric of Chinese society. In mainland cities, the once-vast variety of regional cultures and traditions has been wracked twice over; first by Maoist persecution and then by waves of migration and materialism. Most of all, the Hong Kong protests themselves are part of a great Chinese tradition, not only of peasant revolt and popular uprising, but of the student demonstrations that made China’s 20th century, from the protests of 4 May 1919 onwards. The Chinese public have never been the complacent sheep or communal masses of some westerners’ imagination, but an active, powerful force.

Overall, Jeffrey Wasserstrom is pessimistic about China’s political future:

Alas, what we have seen is Beijing leaping from a lack of self-confidence straight to a projection of arrogance. It is more insistent than ever on joining the global order only on its own terms. The party used to legitimate its rule by promising a China more equal than the country had ever been, run by an organization less corrupt than its predecessors. Now, flagrant inequalities and bountiful instances of corruption are exposed regularly.

So what rationale is left? Well, only a strong state can protect the nation’s interest in a chaotic world, the party line goes. And the current sorry state of the wider geopolitical world makes harping on this theme easier than it should be for Beijing. A cloak of counterterrorism hides state-waged terrors chillingly resonant of Cultural Revolution. The Hong Kong protesters are voices of freedom. When we look back on the demonstrations in 10 years, will we hear the song of China’s trajectory? Or will it be an elegiac tune that only makes us wistful for what China could have been?

Follow all of our Hong Kong coverage here.

Neither Cracking Down Nor Backing Down

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

Authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing appear to be eschewing another attempt to forcibly disperse the island’s massive student-driven protests, which grew in numbers today as China held its national day celebrations, but they won’t negotiate with the demonstrators either. Peter Ford reports that the government is banking on the movement wearing out its welcome with the public:

They have withdrawn almost all policemen from the protest areas, where the atmosphere is relaxed. A protracted national holiday means that the strikes blocking streets in four spots around the city will not disrupt much until next Monday. … Government supporters expect the crowds to disperse if the protests continue into next week and prove to disrupt the city’s normal life. Polls have found that Hong Kongers are pretty evenly split over the merits of the government’s plans for political reform, and over how they regard the “Occupy Central” movement.

But with the protestors demanding that Chief Executive Leung Chun-ying resign by tomorrow and threatening again to occupy government buildings, the situation could easily come to a head again soon. Heather Timmons and Lily Kuo pass along a harshly-worded editorial in a party-line newspaper and worry:

Not only is Beijing unwilling to reconsider the August decision to allow only Communist Party-approved candidates to run for Hong Kong’s highest office, but Hong Kongers who continue to participate in the protests should expect dire consequences, an editorial in the People’s Daily newspaper warned today. Some activists and analysts, including a former Tiananmen student leader, say the piece bears a marked similarity to a notorious editorial that ran the People’s Daily more than 25 years ago. That piece was later blamed for leading to the brutal crackdown on demonstrations, which killed hundreds or thousands, depending on estimates.

Chris Beam checks out protester-police relations and finds them surprisingly cordial:

Most protestors I spoke with sympathized with the plight of the police. “They don’t want to hurt any Hong Kong citizens,” said Andy Loh, 25, a travel guide whom I found near a barricade outside the police headquarters. “They just listen to their bosses.” Icarus Cheng, a 30-year-old financier, said he had friends on the force who had been working nearly straight for the previous 30 hours. “They’re suffering,” he said. “Of course, we are too.” Part of the problem is that, while Hong Kong has plenty of protests, they rarely occur on this scale, and with the outcome so unpredictable. “Policemen don’t have much experience handling this situation,” he said.

The police don’t seem especially offended by the protesters either. “They’re nice,” said a youthful officer who was guarding the headquarters on Tuesday. He said that some students have offered him and his colleagues food and drinks, which of course they have to refuse. (A similar thing occurred at the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989, and some hungry officers accepted.) I asked what he thought of the movement overall. “Freedom of speech,” he said.

Jessica Chen Weiss reflects:

Even if foreign governments stay out of the public fracas, it is unclear whether peaceful demonstrations will compel Beijing to do more to abide by past promises to grant “universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures,” as stated in Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law. Indeed, China has offered Hong Kong more than any other city under its jurisdiction: universal suffrage. But protesters in Hong Kong have rejected what they see as an ultimatum from Beijing, demanding a more democratic nomination process.

Whose move is next? Commentators have painted Xi Jinping into a corner: Back down and be seen as weak, or stand firm and be seen as reneging on “one country, two systems.” With Hong Kong protesters depicting Chief Executive C. Y. Leung as a vampire with fangs, and pro-Beijing media smearing Hong Kong activists as U.S. and British accomplices, the outlook for “gradual and orderly progress” toward a more democratic Hong Kong appears bleak.

