Once again, massive crowds of young people are demonstrating for democracy against a repressive government. This time the civic protests are ongoing in downtown Hong Kong.
As in Cairo’s Tahrir Square in 2011, or in the early days of Syria’s uprising, the crowd is predominantly youthful and nonviolent — and it has no clear leaders. Its participants are so earnest that they clean up the trash and separate plastic and paper for recycling. They use as their symbol open umbrellas.
We should take these civic activists very seriously: The “Occupy Central (Hong Kong)” protest has a global significance that goes far beyond that of the 2011 Arab Spring uprisings that began so well and have ended so tragically.
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The fate of Occupy Central will signal whether there is still any faint hope that the economic reforms that transformed China in the last 20 years might lead to political reforms in coming decades. In other words, has the mind-set of Beijing’s leaders changed since the bloody crackdown on pro-democracy students in Tiananmen Square 25 years ago?
The answer not only will affect 1.3 billion Chinese, but will impact the fate of democracy worldwide.
Occupy Central is protesting Beijing’s attempt to curb the special political rights Hong Kong was granted for 50 years when the British government returned the colony to China in 1997. Specifically, they are demanding that Hong Kong officials scrap a Beijing plan to control who can run in the region’s first free election for chief executive in 2017.
Many in the West had hoped that the gradual introduction of full democracy to Hong Kong might serve to persuade Beijing to gradually increase civic rights across the country. Hong Kong citizens have far more freedoms of assembly and information than do mainland Chinese; a step-by-step liberalization of Hong Kong elections was supposed to lead gradually to a fully democratic election for the region’s top official in 2017.
Instead, Chinese President Xi Jinping has been tightening controls on the Internet and civic organizations at home and shows no interest in political liberalization. And now he is trying to curb the rights that were promised to the people of Hong Kong.
Xi has clearly been unnerved by pro-democracy protests in other countries, notably in Ukraine, where demonstrators unseated a government earlier this year. He has taken a cue from Russia’s Vladimir Putin, equating pro-democracy efforts with supposed Western subversion.
So, just as Putin has tried to create a veneer of democracy in Russia, while closely controlling elections and media and crushing protests, China seems bent on shrinking Hong Kong’s civic and press freedoms. Xi wants to insulate the mainland from any democratic fever originating in Hong Kong.
Like Putin, the Chinese present their system as a preferable alternative to the West’s liberal democracy. While Putin promotes a global model of “managed democracy,” China is more blunt about its preferred system: a mixed socialist-capitalist economy combined with an autocratic system that is more tightly controlled than Moscow’s.
Beijing’s leaders seem bent on disproving the popular Western theory that an open economy will inevitably give birth to a political democracy. They say democracy is chaotic and would undermine economic growth in Hong Kong and on the mainland.
This is a tragedy for Hong Kong, which has the key prerequisites for democratic governance so lacking in the Arab uprisings: a literate, well-educated population, a sizable middle class, and a good economy. The gradual introduction of full democracy to Hong Kong would demonstrate that an open society enhances economic growth; it would certainly help curb the Chinese-style corruption that has undercut the economy since Beijing took power.
So far, this is a road down which Beijing officials do not want to travel. Had they wanted, they could already have taken a lesson from neighboring Taiwan, an island that China claims, but which is still operating autonomously.
In the 1980s in Taiwan, a dictator named Chiang Ching-kuo (the son of mainland army general Chiang Kai-shek) introduced democracy by stages, starting with village and town elections and moving gradually to a free national ballot. Taiwan’s economy continued to grow.
In the 1990s, I interviewed Chinese officials who were traveling to Taiwan to study its democratic model; mainland China had begun to hold village elections that were supposed to expand slowly to towns and cities. Beijing has long since frozen that experiment.
Now the world is waiting to see if China will permit another democratic experiment to move forward in Hong Kong.