Beijing outlasts the Hong Kong democracy movement

Reuters reports on the twilight of a movement that filled the streets of Hong Kong with astonishing crowds just a few weeks ago:

Leaders of Hong Kong’s Occupy Central movement surrendered to police on Wednesday for their role in democracy protests that the government has deemed illegal, the latest sign that the civil disobedience campaign may be running out of steam.

Three founders turned themselves in a day after calling on students to retreat from protest sites in the Asia financial center amid fears of further violence, just hours after student leader Joshua Wong had called on supporters to regroup.

Pro-Beijing groups taunted Benny Tai, Chan Kin-man and Reverend Chu Yiu-ming as they entered a police station just two subway stops from the main protest site in Admiralty, next to the Chinese-controlled city’s financial center.

The three, accompanied by Cardinal Joseph Zen, 82, former Catholic Bishop of Hong Kong, filled in forms, giving personal information, and were allowed to leave without facing any charges.

“I hope we can show others the meaning of the surrender. We urge the occupation to end soon and more citizens will carry out the basic responsibility of civil disobedience, which is to surrender,” said Benny Tai, the most prominent of the Occupy leaders, after he left the police station.

Mr. Tai has a valid point: it’s not “civil disobedience” any more when a protest descends into lawbreaking, which governments both fair and foul are obliged to respond against with force.  The exchange of force between a government and its challengers becomes violent revolution, which is an entirely different matter.  Writing as a citizen of a nation founded in violent revolution, I can attest that sometimes it is the tragically necessary course of action; looking at the subsequent fate of most other polities that began with a revolution, I can say that the process is highly likely to end in tragedy, especially given how adept modern totalitarian states have become at suppressing revolutions.  The dream that emerged from the fall of the Soviet empire is that captive people yearning for freedom cannot long be denied, especially in an age of easy mass communication that can’t easily be suppressed.  The reality is that the tools of technology prove quite useful to the tyrant as well.  Initiating either peaceable or violent revolution against dictatorship is harder than it used to be.

This is partly due to the range of incentives a determined authoritarian regime can exert to break up revolutionary coalitions.  The Reuters piece mentions that despite their enormous size at the peak of the Occupy Central protests, they weren’t supported by a firm infrastructure of leadership, with one expert commentator judging that “the trouble and one of the weaknesses of the movement is there’s not much coordination between the Hong Kong Federation of Students and the pan-democrats.”  The latter, and larger, cohort began peeling off when the demonstrations clogged public traffic arteries and threatened the city’s prosperity.  By the time the Beijing-aligned government started playing really rough – “raining down truncheon blows and squirting jets of incapacitating ‘pava’ spray” on the remaining student protesters – public sympathy had shifted toward the authorities to a crucial degree.

The “Occupy” concept, used for either ridiculous ends in America or more noble purposes in Hong Kong, depends on challenging the established order by violating property laws – not merely speaking to the public, but demanding they listen.  It’s always going to be a tactic with a fairly limited half-life, because even if the protesters enjoy genuine public sympathy, or the manufactured approval of biased media, the public will eventually tire of interference with orderly business and the disruption of their daily lives.  Perhaps the trick to running any such protest is knowing when to say your piece, wrap things up, and clear off before your welcome has been fully worn out.

It doesn’t look as if the Ferguson protesters are in danger of learning that lesson any time soon.  Their media advocates might have a mind to compare their movement to Occupy Central.  There are some superficial similarities in their methods, including the tactic of closing down public streets.  To take the crucial difference as dispassionately as possible, the Ferguson mob is making an incoherent set of demands that most of the general public is unlikely to sympathize with, including an assault on the rule of law, using tactics guaranteed to annoy everyone they might conceivably persuade.  The ticking clock of public patience for their methods was already wound down when they got started.  The Ferguson protesters think the hard truth of the specific incident they’re protesting doesn’t matter – no mere grand jury investigation will convince them to stop doing the “Hands Up, Don’t Shoot!” salute – but to everyone else, it does.

Challenging the existing system always boils down to a contest of will, and determined autocrats have plenty of it.  They can rewrite the rules to encourage the perception of their opponents as nihilistic lawbreakers to develop more quickly.  They’ll play rougher, quicker.  Those who benefit from the spoils of an authoritarian state are unlikely to be overcome by pangs of conscience and turn on the system that makes them rich and powerful.  Many carrots are available to buy off crucial segments of a disgruntled populace.

The basic demand of the Occupy Central movement in Hong Kong was something Americans take for granted: a free choice of local government candidates, rather than sham elections where every option has been carefully vetted for loyalty to Beijing.  I suspect most of us fancy we’d never give up on such demands, never accept a watered-down version of democracy where powerful overlords tell us the really important decisions are off the table.  But we’ve already done that, haven’t we?  It’s not as blatant as what Hong Kong is expected to put up with, but we Americans are also given lists of directives we’re no longer allowed to vote on or disobey.  We also have a Ruling Class that understands how the real path to power lies in suppressing dissent, not building widespread approval.  Vast power over the people can be asserted without anything resembling majority approval (never mind that America’s founders were very clear in stating that not even majority approval was sufficient authorization for the exercise of such power.)  You just need to make sure a majority doesn’t actively resist each power grab.  It doesn’t even matter if they disapprove, as long as they feel helpless.

It’s not surprising that the Occupy Central movement petered out after such a stunning display of initial strength.  Both good and bad societies face challenges, and have a chance to respond.  If they don’t make the fatal mistake of indicting themselves and conceding weakness or illegitimacy, they have a good chance of surviving peaceful challenges, and modern governments are well-equipped to deal with the other kind.  It remains to be seen if the Hong Kong democracy protesters can keep the memory of what they achieved fresh in the public mind, and succeed at the slow, heavy work of building a peaceful challenge strong and righteous enough to flummox Beijing… always mindful of the way authoritarian states are prepared to escalate peaceful ideological contests into bloodshed when they’re losing.