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Democracy Under the Gun Across Asia

“Communist Party, you choke people,” reads the placard raised by a demonstrator in Hong Kong the other day.  He and a few thousand others belonging to Occupy Central (in Chinese, the organization is called Heping zhan zhong, or Peacefully Occupy the Center) have been protesting for months against anticipated restrictions imposed by Beijing on elections for chief executive of Hong Kong. Now those restrictions have been enacted.  By tightening the rules concerning nominations for the position, China’s legislature has made it fairly impossible for an independent-minded leader to be elected.  Pro-democracy forces in the city had hoped that by 2017, they would gain control on the basis of one person, one vote.  But the system is now rigged to deny that principle in practice.  The new rules reflect just how scared China’s leadership is of losing control over a key city.

It is now seventeen years since authority over Hong Kong passed from Britain to China.  Unlike other so-called autonomous regions of China, Hong Kong has enjoyed an unusual degree of political, social and economic freedom in keeping with its long-running stature as an international crossroads and Beijing’s pledge not to interfere with the city’s way of life for 50 years.  “One country, two systems,” Deng Xiaoping promised following China’s takeover.  But Beijing’s control has never been remote; it has maintained predominant influence over who runs Hong Kong and by which rules, and Hong Kongers are fully aware that China’s military can be quickly deployed should widespread “instability” occur.

Opinion polls show substantial majorities in favor of open contests for legislative and executive positions.  China’s leaders read these polls, and the growing public protests behind them, as security issues: Allow Hong Kong more political liberties and people in other Chinese cities are sure to demand them too.  Moreover, people will start organizing parties to challenge the Communist Party’s authority, and the next thing you know, the one-party state will come under challenge.  Those elements of “instability” have always been unacceptable to Beijing.

Hong Kong’s legislature either must now adopt a new voting plan that reflects Beijing’s latest decision or stick with the old system that keeps political power in the hands of pro-China people.  In the meantime, leaders of Occupy Central and pro-democracy groups are deciding how best to influence politicians and public opinion—strikes? Sit-ins? Large-scale demonstrations?  China will not be patient with lengthy “chaos” in the streets, as they will call it. But at the same time, its international image will suffer if it suppresses the protest movement. In the worst case, we might witness another Tiananmen. Yet one looks in vain for any government that is speaking up for the people of Hong Kong or taking China to task.  Economic interests do wonders at silencing criticism.

Democratization is taking a hit elsewhere in Asia, though a few bright spots have emerged.  Thailand and the Philippines are supposed to be the most democratic countries in Southeast Asia. But the Thai military has once again intervened in politics following several months of turmoil in the streets.  A general now rules, backed by a rubber-stamp parliament composed entirely of his supporters.  In the Philippines, the president is seeking another term in office, which requires a constitutional change, at a time when corruption is again widespread.  Pakistan’s politics continues to be chaotic.  Protests in Islamabad against Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif’s rule and allegations of election fraud, now entering their third week, are becoming increasingly violent, raising the question how long the military will remain on the sidelines.

The brighter spots are Indonesia, where people just elected Joko Widodo president–a man of humble origins who defied the experts by defeating a former general, Prabowo Subianto, who stands accused of extensive human rights violations. And in Burma (Myanmar), though repression of a religious minority continues, the country seems to be gradually moving away from direct military rule and toward competitive politics.  These stories are incomplete, however; democratization could be rolled back at any moment, depending on the military’s outlook.  In Indonesia, for example, even though Prabowo accepted defeat, the military is not known for graciously stepping aside, and neither is he.

Democratization is a never-ending process; keeping it on track requires constant vigilance and struggle.  South Korea took over 30 years to get rid of military-backed authoritarian rule, and even now, President Park Geun-hye’s popularity has evaporated thanks in part to a pattern of governing that reminds many people of the bad old days when her father ruled.  Thus, while Asia gets plenty of kudos for economic successes, we should pay at least equal attention to the many ways the democratization project is being threatened.

Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

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Mel Gurtov is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University, Editor-in-Chief of Asian Perspective, an international affairs quarterly and blogs at In the Human Interest.

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