Creative Commons: Umbrella Revolution
1-- Gone are the days (if they ever really existed) where peaceful protests forced serious change. If anything, over the past few years governments have become more adept at dealing with protests and ensuring that the pot doesn't quite boil over. Indeed just a few years ago the world watched, glued to their screens, as the Arab Spring unfolded. We watched as peaceful protests in Tunisia, Syria, and elsewhere quickly turned violent with the ensuing chaos overwhelming and overthrowing numerous governments/regimes. The Arab Spring was for many a testament to the strength of humanity, freedom, technology, and the power of the people. Yet for those in government I imagine it was a worrying but fascinating viewing of, what essentially became, a real life social experiment that tested different methods of dealing with protesters.
One only needs to look at Vladimir Putin to see how quickly governments have learnt. With thousands of Russians filling the streets in December of 2011, many felt that change was finally about to come to Russia-- alas it never did. While this was partially a result of a population fixated on realpolitik, much of it was due to the adoption of what I would call 'anti-boil over measures' learnt from the Arab Spring. Lessons such as: don't kill protesters (martyrs only give people added energy and purpose); try to limit and hinder communication and the ability to organise through disrupting services such as Twitter and mobile networks; target and carefully pick out key influential protesters and keep them detained for as long as necessary; and lastly, just wait- if you have an organised and well equipped army/police force it is much easier to win a war of attrition.
2-- The type of change being sought in Hong Kong is systematic and structural which means that unless the government is willing to change or negotiate, only brute force will change the status quo. Until now, however, the demonstrations have not carried that air of aggression that we saw topple regimes during the Arab Spring. And while some might argue that the change sought is in fact more legislative than systematic (indeed people are not asking for the power to vote but rather just to be able to choose who they can vote for), it is the significance of a move away from de-facto Chinese rule to increased self-determination that has raised the stakes.
3-- The largest and most obvious reason, however, is China. Even though the protests are not on the mainland their presence in China's ideological territory makes them especially important. While many in the mainland have pointed out that the rise of cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou have meant that Hong Kong no longer holds the vital importance of being the gateway into China that it did in the 90s, this current demonstration is of great concern to the Communist Party of China (CPC) if for no other reason than the fact that every pro-democracy activist in China will be following its developments closely. Success in Hong Kong would give Chinese democracy advocates something real to sell. Something which is still today largely an almost inconceivable notion in most of China and it is precisely the danger of that idea and dream spreading to and across the mainland which has considerably upped the ante.
So why then should we even be watching if nothing is going to happen?
We should be watching closely if only to examine how China and the rest of the world responds and acts, as the current unfolding situation is a microcosm of an ideological conflict that is sure to repeat itself. Although today's peaceful protests are outside of China with an observant world largely distracted by other pressing issues (EU recession, Ukraine, Ebola, Isis etc.), one can envisage a similar protest taking place perhaps one day in China. What would The West do today if a pro-democracy protest in Beijing turned violent like it did in Tiananmen Square in 1989? Economic sanctions... really?
Despite lines in the sand moving back in recent years (who would've imagined a government could gas its citizens in 2013 and get away with it) democracy, free speech, and the right to peacefully protest are causes which most countries today champion. And although many of the current issues in China remain in the 'don't ask, don't tell' bracket for fear of potential conflict (especially in a time where the global economy is still so fragile), a violent protest would certainly force a confrontation with the rising dragon.
What about alternate endings?
I would argue that there exist two less likely alternate endings. The first would be for the protests to become violent. This, however, is unlikely, as not only does the CPC know that violence may bring about the type of uncontrollable energy seen during the Arab Spring, but also because the people of Hong Kong are famous for being peaceful protesters by nature. Let's not forget that it's the "#Occupy Central with Love and Peace" movement after all.
A second possibility, especially should the impasse continue, might be the realisation by the CPC of the opportunity in front of them to experiment with a new political system. As mainland citizens (in particular the rapidly growing middle class) become increasingly frustrated by their lack of say when it comes to property rights, healthcare, education and freedom of speech, this is a rather unique opportunity for the CPC to experiment on a smaller scale with a different political and philosophical system which may look to satisfy many of these increasing concerns seen back on the mainland.
It is unlikely that these demonstrations seen today in Hong Kong will bring about significant change. Nevertheless, whether you are a democracy advocating global citizen, a government looking at how best to peacefully manage demonstrations, or just someone interested in international politics and what life in a future, more developed, China might look like, today's protests are a significant event worth watching closely.