I posted Take One of “Democracy in a Petrie Dish” on September 9, 2016. (Link below.) It was about how and why anyone with an interest in the necessary tension between autocratic leaders and democratic followers should pay close attention to the events in Hong Kong. Now, over two and a half years later, my point remains the same. Since 2014 Hong Kong has been an experiment in democracy – an experiment in whether it’s possible for Hong Kong’s relatively powerless few to bring to their knees China’s inordinately powerful many.
Since that initial post on Hong Kong the situation has changed. China has become even more stringent and less tolerant of political dissent. Moreover, its leader, Xi Jinping, has evolved from being an authoritarian to a totalitarian. At this point, he uses the Chinese Communist Party to maintain complete control over the Chinese people, while having secured for himself the constitutional right to remain leader for life.
In consequence of this change, most experts have come to conclude that China will continue to squeeze Hong Kong to the point where its democracy is extinguished. Of course, they are likely still to be right. So far China has not been shy about exercising its muscle and so far, while the people of Hong Kong have resisted, they have not done so fiercely enough, constantly enough, and in enough numbers to stop the Chinese behemoth.
In the last couple of weeks though, things have changed. The balance of power between the people of Hong Kong and the government of China has shifted – at least slightly, at least for now. The protesters in Hong Kong have been so great in their numbers, so united in their resistance, and so passionately dedicated to their cause that at this moment they are prevailing. Their government – led by Carrie Lam, who is pro-Chinese – has backtracked, back-peddled, apologized and suspended as opposed to implemented, for now, an onerous proposed extradition law.
Since 2014 – since Hong Kong’s so-called “umbrella revolution – I have thought of it as a test case. If Hong Kong falls, from somewhat independent democracy to totally abject autocracy, the future in places such as Taiwan, and in fact in China itself, looks grim for anyone seeking to loosen the reins of government control. On the other hand, if the people of Hong Kong successfully stave off the Chinese authorities, there’s no telling the direction of totalitarianism.
This is a long game, not a short one. The importance of winning at any given moment should not be exaggerated. But it is a game of sorts – a contest of utmost consequence.