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The Global Rushmore of Autocrats

Donald Trump would dearly like to add his face to Mt. Rushmore as the fifth presidential musketeer. His fireworks-and-fury extravaganza on July 3 was the next best thing. Trump’s dystopian speech was almost beside the point. Much more important was the photo op of his smirking face next to Abraham Lincoln’s.

More fitting, however, would be to carve Trump’s face into a different Rushmore altogether. This one would be located in a more appropriate badlands, like Mt. Hermon in Syria near the border with Israel. There, Donald Trump’s visage would join those of his fellow autocrats, Vladimir Putin and Xi Jinping. To honor the illiberal locals, the stony countenances of Bashar al-Assad and Benjamin Netanyahu would make it a cozy quintet.

Let’s be frank: Jefferson and Washington are not the company that Trump keeps, despite his America First pretensions. His ideological compatriots are to be found in other countries: Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Narendra Modi of India, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, Daniel Ortega of Nicaragua, Viktor Orban of Hungary, and so on. Alas, this global Rushmore of autocrats is becoming as crowded as a football team pressed together for a selfie.

But Putin and Xi stand out from the rest. They get pride of place because of their long records of authoritarian policies and the sheer brazenness of their recent power grabs. By comparison, Trump is the arrogant newcomer who may well not last the season, an impulsive sprinter in the marathon of geopolitics. If things go badly for Team Trump in November, America will suddenly be busy air-brushing 45 out of history and gratefully chiseling his face out of the global Rushmore.

Putin and Xi, however, are in it for the long haul.

Leader for Life

At the end of June, Russia held a referendum on a raft of constitutional changes that President Vladimir Putin proposed earlier in the year. In front of Russian voters were over 200 proposed amendments. No wonder the authorities gave Russians a full week to vote. They should have provided mandatory seminars on constitutional law as well.

Of course, the Russian government wasn’t looking to stimulate a wide-ranging discussion of governance. The Russian parliament had already approved the changes. Putin simply wanted Russian voters to rubber-stamp his nationalist-conservative remaking of his country.

At the same time, a poor turnout would not have been a good look. To guarantee what the Kremlin’s spokesman described as a “triumphant referendum on confidence” in Putin, workplaces pressured their employees to vote, and the government distributed lottery prizes. Some people managed to vote more than once. On top of that, widespread fraud was necessary to achieve the preordained positive outcome.

Instead of voting on each of the amendments, Russians had to approve or disapprove the whole package. Among the constitutional changes were declarations that marriage is only between a man and a woman, that Russians believe in God, and that the Russian constitution takes precedence over international law.

Several measures increased executive power over the ministries and the judiciary. A few sops were thrown to Putin’s core constituencies, like pensioners.

Who was going to vote against God or retirees?

But the jewel in the crown was the amendment that allows Putin to run for the presidency two more times. Given his systematic suppression of the opposition, up to and including assassination, Putin will likely be in office until he’s 84 years old. That gives him plenty of time to, depending on your perspective, make Russia great again or make Russia into Putin, Inc.

The Russian president does not dream of world domination. He has regional ambitions at best. Yet these ambitions have brought Russia into conflict with the United States over Ukraine, Syria, even outer space. And then there’s the perennial friction over Afghanistan.

Much has been made in the U.S. press about Putin offering the Taliban bounties for U.S. and coalition soldiers. It’s ugly stuff, but no uglier than what the United States was doing back in the 1980s.

Did you think that all the U.S. money going to the mujahideen was to cultivate opium poppies, run madrasas, and plan someday to bite the hand that fed them? The U.S. government was giving the Afghan “freedom fighters” guns and funds to kill Soviet soldiers, nearly 15,000 of whom died over the course of the war. The Russians have been far less effective. At most, the Taliban have killed 18 U.S. soldiers since the beginning of 2019, with perhaps a couple tied to the bounty program.

Still, it is expected that a U.S. president would protest such a direct targeting of U.S. soldiers even if he has no intention to retaliate. Instead, Donald Trump has claimed that Putin’s bounty program is a hoax. “The Russia Bounty story is just another made up by Fake News tale that is told only to damage me and the Republican Party,” Trump tweeted.

Knowing how sensitive the U.S. president and the U.S. public is to the death of U.S. soldiers overseas, Putin couldn’t resist raising the stakes in Afghanistan and making U.S. withdrawal that much more certain. Taking the United States out of the equation — reducing the transatlantic alliance, edging U.S. troops out of the Middle East, applauding Washington’s exit from various international organizations — provides Russia with greater maneuvering room to consolidate power in the Eurasian space.

Trump has dismissed pretty much every unsavory Kremlin act as a hoax, from U.S. election interference to assassinations of critics overseas. Trump cares little about Ukraine, has been lukewarm if not hostile toward U.S. sanctions against Moscow, and has consistently attempted to bring Russia back into the G8. Yet he has also undermined the most important mechanism of engagement with Russia, namely arms control treaties.

Trump’s servile approach to Putin and disengaged approach to Russia is the exact opposite of the kind of principled engagement policy that Washington should be constructing. The United States should be identifying common interests with Russia over nuclear weapons, climate, regional ceasefires, reviving the Iran nuclear deal — and at the same time criticizing Russian conduct that violates international norms.

