There is far more at stake in the street protests that have rocked Hong Kong in recent days than the future governance of the former British colony itself. No one understands this better than the Communist leaders in Beijing who triggered the crisis by reneging on their promise to allow the people of Hong Kong to choose their own Chief Executive in 2017. It is a struggle that has the capacity to alter the political trajectory not just of China, but of the Asia-Pacific region as a whole.
China’s President, Xi Jingping, has defined strict limits to the scope of political reform since taking office in 2012. In a speech to the College of Europe in Bruges earlier this year, he rejected multi-party democracy as unworkable in Chinese conditions and reaffirmed the leading role of the Communist Party. The protests in Hong Kong represent a serious threat Xi’s vision because he knows that the ‘one country, two systems’ formula adopted in 1997 won’t be sustainable if one of those systems is a full electoral democracy and the other is not.
Like all authoritarian leaders, Xi fears the viral effects of democratic protest in the age of global communications. The lesson he draws from the collapse of the Soviet bloc, the ‘colour’ revolutions and the Arab Spring is that the spirit of rebellion can spread rapidly between countries that are culturally or geographically close and is too infectious to be left unchecked. Indeed, Xi is far from the only Asian leader hoping for a swift restoration of order in Hong Kong. Throughout the region entrenched elites are fighting to defend their power and privileges against the demands for more political and social rights from below. The last thing they want is any encouragement for domestic imitators to take to the streets.
The upsurge of pro-democracy activism in Hong Kong comes at a crucial moment. According to the respected NGO Freedom House, the Asia-Pacific region was the only part of the world to record an improvement in democratic standards over the last five years. But that progress has now stalled and may even have gone into reverse in a number of important countries. Across the region there is an emerging trend towards authoritarianism that includes the imposition of new controls on freedom of speech, restrictions on the independence of civil society, reduced opportunities for electoral competition, military interference in government affairs and the denial of political rights, many of which have only recently been extended or restored.
Moves towards political liberalisation and civilian government in Burma that began in 2010 have in reality done little more than create a democratic veneer for continued military rule. The media environment has actually deteriorated with journalists routinely jailed for reporting the truth, including five journalists given ten-year prison sentences this summer. Cambodia is another country that has moved in the wrong direction with a nakedly rigged election and brute force keeping the incumbent Prime Minister, Hun Sen, in power last year. Electoral fraud and gerrymandering also allowed Malaysia’s ruling party retain office in 2013 despite losing the popular vote. The peaceful transfer of power that seemed possible a few years ago now appears less likely than ever with the government enacting new measures to suppress dissent.
Particular concern attaches to Indonesia, a country that in many ways set the benchmark for democratic change in the years following the collapse of the Suharto dictatorship in 1998. This year saw the election of Joko Widodo, the first President from outside the Suharto-era elite. But the defeated candidate, Prabowo Subianto, has refused to accept the result and seems determined to use his control of parliament to claw back power. A law passed last week scrapped direct elections for local and provincial officials. Prabowo speaks for the old Jakarta-based elite that resents the diffusion of power across different regions and classes and hankers for a return to the ‘guided democracy’ that protected its status in the past.
A similar dynamic has produced a much sharper democratic regression in Thailand where the military seized power in May – the country’s second coup in eight years. The first coup, in 2006, removed sitting Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra whose pro-poor agenda halved poverty and established universal healthcare, achievements that conservative elements of the urban middle class saw as a threat their interests. The latest coup removed his sister, Yingluck Shinawatra, who was trying to build on his legacy. Since Thaksin and his allies have won every election since 2001, the military and the Bangkok elite that stands behind it have concluded that they can’t win at the ballot box. If they allow a return to civilian rule, it is likely to resemble the highly truncated form found in neighbouring Burma.
Reactions to the coup among Thailand’s neighbours provided a telling indication of where the region now stands. China, Burma and Vietnam all welcomed it as an opportunity for better relations while condemnation was largely restricted to the United States and other western democracies. Thailand’s military leadership has responded by establishing closer relations with Beijing, posing questions about the country’s traditional alliance with Washington and hinting at the bigger geopolitical issues that stand to be settled by democracy’s path in Asia. Where there is honour among autocrats there is also shared hope between peoples. Whether they realise it or not, the people of Hong Kong are fighting for much more than their own freedom.
David Clark is the founder and editor of Shifting Grounds, and served as special adviser to Robin Cook at the Foreign Office from 1997 to 2001