The ‘Umbrella Revolution’ and Democracy Woes

Prasanth Aby Thomas
Published: October 2014

The modern world mostly sees the value of democracy and personal freedom. There are only a few remaining who believe that too much freedom leads to crisis. Unfortunate point though, is that one of the major proponents among the latter happens to be the world’s second largest economy and an incoming super power. Yes, we are talking about none other than China, whose Communist regime remains adamant that keeping a strict lid on its people, controlling their thoughts and blocking outside influence entering into the country is the best way to run a country.

The worst human disasters caused by man are undoubtedly the two world wars, which together killed tens of millions of people and displaced even more.  After these two catastrophe’s some eight or so of the largest man-made disasters of the world happened in China. This includes the Taiping rebellion towards the second half of the 19th century against the then ruling dynasty that killed about 20 million people and the conflicts between Han Chinese and Muslims that saw close to 10 million people die. In the last century, Mao Zedong’s illogical and ill-placed policies led to yet another disaster, when at least another 20 million people died due to various reasons including famine.

Towards the end of the 20th century, another news that managed to come out of this highly walled country was the Tiananmen Square Massacre. In 1989 a student-led movement in Beijing, which had received much support from the local residents was crushed by Chinese communist regime by sending in the military with tanks and other heavy artilleries. The incident, which saw about 800-1000 student activists killed, had received global criticism then, but owing to the nature of the Chinese regime and because the issue was not affecting the interests of any other countries, the international community largely failed to step in.

A lot has changed since then, from China’s economic policy to its position among the world powers, and yet the Communist government of the country remains just as paranoid of democracy as it was decades ago. There were no surprises then, when the regime decided that there will be no independent candidate not vetted by the Party contesting at the upcoming elections at the erstwhile British colony, Hong Kong. It was also not a surprise to see this met with protests, again by the youngsters who wanted the city to remain democratic and autonomous.

China’s leaders are understandably trying their best to hold on to control for its own sake. But the nation’s grey past also aids to clarify why they are so strong-minded not to provide space to the protestors in Hong Kong who wish to swap the area’s sham democracy with the real thing. Xi Jinping, China’s president, and his colleagues consider that the party’s control over the state is the only approach of ensuring its constancy. They dread that if the party relaxes its hold, the nation will slide to chaos and ruin.

They are correct that autocracy might retain a nation steady in the short run, but in the long run, however, as China’s personal account illustrates, it cannot. The lone supporter of a steady state is a public that is content with its administration. And in China, discontent with the Communist Party is on the increase.

Hong Kong’s “Umbrella revolution”, christened because the demonstrators used their umbrellas against police pepper-spray (as well as the sun and the rain), was prompted by a choice by China in late August that contenders for the role of the area’s chief executive must be nominated by a team of Communist Party factions. Activists are asking the party to respect the assurance of democracy that was made when the British shifted the region to China in 1997. Like so much in the area, the demonstrations are shockingly well-ordered. After an evening of clashes with police, students picked up the plastic bottles that littered the roads for recycling.

For some of the campaigners, democracy is a problem of value. Others, like middle-class public through mainland China, are concerned about housing, education and their own job forecasts. They want representation since they are not happy with how they are ruled. Whatever their incentive, the complaints show a worrying test for the Communist Party. They are suggestive not just of rebellions that have collapsed tyrants in contemporary years from Cairo to Kiev, but also of the student rebellion in Tiananmen Square 25 years ago. The choice to fire at those activists allowed returning order, but created caution among the public and across the globe that still permeates the international community’s relations with China, and the regime with its own people.

In Hong Kong, the administration is employing a blend of communist and colonial strategies. Spokesmen for the party have blamed the activists of being extremists and black hands influenced by foreign forces that are against China and that they will ‘reap what they have sown’.

Such rhetoric is just what the party’s lexicon of slanders holds. Identical arguments were employed to vilify the activists in Tiananmen, before the government decided to butcher them. It echoes a long-standing reluctance to communicate with democrats and democracy, whether in Hong Kong or wherever in the country, and indicates that party’s top bosses see Hong Kong, a transnational metropolis that has allowed a notable level of independence ever since the British gave it back to China, as just another part of the nation where opponents can be daunted by accusing them of having anti-national links.

Commenting on the situation, one can only say, Xi, who has always remained a close eye on the party’s Hong Kong policy, should know better than this. The modern world is increasingly independent, and the power of the individual is much more than before, the recent issues of news leaks of governments spying on each other are valid examples of this matter. China might try to employ techies to remain on top of things even as technological innovations continue, but this may not be possible in the longer term.