Territory Grab

Xi Jinping has already made himself leader for life, and he didn’t need to go to the pretense of a referendum on constitutional changes. In 2018, the National People’s Congress simply removed the two-term limit on the presidency and boom: Xi can be on top ‘til he drops.

Forget about collective leadership within the Party. And certainly forget about some kind of evolution toward democracy. Under Xi, China has returned to the one-man rule of the Mao period.

So, while Putin was busy securing his future this past weekend, Xi focused instead on securing China’s future as an integrated, politically homogeneous entity. In other words, Xi moved on Hong Kong.

Hong Kong once had great economic value for Beijing as a gateway to the global economy. Now that China has all the access to the global economy that it needs and then some, Hong Kong has only symbolic value, as a former colonial territory returned to the Chinese nation in 1997. To the extent that Hong Kong remains an enclave of free-thinkers who take potshots at the Communist Party, Beijing will step by step deprive it of democracy.

On June 30, a new national security law went into effort in Hong Kong. “The new law names four offences: secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces,” Matt Ho writes in the South China Morning Post. “It also laid out new law enforcement powers and established government agencies responsible for national security. Conviction under the law includes sentences of life in prison.”

The protests that have roiled Hong Kong for the past many months, from Beijing’s point of view, violate the national security law in all four categories. So, violators may now face very long prison sentences indeed, and police have already arrested a number of people accused of violating the new law. The new law extends to virtually all aspects of society, including the schools, which now must “harmonize” their teaching with the party line in Beijing.

What’s happening in Hong Kong, however, is still a dilute version of the crackdown taking place on the Mainland. This week, the authorities in Beijing arrested Xu Zhangrun, a law professor and prominent critic of Xi Jinping. He joins other detainees, like real estate mogul Ren Zhiqiang, who was linked to an article calling Xi a “clown with no clothes on who was still determined to play emperor” and Xu Zhiyong, who called on Xi to resign for his handling of the coronavirus crisis.

Meanwhile, Beijing’s treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang province amounts to collective punishment: more than a million consigned to “reeducation camps,” children separated from their families, forced sterilization. Uyghur exiles have charged China with genocide and war crimes before the International Criminal Court.

Like Putin, Xi has aligned himself with a conservative nationalism that appeals to a large portion of the population. Unlike Putin, the Chinese leader doesn’t have to worry about approval ratings or periodic elections. He is also sitting on a far larger economy, much greater foreign currency reserves, and the means to construct an illiberal internationalism to replace the Washington consensus that has prevailed for several decades.

Moreover, there are no political alternatives on the horizon in China that could challenge Xi or his particular fusion of capitalism and nationalism.

Trump has pursued the same kind of unprincipled engagement with China as he has with Russia: flattery of the king, indifference toward human rights, and a focus on profit. Again, principled engagement requires working with China on points of common concern while pushing back against its human rights violations.

Of course, that’s not going to happen under the human rights violation that currently occupies the White House.

And Trump Makes Three

Donald Trump aspires to become leader for life like his buddies Putin and Xi, as he has “joked” on numerous occasions. He has similarly attacked the mainstays of a democratic society — the free press, independent judges, inspectors general. He has embraced the same nationalist-conservative cultural policies.

And he has branded his opponents enemies of the people. In his Rushmore speech on July 3, Trump lashed out against…

“a new far-left fascism that demands absolute allegiance. If you do not speak its language, perform its rituals, recite its mantras, and follow its commandments, then you will be censored, banished, blacklisted, persecuted, and punished. It’s not going to happen to us. Make no mistake: this left-wing cultural revolution is designed to overthrow the American Revolution. In so doing, they would destroy the very civilization that rescued billions from poverty, disease, violence, and hunger, and that lifted humanity to new heights of achievement, discovery, and progress.”

He went on to describe his crackdown on protesters, his opposition to “liberal Democrats,” his efforts to root out opposition in schools, newsrooms and “even our corporate boardrooms.” Like Putin, he sang the praises of the American family and religious values. He described an American people that stood with him and the Rushmore Four and against all those who have exercised their constitutional rights of speech and assembly.

You’d never know from the president’s diatribe that protesters were trying to overthrow not the American Revolution but the remnants of the Confederacy.

Trump’s supporters have taken to heart the president’s attacks on America’s “enemies.”

Since the protests around George Floyd’s killing began in May, there have been at least 50 cases of cars ramming into demonstrators, a favorite tactic used by white supremacists. There have been over 400 reports of press freedom violations. T. Greg Doucette, a “Never Trump” conservative lawyer, has collected over 700 videos of police misconduct, usually violent, toward peaceful demonstrators.

As I’ve written, there is no left-wing “cultural revolution” sweeping the United States. It is Donald Trump who is hoping to unleash a cultural revolution carried out by a mob of violent backlashers who revere the Confederate flag, white supremacy, and the Mussolini-like president who looks out upon all the American carnage from his perch on the global Rushmore of autocrats.