Fisher doesn’t discount the possibility of another Tiananmen-style massacre:

That would seem unthinkable, given the global backlash that image-conscious China would face for using force in a city full of foreigners and foreign media. But perhaps the most essential eternal truth for understanding China’s government is that the ruling Communist Party prioritizes the preservation of one-party rule way before anything else, including the outrage of the entire world, to the extent that it will sacrifice just about anything to maintain the system. The world has changed a lot since 1989, and so has China’s role in it, but it was also true in 1989 that Beijing was full of Western journalists and China knew it would pay heavily for massacring protesters, but did it anyway.

Gwynn Guilford surmises that “China’s leaders may think they have little to lose by cracking down even harder on protesters—and less to gain by reversing their ban on universal suffrage in 2017”:

Any compromise on that point might stoke similar demands from the four other territories and countries that the People’s Republic claims: Macau, Tibet, Xinjiang, and Taiwan. … The fact that students in Taiwan are aligning with the Hong Kong demonstrators—and that Ma Ying-jeou, Taiwan’s generally pro-Beijing president, is supporting them—threatens the Communist Party’s policy of “reunification.” Meanwhile, an insurgency in Muslim-dominated Xinjiang is quickly gathering momentum. Of course these are the reasons China’s leaders might think they should maintain a hard line. There are plenty of ways that violence in Hong Kong could hurt the mainland.

Richard C. Bush III points out that income inequality has also played a role in driving discontent in the territory:

On the economic side, income inequality in Hong Kong is among the highest in the world. According to Forbes’s rankings, Hong Kong has forty-four billionaires, which is the highest in the world once population is taken into account. Young people believe, with some justification, that they will not be able to secure a standard of living that is as high as their parents. A key reason is the control that a small number of property firms have over the real estate market, which raises prices for both residential and commercial space. For many couples, owning even a small apartment is increasingly out of reach. Moreover, competition for jobs has intensified as the flow of smart, eager applicants from China grows. The divide between the One Percent and The Rest continues to deepen. In most advanced societies, democracy provides a check against excessive wealth and market concentration. Not in Hong Kong.

Finally, Jay Ulfelder expresses some cautious long-term optimism, noting that “this uprising was not born last Friday”:

The longer arc of this challenge includes a much wider array of methods and spaces, including this summer’s referendum and the marches and actions of political and business elites that accompanied and surrounded them. … Based on patterns from similar moments around the world in recent decades and the Communist Party of China’s demonstrated intolerance for popular challenges, I continue to anticipate that the ongoing occupations will soon face even harsher attempts to repress them than the relatively modest ones we saw last weekend. Perhaps that won’t happen, though, and if it does, I am optimistic that the larger movement will survive that response and eventually realize its goals, hopefully sooner rather than later.

(Photo: Thousands of protesters gather outside the Hong Kong Government Complex on October 1, 2014 in Hong Kong, Hong Kong. By Chris McGrath/Getty Images)

China vs #OccupyCentral


Beijing’s censors have been working overtime to scrub coverage of the Hong Kong protests from social media:

Weibo censorship hit its highest point this year at 152 censored posts per 10,000, according to Weiboscope, an analytics project run by the University of Hong Kong. (“Hong Kong” and “police” were the day’s top censored terms.) To put that in perspective, the Sept. 28 censorship rate was more than double that on June 4, the 25th anniversary of the crackdown on the Tiananmen student movement — an event so meticulously censored in both traditional and social media that many of China’s younger generation are largely ignorant of the event. …

Despite 2014’s many politically sensitive and potentially destabilizing events — including a March 1 terrorist attack at a busy train station, the July 29 announcement of an investigation into former security watchdog Zhou Yongkang, and the Sept. 23 sentencing of prominent Uighur scholar Ilham Tohti on charges of separatism — the three most censored days on Weibo nevertheless all related to Hong Kong. Beijing’s official rejection on August 31 of open nomination of candidates in Hong Kong came in second, while the annual July 1 pro-democracy march in Hong Kong took third.

Alexa Olesen monitored the reaction after China blocked Instagram on Sunday:

A handful of Chinese Weibo users blamed the Hong Kong protestors for getting their Instagram service axed. But many Chinese appeared oblivious to the situation in Hong Kong, unsurprising given the current mainland news blackout on the escalating situation and the scrubbing of Weibo messages that mentioned Hong Kong. Weibo also was blocking searches for the keyword “Instagram,” forcing users to resort to calling the service “Ins” in order to grouse about the shutdown.

Most mainland Chinese still likely know nothing of the Hong Kong protests, now continuing into the early hours of the morning. But online chatter about the Instagram blackout could backfire on Beijing, leading otherwise indifferent Chinese web users to feel the personal impact from events transpiring far away — and to begin asking why yet another popular online tool has, at least for now, been taken away.

