Liberalism alive and well on the streets of Moscow and Hong Kong

The grievances of the protesters about phoney democracy are strikingly similar

Protesters rally at Hong Kong International Airport on Monday, Aug. 12, 2019. Some protesters covered their right eyes with bandages in an expression of solidarity with a woman who was hit with a projectile on Sunday. (Lam Yik Fei/The New York Times)

Protesters rally at Hong Kong International Airport on Monday, Aug. 12, 2019. Some protesters covered their right eyes with bandages in an expression of solidarity with a woman who was hit with a projectile on Sunday. (Lam Yik Fei/The New York Times)

 

According to Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, “the liberal idea has become obsolete”. Maybe so. But illiberalism does not seem to be doing so well either, to judge from my recent visits to Moscow and Hong Kong.

Between them, Russia and China represent the major geopolitical and ideological challenges to western liberalism. But both countries are facing public protests that undermine their governments’ claims to stability, efficiency and public support. In response, both the Russian and the Chinese governments have retreated into self-serving paranoia, alleging that mass protests in Moscow and Hong Kong are being orchestrated by foreign enemies.

To be sure, there are significant differences between events in the two cities. First, there is a question of scale. The biggest single demonstration in Hong Kong brought around 2 million people on to the streets; the weekend protest in Moscow, the largest yet, drew a crowd of around 50,000. The Russian police also resorted to violence and mass arrests much earlier than their Hong Kong counterparts. And while Moscow is Russia’s capital and the seat of state power, Hong Kong has a semi-detached status within China and its own identity.

Nonetheless, arriving in Moscow a week after leaving Hong Kong, I was struck by the parallels. First, there is the sheer courage of the protesters. Last Thursday, I met Lyubov Sobol, a 31-year-old lawyer, who was in her fourth week of a hunger strike staged in protest at being banned from standing in elections to the Moscow city council.

Ms Sobol now walks with difficulty, but was still arrested on Saturday to prevent her taking part in the latest demonstration. She had predicted accurately that, despite mass arrests at previous demonstrations, this weekend’s protests would be the biggest yet, and would spread to cities outside Moscow. She believes that “Moscow has changed, Russia has changed and people are demanding political representation.”

The bravery of the Moscow protesters reminded me of the students and young professionals I met in Hong Kong. They know that arrest and imprisonment could blight their futures, but keep turning out at demonstrations.

The youth of the protest movements is noticeable. As one veteran Moscow liberal put it to me: “I’ve been to every anti-Putin rally for years and normally I know everybody - but I’ve never met these kids.” In Hong Kong, polls suggest that anti-Beijing sentiment is strongest among the young.

Both movements have a leaderless, internet-based quality, which makes them hard to control. In Hong Kong, the demonstrators have adopted a slogan from the martial arts legend Bruce Lee, “be water”, to encourage protesters to avoid static and predictable tactics. In Moscow, the arrest of almost the entire circle around Alexei Navalny, the most prominent opposition leader, has not stopped the protests.

The grievances of the protesters about phoney democracy are also strikingly similar. The Moscow demonstrations were triggered by the authorities’ decision to ban all independent candidates from running in city elections this September. Many in Hong Kong believe a turning point was reached in 2016, when elected politicians were banned from the city legislature for disrespecting a loyalty oath to China.

Both Hong Kong and Moscow also demonstrate how protests can morph from a single grievance into a much-wider movement. In Hong Kong, the initial trigger was the introduction of a bill to allow extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China. But when the bill was suspended, demonstrations continued, with protesters demanding fully democratic elections. In Russia, Ms Sobol says the controversy over the Moscow elections underlines a wider point: “Society has learnt there is no way any positive change will happen in Russia, under the system headed by Putin.”

The dilemmas faced by the authorities, as they consider whether to respond with repression or concession, are also similar. Both courses can backfire. In Russia, liberals were encouraged in June when they forced the release of Ivan Golunov, an anti-corruption journalist arrested on trumped-up charges. In Hong Kong, the government’s partial climbdown on extradition may have actually galvanised the protests.

But the alternative path of repression stokes the sense of injustice that persuaded people to take to the streets in the first place. In both Moscow and Hong Kong, one of the main demands of demonstrators has become the release of people arrested at previous protests.

In both places, the tactics of government and protesters are influenced by the knowledge that this is not the first time demonstrators have taken to the streets. Hong Kong experienced the Occupy movement of 2014, while Moscow witnessed mass anti-Putin demonstrations in 2012.

Those previous movements eventually burnt themselves out. That may have persuaded the Russian and Chinese governments to play for time now. But, as protests continue, the risks of violent repression are clearly rising.

Whatever happens, the return of pro-democracy protest to Moscow and Hong Kong suggests that the liberalism that Mr Putin scorns is like a recurrent fever. The fever may respond to the “treatment” meted out by the police, but it will come back. Perhaps the authoritarian idea has become obsolete?

Gideon Rachman is a Financial Times columnist

FT Service

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