FPIF, July 8, 2020

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Articles China Featured Russia and Eastern Europe

The New Age of Protest

Led by young people, climate strikers blocked traffic on two mornings at the end of last month in Washington, DC. On the first day, protestors chained themselves to a boat three blocks from the White House, and 32 activists were arrested. On the second day, activists targeted the EPA and Trump International Hotel. It was a not-so-subtle suggestion to commuters stuck in their cars on those mornings to think more favorably about public transportation or telecommuting. It was also a potent reminder, as Congress remains polarized on so many issues, that some paralysis is healthy in the nation’s capital.

The DC protests were part of a global climate strike that involved an estimated 6.6 million people. In New Zealand, 3.5 percent of the population participated. Melbourne, Berlin, and London each had rallies of 100,000 people. In Seattle, over a thousand workers walked out of Amazon headquarters, demanding that the company reduce its carbon emissions to zero.

It wasn’t just the children of the privileged in the industrialized world who were out on the streets. Protests took place in 125 countries and 1,600 cities, including 15 cities in the Philippines, throughout India, and all over Africa.

The global climate strike is just the latest mass protest this year. Demonstrations have roiled Hong Kong since the beginning of the summer. Tens of thousands of people poured into the streets in Moscow through the fall to protest restrictions on local elections. Thousands of Brazilians thronged major cities to condemn their president’s handling of the Amazon fires, and the same outrage prompted people to gather with placards in front of Brazilian embassies all over the world. Protests against Venezuela’s leadership that broke out on January 1 have recently dwindled even as demonstrations to remove Haiti’s president have heated up and security forces have cracked down on Iraqis protesting the corruption and inefficiency of their government.

Anti-government rallies in Serbia became some of the longest running protests in Europe this summer. Elsewhere in Europe, the yellow vests continued to target the government of Emmanuel Macron into 2019. In the UK, thousands gathered to protest Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s suspension of parliament in September.

Protestors marched last month in South Africa to decry rising violence against women. At the beginning of the year, the Women’s March 2019 again focused anger at Donald Trump and his administration’s record on women’s issues, while gun control supporters held “recess rallies” around the United States in August to push for stricter limits on firearms. After massive protests helped oust the previous prime minister in 2016, candlelight protests again returned to South Korea this last weekend as 800,000 people gathered to support an embattled justice minister and his reform agenda.

Analysts almost daily bemoan the erosion in democratic values that has accompanied the rise of autocratic politicians. And indeed, recourse to the streets can be a sign that people no longer believe that the ordinary mechanisms of democracy are working.

Viewed another way, however, the sheer number of protests and their geographic spread prove that 2019 was a banner year for engagement, for participation, for democracy. As protestors like to chant, this is what democracy looks like.

Ahead to the Past?

Fifty years ago, young people also declared that they were mad as hell and not going to take it anymore. In Warsaw in 1968, Polish students demonstrated in defense of free speech and against police brutality. It was part of a larger rebellion in the Soviet bloc, led by Alexander Dubcek’s “socialism with a human face” reforms in Czechoslovakia. Students in Germany contacted their rebellious counterparts on the other side of the Iron Curtain as part of their own campus actions. In Paris, meanwhile, French students took over the streets with slogans like “Be realistic, demand the impossible.”

It was a worldwide phenomenon. Students mobilized in Mexico, Pakistan, and Japan. The first protests against the military dictatorship began in Brazil. And, of course, huge anti-Vietnam War demonstrations convulsed the United States.

Then as now, young people were upset with government repression, grievous policies of war and environmental destruction, and systemic sclerosis. They were critical of an imposed political consensus – by military juntas, communist governments, and the joint efforts of liberal and conservative politicians in the democratic world.

But there was also hope. Young people believed in 1968 that they could create new societies – at the micro-level in communes, in newly radicalized city councils, and even at a national level like Dubcek’s experiment in Czechoslovakia. “Beneath the paving stones – the beach!” French students wrote on the walls of Paris that year.

Alas, many of the protests of 1968 ended in tragedy. The Polish government threw the students in jail. The Soviet Union invaded Czechoslovakia and ended Dubcek’s experiment. The Mexican government killed untold number of students. Richard Nixon was reelected in the United States, and the Vietnam War dragged on for another seven years.

Today, young people are operating under a sky full of ominous clouds. They aren’t filling the streets to create a new world so much as to save the old, imperfect one. If 1968 was a year of utopian protest, 2019 has been one long effort to prevent a dystopian future.

The Clampdown

The protests of 2019, so far at least, have not produced much change. In some countries, the pushback has been terrifying.

During a summer of escalating protests, Russian authorities detained 2,000 people, most of them young. The vast majority of the detainees were subsequently released. But several were convicted of various offenses, including inciting a riot, and sentenced to several years in prison. “I can say with certainty that Russia is striving inevitably towards freedom,” 21-year-old protestor Egor Zhukov said at his trial. “I don’t know whether I will be freed, but Russia certainly will be.” He is currently under house arrest and has been put on a government blacklist of terrorists. This week, 25,000 people returned to the streets in Moscow to demand the release of all those arrested over the summer.