And Lily Kuo looks at how Chinese netizens are getting around the censors:

Bloggers are findings ways to get around the censors by searching for the English transliteration of blocked Chinese phrases—substituting “xianggang” for Hong Kong or “zhanzhong” for “Occupy Central,” for example. Entering a space in between the two Chinese characters for Hong Kong is another way around the restrictions, [Chengdu resident] Li said. Censors are adapting swiftly. Searching for the phrase “zhanzhong” already prompts a notice on Weibo that results cannot be displayed. Even posts critical of the protesters are being removed, including a comment that read, “So violent like this, and you tell me you want democracy. I don’t want this kind of democracy!” was deleted.

(Chart via Lily Kuo)

“I’m Here So I Can Sleep At Night”

For those just tuning in, Fisher does a good job summarizing why Hong Kongers have taken to the streets:

Today, the territory’s chief executive Leung Chun-ying asked Occupy Central to disband the demonstrators, casting the disorder as a threat to public safety, but the protest leaders are demanding a face-to-face meeting with Leung and threatening to occupy government buildings if the demand is not met. Christopher Beam takes the pulse of the protest movement going into this week:

The conventional wisdom after the Sunday night clashes was that the movement had lost momentum. But my conversations with protestors on Monday suggested the opposite. Many of the people I spoke with didn’t come out until after the police cracked down. Henry Wong, 19, a student at Chinese University of Hong Kong, decided to join after seeing a live broadcast of students fighting with police. “I’m here so I can sleep at night,” he told me. Michelle Chan, 18, also said she was galvanized by the use of force: “Police don’t have to be that cruel.” Tony Wong, 24, said he was skipping work to come to the protest. I asked if his boss would be upset. “I can get another job,” he said. “I can’t get another Hong Kong.”

Ishaan Tharoor looks ahead:

The protests appear to be growing. Wednesday and Thursday mark a national holiday in China, and many expect what takes place on those days to define the current unrest. If the sit-ins and demonstrations continue with the intensity they’ve already shown, there’s a chance that local security forces could crack down more violently than they have so far, including perhaps using rubber bullets. That sort of violent response could be a disaster for Hong Kong’s government, which would face mounting pressure from the territory’s voluble civil society and media.

Julian Snelder fears the worst:

Twenty five years ago, we saw what happened when a threatened Beijing is backed into an existential confrontation. Today, China is a country with a triumphal sense of infallibility. It is so resolute and confident of its sovereign power that it can deliberately taunt large neighbors like Vietnam and India as a matter of routine. Hong Kong is a mere flyspeck by comparison, and a domestic concern at that. Of course, this is not June 1989, and Hong Kong is not the capital. But the protesters need to realize what they’re dealing with here: a state that will use lethal force if it deems it necessary. Then there’ll be real tears.

Update from a reader on the ground:

Julian Snelder says, “But the protesters need to realize what they’re dealing with here: a state that will use lethal force if it deems it necessary. Then there’ll be real tears.” I’m in Hong Kong. I’ve been at the demos. My students are out there every day. Barring small children, there is not one person who is not vividly aware of this possibility. Julian Snelder, whoever he is, is a patronising git. What gives him the right to assume that courageous people are stupid instead?

Adam Taylor explains why the umbrella has become a symbol of the protests:

Umbrella RevolutionProtesters used whatever they could get their hands on for protection: Some images even show people using plastic wrapping to cover themselves. The use of the umbrellas as protection was striking, however, and media outlets picked up on it, dubbing it the “Umbrella Revolution.”…

Some protesters painted messages on top of their umbrellas, and artists began incorporating umbrellas into logos designed for Occupy Central. “I was inspired by seeing people defend themselves with domestic props,” Hong Kong artist Kacey Wong told the BBC. “The contrast was so marked. On the one side there was police brutality and on the other side there were these poor umbrellas.”  According to the Associated Press, umbrellas are now being donated to replace those destroyed by the police.

Historian Jeffrey Wasserstrom feels that it’s “important to make space in our minds for partial victories”:

It’ll be very hard for the Communist Party to say “Okay, there will be open and free elections.” That’s unlikely to happen.

On the other hand, the protestors are calling, quite specifically, for the current chief executive of the territory to step down. That’s very thinkable: he would become a scapegoat for larger problems, but it would defuse some of the anger over the protests. And if even the person who replaced him had similar policy views, it would be a sign to that official that there would be a value in being more responsive to the people.

(Image from FP’s round up of viral Hong Kong graphics)

Face Of The Day


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.

Why Chinese Cops Are More Dangerous Now

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 Huge Protests In Hong Kong

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.

The BBC is live-blogging. Rachel Lu describes yesterday’s events:

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.”

An Actual Fight Over Democracy

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 I’ll revisit these questions later this week, hopefully with some brilliant insights from the inbox.