LONDON – It has not been the easiest year for democracies in the West, with storm clouds gathering over Brexit and also now over next year’s U.S. presidential election. But it is not just Western democracies that face problems. Protests in Hong Kong and Russia show the limits of what many see in the West as autocratic power.
In Hong Kong, the huge demonstrations against Chinese rule have deepened a crisis that now threatens those in power on the mainland. In Moscow, more than 1,000 people were detained on July 27 after an unauthorized protest demanding that members of the opposition be allowed to run in a local election. It was one of the biggest crackdowns of recent years against opponents of President Vladimir Putin’s tight grip on power.
Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan has also had a difficult few months. Ekrem Imamoglu, an opposition politician with a very different platform to the ruling AKP, became mayor of Istanbul in an election that was re-run after a court found irregularities with the first vote — also won by Imamoglu.
Turkey’s rulers have abided by the outcome. But how will Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping respond to any further protests?
Beijing used force to crush the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. China’s People’s Liberation Army in Hong Kong has so far remained in barracks since the protests started in April, and has left Hong Kong’s police force to deal with the protests. But some activists also see Beijing’s hand in violent attacks on protesters and others blamed on criminal gangs, and fear at worst a repeat of China’s 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.
Putin survived an earlier wave of protests that began in late 2011 without calling out the army but protesters and opposition leaders spoke of an atmosphere of intimidation and laws were passed setting stricter limits on protests. Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny was jailed last month after he urged people to take part in the July 27 protest and says he believes he was poisoned in jail though a state hospital said tests for poison came up negative.
The authorities in Moscow and Beijing have accused the West of orchestrating protests, echoing their suspicions over the 2011 “Arab Spring” and almost every public uprising in Eastern Europe as communist rule collapsed there in the late 1980s.
Such suspicions mirror Western disquiet over allegations of Russia meddling in the 2014 U.S. presidential election and in other European democracies, and are in some ways understandable. Western governments, including former U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration, have tried for years to court Russian opposition groups.
There has also been a tacit belief in the West in the last three decades that Russia, China and other states are on a bumpy but predictable path to greater democracy, openness and globalized integration, even though this scenario has been increasingly questioned in Russia under Putin.
Kremlin critics say a turning point in Putin’s rule was the arrest in 2003 of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, at the time the chief executive of what was Russia’s biggest oil producer and largest private company, Yukos. He was sentenced to jail in 2005 on charges of fraud and tax evasion, and the state seized and dismantled Yukos and sold off its assets.
Investors already price in a hefty premium for geopolitical risk when it comes to Russian assets. A crackdown in Hong Kong could spark a dramatic outflow of foreign firms, money and expatriates from not just the territory but also mainland China.
The protests in Hong Kong were sparked by a proposed law allowing extradition to the mainland, something explicitly prohibited in the 1997 handover that ended Britain’s administration and entrenched “one country, two systems” with greater rights for Hong Kong residents.
The extradition bill has since been shelved, but many protesters — whose Hong Kong citizenship allows them to reside only in the territory or in mainland China — still desperately want more change. Most cannot leave, and as things stand the territory will revert to Chinese mainland law by the middle of this century.
But the rising discontent in Hong Kong and Russia is not only about politics and democracy. It also about a lack of economic opportunity, frustration with growing wealth gaps and a host of other problems that are familiar in Western societies. Hong Kong’s dissident movement partly grew out of the local version of the 2011 “Occupy Wall Street” protests.
Putin and Xi are both 66 and the battle to succeed them is already underway. Some forces, such as the protesters, are desperate for a more open society. Others are not — and in countries such as Sudan, Zimbabwe and Egypt the fall of an ageing leader has been followed by increased repression. As Russia and China have used represssion at home, they have also been externally aggressive. Russia used force in Georgia in 2008 and Ukraine in 2014 — but such moves bring mixed results. A crackdown in Hong Kong might make China’s goal of reunification with Taiwan harder or impossible to achieve. Russia’s seizure of Crimea from Ukraine prompted NATO to bolster the defence of its eastern member states.
Western institutions too are struggling to adapt to a fast-changing world, and almost all populations are frustrated with their leaders. But people in Western democracies do not generally share the same fear of arbitrary arrest or crackdowns as in countries seen in the West as autocratic.
The openness of Western democracies should increase the likelihood of renewal and change happening in such societies without causing a potentially catastrophic crisis. Democratic states should also find themselves protected by the openness of society rather than threatened or undermined by it. Countries that are less open may be more unpredictable, but it should be hoped they can find a way calmly through the storm.
Reuters columnist Peter Apps is a writer on international affairs, localization, conflict and other issues.