As China celebrated its seventieth year of Communist rule, protestors in Hong Kong tried to upstage the proceedings. For the first time, police fired live ammunition at the crowds. One high school student was hit in the shoulder. Of the 51 people who went to the hospital, two are in critical condition. The protests, which have been going on for over 100 days, have not been entirely nonviolent. Protestors have thrown gasoline bombs and beaten police with metal pipes. The policy, too, have been increasingly aggressive. An air of desperation is settling over the scene.

In the United States, a few scattered protests have taken place in support of the impeachment of Donald Trump. The president’s wrath, meanwhile, has been focused closer to home. Trump has lashed out at the person who blew the whistle on his conduct with foreign leaders, which precipitated the Democratic Party’s decision to press ahead with an impeachment inquiry. Trump called the CIA whistleblower “close to a spy” – well, duh, the person does work for the CIA – and a “traitor.” Trump publicly lamented that the United States no longer treats traitors the way it once did (presumably by imposing the death penalty). Given his willingness to put his own interests – and occasionally the interests of other countries – above the national interest, Trump may one day soon be relieved that the United States has changed its policy toward traitors.

Even worse, Trump has retweeted pastor Robert Jeffress’ contention that the United States could descend into a “civil war” if the president is impeached. This is the closest that a president has come to a call to arms within the country since the 1850s. It’s one thing for an autocrat like Vladimir Putin or Xi Jinping to use the apparatus of the state to suppress protests. It’s quite another for a democratically elected leader to threaten to call on his well-armed supporters to rise up against the state itself.

As in 1968, the protestors can’t expect immediate results. It took twenty more years before the student protestors in Poland and Czechoslovakia would oust the governments that suppressed them. Mexico is no longer a one-party state, and Pakistan is more or less a democracy. Despite Jair Bolsonaro’s best efforts, Brazil has not returned to the days of military dictatorship.

Patience, however, is not the best strategy when it comes to climate change. The ice continues to melt. The temperatures continue to rise. Extreme weather events continue to happen. As the old advertising jingle used to go, you can’t fool Mother Nature. The #FridaysforFuture movement isn’t really a bunch of rebellious students. If they had one unified message last month, it was: please, for the sake of the planet, listen to your Mother!

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, October 2, 2019

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Articles China Featured

Hong Kong and the Future of China

Something didn’t quite add up.

This past weekend, protestors were rallying outside the American embassy in Hong Kong. They were waving American flags. They were singing The Star-Spangled Banner. One 24-year-old protester wore a red Make America Great Again hat. Some signs at the protest read “President Trump, please liberate Hong Kong.”

“The Chinese government is breaking their promises to give freedom and human rights to Hong Kong,” the MAGA cap-wearer said. “We want to use the U.S. to push China to do what they promised over 20 years ago.”

First of all, the Trump administration cares not a whit about human rights. It’s not about to “liberate” Hong Kong any more than it was going to “liberate” the Rohingyas, the Venezuelans, the Iranians, or the Muslims in China’s Xinjiang province for that matter. With John Bolton now banished from the White House, the prospect of any kind of U.S. intervention has become even more remote.

Trump has called the protests “riots,” echoing Beijing’s rhetoric. He’s worried publicly that they are distracting from trade negotiations. MAGA hat aside, the U.S. president probably sees in the demonstrations a reflection of anti-Trump protests throughout the United States (and the world). Also, despite the trade war with Beijing, Trump has a fondness for Chinese leader Xi Jinping. He has even praised Xi’s handling of the crisis (though he has also suggested the Xi meet the protestors to resolve the crisis).

The protesters have a better chance of appealing to the U.S. Congress. Lawmakers from both sides of the aisle are currently considering the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which would allow Washington to impose sanctions on Mainland and Hong Kong officials who violate human rights and undermine the territory’s sovereignty. Even if it survives a Trump veto, however, the bill would not prevent Beijing from doing what it considers necessary.

Which brings us to the other half of the protester’s claim: that China promised freedom and human rights to Hong Kong in 1997 when it took control of the entrepot from the British. Actually, Beijing promised “one country, two systems.” It promised “a high degree of autonomy.” As for freedom and human rights, that was up to the residents of Hong Kong to secure for themselves.

Which, of course, is what the protesters have been doing.

Two versions of the future have been on display in Hong Kong over the summer. In one version, the people of Hong Kong not only preserve their autonomy but expand their limited democracy into true, one-person-one-vote representation — and this political system inexorably spreads to the rest of China. In the other version, the Mainland and its Hong Kong representatives suppress the protests as China consolidates territorial control: over Xinjiang and Tibet, over Hong Kong, and eventually over Taiwan and the waters of the South China Sea.

The United States, under Donald Trump or his successor, will have less and less to say or do about which of these versions become a reality. And it has nothing at all to offer in terms of a more viable third option that might emerge from the current crisis.

Origins of the Protest

The latest round of protests in Hong Kong began in March, when thousands took to the streets to protest amendments to an extradition law. Hong Kong residents have been concerned that, accused of some arbitrary crime, they might find themselves whisked away to the Mainland and its misrule of law.

This is not an abstract concern. Lam Wing Kee, a Hong Kong bookseller who sold texts critical of leaders in Beijing, was abducted in 2015, charged with “operating a bookstore illegally,” and detained for almost eight months in Mainland China. He was released back to Hong Kong with the understanding that he return to face trial.

