FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

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.

More articles by:

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.

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
Weekend Edition
July 19, 2019
Friday - Sunday
Rob Urie
The Blob Fought the Squad, and the Squad Won
Miguel A. Cruz-Díaz
It Was Never Just About the Chat: Ruminations on a Puerto Rican Revolution.
Anthony DiMaggio
System Capture 2020: The Role of the Upper-Class in Shaping Democratic Primary Politics
Andrew Levine
South Carolina Speaks for Whom?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Big Man, Pig Man
Bruce E. Levine
The Groundbreaking Public Health Study That Should Change U.S. Society—But Won’t
Evaggelos Vallianatos
How the Trump Administration is Eviscerating the Federal Government
Pete Dolack
All Seemed Possible When the Sandinistas Took Power 40 years Ago
Ramzy Baroud
Who Killed Oscar and Valeria: The Inconvenient History of the Refugee Crisis
Ron Jacobs
Dancing with Dr. Benway
Joseph Natoli
Gaming the Climate
Marshall Auerback
The Numbers are In, and Trump’s Tax Cuts are a Bust
Louisa Willcox
Wild Thoughts About the Wild Gallatin
Kenn Orphan
Stranger Things, Stranger Times
Mike Garrity
Environmentalists and Wilderness are Not the Timber Industry’s Big Problem
Helen Yaffe
Cuban Workers Celebrate Salary Rise From New Economic Measures
Brian Cloughley
What You Don’t Want to be in Trump’s America
David Underhill
The Inequality of Equal Pay
David Macaray
Adventures in Script-Writing
David Rosen
Say Goodbye to MAD, But Remember the Fight for Free Expression
Nick Pemberton
This Is Heaven!: A Journey to the Pearly Gates with Chuck Mertz
Dan Bacher
Chevron’s Oil Spill Endangers Kern County
J.P. Linstroth
A Racist President and Racial Trauma
Binoy Kampmark
Spying on Julian Assange
Rose Ramirez – Dedrick Asante-Mohammad
A Trump Plan to Throw 50,000 Kids Out of Their Schools
David Bravo
Precinct or Neighborhood? How Barcelona Keeps Rolling Out the Red Carpet for Global Capital
Ralph Nader
Will Any Disgusted Republicans Challenge Trump in the Primaries?
Dave Lindorff
The BS about Medicare-for-All Has to Stop!
Arnold August
Why the Canadian Government is Bullying Venezuela
Tom Clifford
China and the Swine Flu Outbreak
Missy Comley Beattie
Highest Anxiety
Jill Richardson
Weapons of the Weak
Peter Certo
Washington vs. The Squad
Peter Bolton
Trump’s Own Background Reveals the True Motivation Behind Racist Tweets: Pure White Supremacy
Colin Todhunter
From Mad Cow Disease to Agrochemicals: Time to Put Public Need Ahead of Private Greed
Nozomi Hayase
In Crisis of Democracy, We All Must Become Julian Assange
Wim Laven
The Immoral Silence to the Destructive Xenophobia of “Just Leave”
Cecily Myart-Cruz
McDonald’s: Stop Exploiting Our Schools
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Our Veggie Gardens Won’t Feed us in a Real Crisis
CounterPunch News Service
A Homeless Rebellion – Mission Statement/Press Release
Louis Proyect
Parallel Lives: Cheney and Ailes
David Yearsley
Big in the Bungalow of Believers
Ellen Taylor
The Northern Spotted Owls’ Tree-Sit
July 18, 2019
Timothy M. Gill
Bernie Sanders, Anti-Imperialism and Venezuela
W. T. Whitney
Cuba and a New Generation of Leaders Respond to U.S. Anti-People War
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail