Saturday, October 04, 2014

Why the pro-democracy struggle in Hong Kong may have world-wide significance (Trudy Rubin)

Whether or not you've already been following this drama over the past few weeks, this clear, cogent, and illuminating analysis by Trudi Rubin is a must-read.
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.

Here's why:

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 [democratizing] 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. [....]
But read the whole thing (below)

—Jeff Weintraub

=================================
Philadelphia Inquirer
October 3, 2014
Hong Kong fights back
By Trudy Rubin

Once again, as we have seen so frequently and so recently in many countries, 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, or last fall in Kiev, or in Moscow's Pushkin Square in 2012, 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 - which can be used against sun, rain, or tear gas.

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.

Here's why:

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 includes high school and college students, joined by young workers and professionals, along with retirees, Christian clerics, and academics. All are 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 as a workable model that would 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. (No doubt, Xi has closely watched Putin's effort to cripple Ukraine's democracy by invasion and secret police stealth.)

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.
[JW: Actually, I would describe it as a combination of state-managed raw capitalism combined with unabashed but, it is claimed, responsive and effective political despotism. This system is somewhat laughably called "socialism with Chinese characteristics," but the only "socialist" features are the authoritarian/corporatist ones.]
Beijing's leaders seem bent on disproving the popular Western theory that an open economy will inevitably give birth to a political democracy.
[JW That "theory," or rather that complacent expectation, is obviously wrong, as even the slightest consideration of the historical experience of the last two centuries should make clear. That combination is possible, but not at all inevitable. Constructing and maintaining it requires active effort and commitment.]
They say democracy is chaotic and would undermine economic growth in Hong Kong and on the mainland. They tell their people that democracy is unsuitable for their country because it violates their "Confucian values" of order and respect for authority.
[JW: And they're not the only ones pushing this argument. Leaders and regimes with authoritarian inclinations around the world—and not only in underdeveloped countries—see China as an attractive model. This July, for example, "In a speech to Fidesz [Party] supporters in Romania [....], Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said 'the era of liberal democracies is over', and announced the formation of a parliamentary committee for the continuous monitoring of 'foreigners who try to gain influence in Hungary'." Orban explained that "he wants to build an illiberal state based on national foundations, citing Russia and China [and Turkey] as examples. [....] The experience of the financial crisis showed that 'liberal democratic states cannot remain globally competitive'.”

Back in the 1930s, a lot of people in Europe, Latin America, and elsewhere felt that way, so this isn't a new scenario. Nowadays, the crucial requirement for demonstrating that this argument is wrong is for economically advanced countries with democratic regimes, which have indeed responded quite badly to the economic crash of 2008 and its aftermath, to get their act together. Those of us here in the US, where our political system has become notoriously gridlocked and otherwise dysfunctional, have a special responsibility in this respect. But the prominence of China, and its weight in the world economy, mean that the future of the Chinese model also matters a great deal.]
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.
[JW: This is a crucial point, worth underlining. In Hong Kong, further progress toward increased and effective democracy is a realistically plausible option in the immediate future--even within the context of ultimate control from Beijing. That gives the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong a special and urgent claim on support from the rest of us.]
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. One thing is certain: A brutal crackdown on peaceful demonstrators - a la Tiananmen Square - will undermine Hong Kong's status as a global financial hub. And it will permanently stain China's efforts to present its system as a model for the developing world.
[JW: Alas, it might not. But it should.]
trubin@phillynews.com

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