Instead, Lam recently decamped to Taiwan, fearful of Hong Kong’s new extradition provisions. Canadian-Chinese billionaire Xiao Jianhua was abducted from Hong Kong in 2017 and is reportedly still awaiting trial. A wealthy Hong Kong media titan has spoken of successfully resisting a Beijing-orchestrated kidnap attempt earlier this year.

An extradition law would effectively legalize these abductions. It would also apply to the 85,000 American citizens currently working in Hong Kong.

Protests over the extradition law grew larger and larger at the outset of summer until 1 million people thronged the streets on June 9, followed by 2 million a week later. Protesters took over the legislative building. They shut down the Hong Kong airport. They disrupted traffic on roadways. Fearful of surveillance, they have donned masks and even torn down “smart lampposts” designed to monitor traffic (but perhaps other things as well).

More confrontational protesters have set fires, vandalized metro stations and government buildings, and thrown petrol bombs at police. For their part, the police have used tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons. Masked thugs have attacked protesters. More than 1,000 people have been arrested, including pro-democracy activists Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow.

Although Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam eventually withdrew the amended law, the protests have continued. Protesters have four principal demands: an investigation into police brutality, amnesty for those arrested during the protest, a retraction of the designation of the June 12 protest as a “riot,” and Lam’s resignation followed by a free and fair election for her replacement. The last item is a revival of the platform of the Umbrella Movement of 2014, a sustained but ultimately unsuccessful attempt to achieve universal suffrage in the territory.

Lam is in a tough position, as she herself acknowledged in a leaked audio recording of a closed-door meeting of business leaders. Caught between Beijing and the protestors, she confessed that her maneuvering room is “very, very, very limited.”

Response from the Mainland

So far, Beijing has expected the Hong Kong authorities to deal with the challenge, though it has made various ominous statements about acts of terrorism, the involvement of the United States, and the unacceptability of the protesters’ demands.

Beijing has several options at this point. Chinese leader Xi Jinping could negotiate with the protesters, though this is unlikely. Xi wouldn’t want to show any weakness, particularly with the 70th anniversary of the country’s founding coming up on October 1. He could send in the army, a la Tiananmen Square 1989, and impose martial law in their territory. But that, too, is unlikely as long as the protestors don’t manage to seize the government and declare independence.

The leadership in Beijing may well be annoyed at what’s happening in Hong Kong. But this isn’t a Tiananmen Square situation. Protests are not popping up throughout the country in support of the actions in Hong Kong. Solidarity events have taken place in the United States, Germany, Britain, France, South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, and Australia. But on the Mainland, all is quiet, except for a few brave souls who have attempted to elude the censors to post information about what’s going on in Hong Kong.

It’s not possible to know how nearly 1.4 billion people think about anything, including a highly controversial topic like pro-democracy protests. However, given a steady diet of state-run media, the vast majority of Chinese likely view the protests in Hong Kong as simply disruptive. The events there have the flavor not of Tiananmen 1989 but rather the Cultural Revolution of the mid 1960s, when young people took to the streets and turned the world upside down, resulting in enormous pain and suffering.

As former New York Times reporter Karoline Kan has written:

To many mainlanders who believe the China model has benefited their economic development and their private lives, Hong Kong’s pursuit of democracy and freedom is not so attractive any more. They believe the mainland government is not perfect, but a messed-up government is worse. They fear political turbulence, poverty, foreign invasion — but not an authoritarian government. What’s worse, many believe the existing freedom Hong Kong enjoys is a “special treatment” that spoils the city. They believe the mainland has helped Hong Kong, but the city is ungrateful and constantly making trouble for China.

Since 1989, public opinion on the Mainland has moved inexorably in the direction of nationalism. The Chinese public tends to be rather hawkish in its orientation, with the younger generation more hardline than their parents. Few dissidents have stuck their necks out for protestors in Xinjiang or Tibet. Hong Kong, with its privileged status and myriad links to the West, has gotten even less sympathy.

The Polish Example

Carrie Lam faces much the same dilemma that bedeviled Wojciech Jaruzelski in Poland in the 1980s. Jaruzelski was also an unelected leader caught between popular unrest at home and a much larger sponsor breathing down his neck. The Polish leader’s “solution” was to use the threat of a Soviet invasion to declare martial law in 1981 to suppress the rebellious Solidarity trade union.

Out of that experience, Polish protesters came up with a different strategy. Rather than push Jaruzelski up against the wall again, they developed (or, in fact, revived) the notion of a “self-limiting revolution.” Solidarity would continue to organize, quietly and persistently, but it wouldn’t make a direct bid for power. Later, when the opportunity arose, it would negotiate with the Communist government and come up with a compromise solution for the country’s first semi-free elections.

The date of those elections? June 4, 1989.

Meanwhile, on the other side of the world, the Chinese government, having failed to reach a similar modus operandi with the Tiananmen Square protesters, violently suppressed the pro-democracy movement.

The Hong Kong protesters could take a few important lessons from the Polish experience. They should acknowledge the possibility, however remote, of a military intervention by Beijing. They should realize that no one in such a scenario — not the people on the Mainland or the U.S. government — is going to come to their aid (except rhetorically). And they should look for opportunities to compromise with the Hong Kong authorities, securing incremental victories that shore up the territory’s autonomy and its semi-democratic structures.

In this way, the Hong Kong protesters must be willing to play the long game. Solidarity came up against the wall of Soviet intransigence in 1980. By 1989, however, Mikhail Gorbachev was in charge in Moscow and the compromise strategy became spectacularly successful.

Xi Jinping is no Mikhail Gorbachev. And he has declared himself leader for life. So, the movement in Hong Kong has to be even more patient, even more strategic, and even more determined than their Polish counterparts. Their time will come. When it does, they need to be ready not only to democratize Hong Kong but also contribute to reshaping the model on the Mainland as well.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, September 11

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Articles Featured US Foreign Policy

Why 2014 Wasn’t So Terrible

In bidding farewell to 2014, most of us gave the year a swift kick in the rear end as it exited the calendar. On foreign policy in particular, few people had nice things to say about the recently departed.

After all, it was a banner year for all manner of evils. The Ebola outbreak in West Africa dominated the headlines, and the trumped-up fear of the disease’s spread to the United States even helped boost the vote totals of a few Republicans in the party’s mid-term sweep. The rise of ISIS and its filmed beheadings, as well as the kidnapping rampages of Boko Haram in Nigeria, gave a shot in the arm to “the war on terrorism.” The triumph of activists in Kiev turned into a renewed Cold War confrontation between a passive aggressive West and an aggressive aggressive Russia. And the Chinese authorities eventually forced activists in Hong Kong to roll up their umbrellas and go home.

Negotiations went pretty much nowhere between the United States and Iran, and things wentfrom bad to worse with North Korea thanks to Seth Rogen and James Franco. The apparent mass murder of 43 students from the city of Iguala introduced many Americans to Mexico’s appalling nexus of corruption and organized crime that has led to the disappearance of more than 20,000 people since 2006.

Have I missed anything else? Yes: some missing planes, some missing chunks of Antarctica, and some activists gone missing in Egyptian jails.

Bad news produced all the memorable visuals from 2014 as well as all the grimly amusing political cartoons. And bad news stayed in the headlines for weeks on end — months in the case of Ebola and ISIS. Good news, on the other hand, tends to be fleeting. We cheer for a few hours when something positive happens, and then it’s back to feeling as though the globe is going to hell in a Hellfire missile.

Last year, for my first column of 2014, I gave three reasons to be cheerful: a dip in U.S. militarism, an uptick in diplomatic initiatives, and a resurgence of concern about economic inequality. This year, in a similar burst of early-January optimism, let me give you three more reasons to be cheerful.

If we’re lucky, these bright spots from 2014 will endure even after Ebola retreats, ISIS withers away, and Russia backs off.

Presidential Backbone

On top of the list of things to celebrate is the year’s surprise awakening: President Obama suddenly remembered that he was president and not just a pincushion for the Republican Party’s jabs.

In the most amazing foreign policy story of 2014, the cold war between Cuba and the United States ended practically overnight. The president could have settled for a mere prisoner exchange. But he went big instead.

Sure, the embargo remains in place, congressional hardliners are refusing to move on, and American financiers are probably making plans as we speak to head to the island to recreate 1958-style casinos and brothels. But here was a diplomatic change that won near-universal support from the Obama administration, the Castro administration, the Cuban people, and the American electorate.

Another sign of executive oomph was the president’s immigration order, in which Obama, as I described in an earlier column, cut the Gordian knot of Washington politics. Here was a clear case of a president combining social justice (protecting the country’s most marginalized), family values (keeping families together), and good economic principles (making it easier for skilled immigrant workers and entrepreneurs to do their jobs). It should have been an easy purple victory, and it should have won plaudits from the very pundits who usually decry gridlock. That the president went through with the initiative without widespread bipartisan support speaks highly of his political instincts and poorly of the political atmosphere in Congress.

Finally, Obama promised as a presidential candidate to close the detention facility in Guantanamo. Congress refused to implement his order. So, instead, the president has gradually been reducing the population of the facility. Still left at Guantanamo are 127 prisoners, approximately half the number who were there at the beginning of Obama’s term. A flurry of releases came at the end of 2014: seven in November and then 15 in December. Of the remaining prisoners, 55 have been cleared for release. Whittling down the population in this way doesn’t deliver the wallop — or provide the justice — of a one-time closure. But backbone is sometimes demonstrated by courage over the long-term and not just one-time decisions.

Yes, I know, we’re talking about a president who has presided over a disturbing expansion of the national security state. Still, we’d better appreciate his good sides while we can. His most likely successor, from either party, wouldn’t exercise presidential authority in the foreign policy realm with anything close to this kind of creativity.

When Votes Count

Elections are often ho-hum affairs, the results easily predicted way in advance. But elections in Europe these days are anything but predictable. In a number of countries, far-right parties are shouldering aside the conservative standard bearers. The National Front in France, the UK Independence Party, and the People’s Party in Denmark are all threatening to upend the status quo.

But in Greece, the political winds have shifted in the other direction. The top leadership of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn is in jail, with all 18 MPs awaiting trial on felony charges. The parliamentary elections are coming up at the end of this month, and the leftist Syriza party current tops the polls, 3 percent ahead of the conservative New Democracy party. Syriza rejects the austerity economics that the European Union and the IMF have insisted on as terms for lending money to Greece. This is not just a question of Greek politics. If Syriza renegotiates the terms for Greece, other indebted countries will insist on similar packages, undermining the dominant model in Europe for dealing with the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis.

Another election that proved influential in 2014 actually took place in 2013: the Chilean presidential election that brought Michele Bachelet back to power. Last year, with the support of students who went out onto the streets in 2011, her party pushed through new educational and tax reforms last year that will make Chile a considerably more equitable country. As Sebastian Rosemont wrote in FPIF in December, “By focusing on tangible demands, making broad partnerships, and linking to the larger platform of economic inequality, Chilean protesters changed the rules of the game.”

A final election of note, which actually did take place in 2014, was in Tunisia. More important than the party that won was the party that lost: Ennahda. Contrary to the dire predictions of many, the Islamist party calmly handed over the reins of power to the secular party that won both the presidential and parliamentary elections, Nidaa Tounes. It took the Arab Spring protests to convince people that Islam and democracy were compatible. The recent elections in Tunisia should likewise convince people that Islamism and democracy are compatible as well.

Climate Turns the Corner?

The long-term prospects for the planet don’t look so good from the point of global warming. But in 2014, there were three positive signs on the climate front. First was the outpouring of civic activism. Protestors hit the streets to protest specific projects, from fracking to the Keystone pipeline. And then in September more than 300,000 people mobilized in New York for the largest-ever demonstration on the threat of climate change.

Also encouraging was the deal that Beijing and Washington struck when Obama was in China in November for the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation summit. True, it’s a tepid agreement, but it also offers some hope of bridging the gap between longtime polluters like the United States and late-bloomers like China.

And then there’s Pope Francis, who also played a key role in the backchannel diplomacy between Havana and Washington. In 2014, the Pope took steps to harmonize the relationship between religion and science by essentially endorsing the Big Bang and evolution. In May, in an early indication of his position on climate change, he announced that “if we destroy Creation, Creation will destroy us.” Later this month, word has it that he’s planning a major encyclical on the subject.

It’s not just words. Like the Pentagon, the Church can have a profound impact on the market if it changes its purchasing pattern. “With its network of hospitals, schools, parish centers, seminaries and other institutions, the Church spends billions for its energy use,” notes Rhodi Lee in Tech Times. “The Pope’s position on climate change could lead to installations of renewable energy sources, such as solar systems in establishments and institutions that the Church has stakes in.” With oil prices falling, we need all the institutional pressure we can get to support renewable energy.

These weren’t the only good news stories from 2014. The new BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa) bank may transform the structure of the international financial system. Protestors in Burkina Faso ejected their dictator of 27 years, Blaise Compaore, and the country is preparing for democratic elections later in 2015. Voters elected a new governor in Okinawawho opposes the construction of yet another U.S. military base on the island. War did not break out in the South China Sea, or between India and Pakistan for that matter.

Perhaps you have your own reasons to believe that this glass-half-full analysis is overly optimistic. The Four Horsemen of war, pestilence, famine, and death continued their gallop around the globe in 2014. But if we can’t find some tentative good news to kindle like a guttering flame, then we might as well declare an end to activism — and reserve front row seats for the apocalypse.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, January 7, 2015

 

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Hong Kong: The Future of People Power?

In 2000, I organized a meeting in China that brought together independent trade unionists, campaigners for corporate codes of conduct, and human rights advocates. We had spirited conversations about strikes and labor organizing and how to deal with the Communist authorities in Beijing. We didn’t worry about the government monitoring or breaking up our meeting.

True, we were in China, and the Chinese authorities have long been suspicious of independent labor organizing. But we weren’t exactly in China. We were in Hong Kong. One country, two very different realities.

When China took over Hong Kong from the British in 1997, it was under the auspices of “one country, two systems.” Beijing promised the residents of Hong Kong that they could essentially live under their own separate political and economic rules. At the time, this seemed like a great bargain for Beijing. Hong Kong was a typical entrepot, an open port city that celebrated good food, horse racing, and fast money. Taking back Hong Kong meant symbolically overcoming the humiliations of the Opium Wars of the 1840s, when the British grabbed the southern port, among other Chinese concessions. It also meant reabsorbing a territory that could connect the mainland even more firmly to the global economy.

In many ways Hong Kong hasn’t changed after the handover. Residents still enjoy individual freedoms, including the freedom to gather every year in Victoria Park on the anniversary of the army’s suppression of the Tiananmen Square protests. The press is freer than anywhere else in China, though there have been numerous complaints of government obstruction. While the process to get a visa to the mainland can be onerous, U.S. citizens can zip in and out of Hong Kong visa-free for three months at a time. Business continues as usual, and for the 20th year in a row Hong Kong tops the Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Freedom. The city has more billionaires per capita than any place in the world aside from Monaco and the two flyspecks of Guernsey and St. Kitts.

