For the tenth consecutive weekend, protesters took to the streets in Hong Kong, dodging tear gas fired by security forces. Earlier this summer, Hong Kong’s protest movement succeeded in stalling a controversial extradition bill that the demonstrators feared would place Asia’s financial hub further under the thumb of China’s single-party state. But their fervor didn’t dim. They are defending political freedoms they think are under threat and demanding broader democratic reforms. They also want the resignation of the city’s leader, Carrie Lam — seen by critics as a pro-Beijing cipher — as well as the release of dissidents seized during the unrest.
In both cases, the protesters have faced a stiff and, at times, brutal response from the proxies of the regimes they are protesting. Each week this past month, videos filtered out on social media of Russian police battering unarmed and peaceful demonstrators with truncheons — no matter the scenes being ignored on Russian state television.
On Sunday in various parts of Hong Kong, riot police violently charged protesters and fired rounds of tear gas in subway stations and other densely packed areas of the city; there were reports of at least nine injuries, including one man in serious condition. It’s not just the riot police who have been heavy-handed with the protesters — in one notable instance, a mob of pro-Beijing vigilantes, allegedly linked to organized crime, attacked a pocket of pro-democracy protesters while the police did little to intervene. Hong Kong officials have branded the protesters as violent rioters disturbing the peace.
But the crackdowns have only helped mobilize greater dissent. Saturday in Moscow saw the biggest anti-government turnout yet this summer, with an estimated crowd of close to 50,000 people. Though the protests remain largely centered in the Russian capital — and drawn from the same urban, middle-class base that fueled huge demonstrations in 2012 — they come at a time of mounting economic woes.
“The summer of discontent has posed a challenge not only to city authorities but also to President Vladimir Putin,” wrote my colleague Will Englund. “A harsh police and prosecutorial crackdown the previous two weeks has failed to deter the protesters, and some have portrayed it as a sign of weakness on the part of the government.”
In Hong Kong, the rolling protests and police clampdowns are building tension. A general strike last week paralyzed the city. In response, China has sought to punish strikers; Hong Kong’s flagship air carrier Cathay Pacific was told to ban any of its employees who participated in the strike from working on routes to mainland China. Ordinary residents complain of tear gas rising into their apartments, while videos on social media show how locals in myriad neighborhoods have been seen taking to the streets at night to berate “provocative” police officers in their midst.
There’s little indication that either Russian or Chinese authorities will cede much ground to the protesters. But, especially in the case of Hong Kong, there’s no sign of the protest movement backing down.
“A recent poll shows that 79 percent of the Hong Kong public want an independent investigation into police abuses,” noted academics Michael Davis and Victoria Tin-bor Hui in The Washington Post’s Monkey Cage blog. “Addressing this one demand could readily de-escalate the tensions. But Beijing officials have made it clear that this would not happen before they have put an end to the ‘color revolution.’ ” They added that the protesters are only becoming more “entrenched” and “radicalized” by “the deafness of authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing and the indiscriminate nature of repression.”
The notion of a “color revolution” is a loaded one. While inspiring solidarity and sympathy around the world, these pro-democracy mobilizations often get cast by the regimes they’re up against as the product of foreign influence operations. That’s been the case in Hong Kong and Moscow — both Chinese and Russian authorities blamed outside forces, including the United States, for helping foment the unrest. The irony, of course, is that President Trump has been conspicuously circumspect about the demonstrations, offering no public support. Trump’s wider political agenda largely shies away from championing democracy and human rights elsewhere in the world.
Some analysts contend that, rather than a democratic renaissance, it is authoritarian tendencies that are on the march and the protest movements capturing headlines every weekend are simply outliers in our moment of history. “In many, if not all, Arab capitals protesters of the kind thronging Hong Kong and Moscow would be carrion in the streets by now,” wrote David Gardner in the Financial Times.
“As the liberal, rules-based international order is being sabotaged by the leaders of countries that created it, now may not seem the ideal time to ask why the Middle East is tilting violently back towards the autocracy of the police state,” Gardner added. “Rulers in the Arab world do nest-feathering not nation-building and put regime maintenance ahead of reform. And for the most part world powers — sponsors of and supplicants to these tyrants — do not care.”
For 21st-century democracy movements, observed Peter Pomerantsev, an author of a new book on politics in the digital age, there are many other challenges beyond holding public ground and evading arrest. There are constant battles against online surveillance, broader public fatigue and increasingly sophisticated government propaganda.
“This ability to find connections and momentum in a fractured landscape is perhaps the underlying essence of the current protests,” wrote Pomerantsev in the Atlantic. “The regimes they fight have no single ideology, united only in their aim to demotivate people and break up common efforts."
At least in the case of Moscow and Hong Kong, those regimes are, for now, failing.
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