The impulse is not new. People have always longed to determine their destinies. But, the recent spate of fractiousness over who controls whom is a sign of the times. It’s no accident that far flung countries such as Ukraine, United Kingdom, Spain and China all are experiencing at much the same moment public protests that reflect nothing so much as plain people insisting on their right to be free.
To those of us outside the affected areas some of these protests make no sense. As one observer wrote in the Financial Times about the Scottish thrust for independence, “I have not heard a single soul from Washington or Delhi, Brussels or Beijing suggest separation could be good for Scotland or Britain.” Similarly, there is outrage in Madrid at the mere thought that Catalan leaders would actually go ahead with a proposed vote on November 9, intended as a (nonbinding) referendum on Catalonian independence. In fact, Spain’s Foreign Minister, not wanting, obviously, to repeat Britain’s cliffhanger, said on Tuesday that his government would bring “the full force of the law” to block such a vote.
While the situation in Ukraine is in many ways different from that of Britain and Spain, and while Hong Kong is yet another case entirely, the similarities among them are striking. Some have argued that this is all about globalization, about open markets threatening people’s well-being, prompting them to seek refuge in atavistic identities. I would argue though that this is at least as much about politics as it is about economics – about a time in which the world over the old order is breaking down at least somewhat, and in which new ways of governing, that take into account 21st century public recalcitrance, have yet to be revealed.
The people’s struggle for autonomy in Hong Kong is likely to be especially difficult. Chinese authorities are laboring to find a way between what they want – a high level of control similar to what they have in China – and what Hong Kong democrats what, a low level of control similar to what they had during the last years of British rule. Moreover Hong Kong democrats feel that they have been betrayed. When Hong Kong first was transferred to China in 1997 it was promised a “high degree of autonomy” – a promise that seems to political activists to be, in effect, empty.
The Scots finally decided against independence. However, the relationship between Scotland and England inevitably will change. If the now restive Scots are to be gratified and satisfied, it will require that England bestow on them some of what they want – greater autonomy. We see this trend already in evidence in Ukraine, and it is highly likely that someday Spain and China will be obliged to follow suit. To do otherwise – to refuse to acknowledge the temper of the times – is to risk a level unrest in the interest of none of the interested parties.