But Hong Kong is not just a playground for the rich. One in five residents lives below the poverty line. The city has the worst income inequality in Asia—higher than the mainland, higher than the notoriously divided Philippines. The lack of affordable housing and living wages brought as many as 200,000 people out into the streets in July 2011 to protest on the anniversary of the handover.

Beijing can handle protests that express economic grievances. It has to deal with those all around the country. Generally, the government hopes that a mixture of economic growth, targeted investments into promising sectors, the maintenance of state-owned enterprises, and an inconsistently applied anti-corruption campaign will eventually address these problems. A rising tide will lift a billion boats.

Political grievances are a different matter. Recently in Hong Kong, 200,000 people returned to the streets as part of Occupy Central, but this time their focus was on Beijing’s attempt to maintain political control over the city and its environs. Hong Kong’s political structures are a hybrid. Eligible voters among the population of 7 million residents choose half the legislative council, while various sectors grouped by function (labor, tourism, real estate) select the other half. In the last election in September 2012, the pro-Beijing parties retained their control of the council, though the opposition actually won more of the popular vote.

But the demonstrators are more concerned about the position of chief executive, which is chosen by an “election committee” that Beijing directs. The protestors want to choose their own candidates for the office. For the 2017 elections, Beijing is offering universal suffrage, but onlyafter the authorities vet the candidates. Between these two options, a variety of compromises can be envisioned. But before coming to the table, the protestors had to prove that they had street power on their side. The many young people who have taken to the streets in Hong Kong have seen the success that their peers have achieved in Taiwan. They have seen the efforts of the “go-slow” faction in Hong Kong frustrated by the “go-slower” government in Beijing. And they are too young to have witnessed Tiananmen Square in 1989 and thus be overly cautious as a result.

The Occupy Central crowds have dwindled this week. The remaining protestors continue to block some roads, but they already compromised by allowing government workers return to their offices on Monday morning. The city authorities met on Monday evening with the Hong Kong Federation of Students and hammered out a framework for negotiations.

Some pundits have stepped forward to offer adult supervision for the protestors. “Let calm return to the City by the Harbor,” urges venture capitalist and political scientist Eric Li in The Washington Post. “Hong Kong needs problem solvers, not revolutionaries.” Li is worried about a Ukrainian or Egyptian scenario in which revolutionaries seize power and, whether they succeed or are overthrown in turn, produce “long periods of suffering and destruction.” Over at Asia Times, journalist Peter Lee confessed that “based on dismal results in places like Egypt, Pakistan, and Ukraine, I am not a big fan of the ‘student activists raise a ruckus in the main square’ brand of democracy. If Hong Kong democracy activists had wanted to give voice to the popular mood, instead of driving the opinion process through confrontational street action, they could have organized boycotts of the 2017 polls.”

Then there are the embarrassing accounts from Beijing and conspiracy-minded sites like theCenter for Research on Globalization that depict what’s happening in Hong Kong as a “color revolution” manipulated by outsiders. But the young protestors are not interested in regime change in Hong Kong or secession from China. Indeed, they don’t want to be called revolutionaries. They sport umbrellas, not colors.

Li perceptively points out that economic concerns trump political ones for most residents of Hong Kong. Lee rightly notes that Beijing didn’t renege on a promise to allow universal suffrage for the 2017 election because it never planned to extend this principle to the selection of candidates.  But neither of these observations should detract from the importance of Occupy Central. It is a non-violent grassroots effort to make government more accountable to its citizens. Like many movements, particularly leaderless ones, it makes mistakes and overreaches itself. Still, it is responding to an authentic desire. And it is open to compromise.

I too am not happy about what has happened in Ukraine and Egypt. I don’t like to see a country descend into a civil war fueled by a covetous neighbor. I don’t like to see the military take over after a democratically elected government edged into authoritarianism. But these experiences do not discredit the techniques of non-violent protest any more than the election of idiot politicians discredits the techniques of democracy. Let’s judge the Hong Kong protests according to their specific strategies, demands, and context.

Beijing has legitimate concerns about the territorial integrity of the country. Unrest in Xinjiang and separatism in Tibet inform its view of what’s going on in Hong Kong. It continues to believe that democracy can be destabilizing, as even a small amount was for a disintegrating Soviet Union. When it took over Hong Kong in 1997, the Chinese leadership had a vision of the future that included Taiwan joining the mainland under the same principle of one country, two systems. Gradually the mainland too would democratize, and some day China would be one country with one system. Whether the one system is a freewheeling democracy like Australia’s, an “illiberal democracy” like Hungary’s, or more of the same one-party state that rules the mainland today depends a great deal on how Beijing accommodates the needs and demands of the people living in the former British port on China’s southern coast.

The residents of Hong Kong have more immediate concerns. They want jobs that pay a living wage, apartments with affordable rent, and a city that doesn’t just cater to the super-rich. They don’t want to lose the freedoms that they currently enjoy. And they want to have more of a say in their political affairs. As the discussion moves from the street to the negotiating table, Occupy Central deserves a lot of respect for showing that people power doesn’t necessarily lead to the break-up of a country or the declaration of martial law. If as a result Hong Kong can democratize its institutions and equalize its economic success, the city can point the way for the country as a whole.

World Beat, Foreign Policy In Focus, October 8, 2014