16 August 2019

Challenging the gangster regimes

The world's two largest mafia gangs -- the "governments" of Russia and China -- have recently come under challenge from some of their subjects.  These challenges are not likely to end well, but they serve as reminders of the long-term weaknesses of such regimes.

Since July, Moscow has been the scene of pro-democracy protests drawing tens of thousands of people.  The immediate cause was the official "disqualification" of non-toady candidates for local office (Russia still holds "elections", but de facto bars anyone not loyal to the regime from running), but the real fuel for the protests has been discontent with corrupt authoritarianism and lack of democracy at the national level.  The regime has called the protests "riots" and reacted with mass arrests and beatings, yet the numbers grow with each march.  The city has been put under what amounts to military occupation.  Polling shows 37% of people in Moscow supporting the protests, 27% opposed, and 30% "neutral".

So far the uprising doesn't seem to have spread beyond Moscow, but as Al-Jazeera explains:

In a highly-centralised state like Russia, the capital is possibly the only place that really matters when it comes to regime change.  It is indeed the peaceful revolution in Moscow in August 1991 that ended communism and precipitated the collapse of the Soviet Union.  That revolution was preceded by two years of gigantic rallies with hundreds of thousands in attendance.  Today's protests are still a far cry from those, but they are growing.....

This may actually be the biggest threat to the regime yet.  The goal of the protests is explicitly not to overthrow Putin, but to restore real democracy so that Putinism would have to compete on a level playing field with other political forces.  There are some precedents for a peaceful transition from fascism to democracy (Spain, Portugal, Chile), and after years of total control of the media, Putin has secured enough popularity to be a viable force even in genuinely free elections.  But he must know that his popularity wouldn't last if the press were truly free to report on his regime's massive corruption.

The question is how determined the protesters are to press their case, and how far Putin is willing to go to stop them.  A really bloody Tiananmen-style crackdown might inflame far more people in the city and the rest of the country against the regime.  Many Russians consider Russia a European country, and they did get a taste of democracy, however bungled, in the years following the 1991 Soviet break-up.  They think their country should do better than naked Oriental despotism.

In the long run, Russia itself is at risk of disintegration due to ethnic and regional separatist movements.  Putin has succeeded in holding the country together by force, and even expanding it by seizing some Ukrainian territory, but if that force is taken away -- by Putin's death or a serious and visible weakening of the state -- the consequences could be far more dire than in a country unified by a genuine civil society and democratic institutions.

For almost three months, Hong Kong has similarly been the scene of mass protests, mostly in the tens of thousands but in one case reaching a turnout of two million.  The protests began over a proposed law which would have made it easier to extradite prisoners to mainland China, but have now shifted focus to the growing interference of the Beijing regime in Hong Kong's affairs.

Hong Kong has been part of China since 1997, but with local autonomy preserving many of the economic and personal freedoms which existed under British rule.  This has enabled the city to retain its prosperity and status as a major financial center.  Inevitably, however, the grossly corrupt gangster-regime on the mainland has coveted more direct control over such a dense concentration of wealth, while worrying that the existence of an island of freedom might give people in the rest of the country ideas.

Hong Kong's demonstrations have gotten more attention in the West than Moscow's, probably because Hong Kong's open society gives its people more skill at using social media and Western styles of symbolic protest.  As in Russia, the regime has denounced the demonstrations as "riots" and local police have resorted to increasing brutality; the regime has also claimed that the whole problem is being stirred up by foreign meddling, although there is no evidence for this.

Recently the regime has moved paramilitary forces to Hong Kong's border.  It undoubtedly hoped that the threat alone would intimidate the protesters into backing down, but that doesn't seem to be working:

Many of today's Hong Kong protesters are not driven by the hope of halting or undoing China's growing influence.  Instead, they feel this may be the last time they can ever freely express their opinion.  So while Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam recently warned that protesters could push the city into the "abyss," many locals feel that Hong Kong is already in free fall.  The people of Hong Kong, in short, feel they have nothing to lose.....

If the regime actually sends in troops to crush Hong Kong, then given the scale of the protests, the crackdown would probably be far bloodier than Tiananmen.  It would also impress itself far more vividly on the world's consciousness, in living color -- Hong Kong is much more open to the world than Beijing was, and the internet has made the flow of information and images far harder to control than in 1989.

How other countries would react is hard to predict.  Trump, to his credit, has at least urged restraint -- but his record of coddling despots like Kim Jong-un and Mohammad bin Salman and his general disdain for democracy argues that he would react less strongly than a "normal" US President would.  A crackdown might shock Europe out of its drift into a too-close relationship with China -- but remember how many craven and cowardly Western governments and companies slunk back into the regime's bloody embrace as soon after Tiananmen as they felt decency would allow.  There is an odd sort of racism which considers it somehow a normal and expected thing for Chinese people to submit to repression and tyranny which Westerners would never tolerate from their own governments, especially when inconvenient Chinese struggles for freedom interfere with someone's ability to make money off of grubby deals with the despots.

It has been argued that a Hong Kong crackdown would force the danger of a Chinese invasion of Taiwan onto the front burner.  If so, then given that the US ability to defend Taiwan militarily (and even its willingness to do so under Trump) are dubious, such a crackdown might open a debate in Taiwan about how to effectively deter an invasion -- inevitably raising the possibility of an independent nuclear deterrent.  This would certainly give the Beijing regime more pause than anything the West might do in response to crushing Hong Kong.

But historically the regime has always ended up dealing with persistent unrest by violence.  It would, at least, face little domestic backlash -- Hong Kong's wealth and privileges are widely resented in the much poorer and mostly-rural mainland.  A crackdown would show, once again, that the state rests purely on force -- and the rulers would be fairly comfortable with that.  The regime, after all, appears entrenched, invulnerable, and in solid control of its vast territory.  Just as the Soviet regime looked, for decade after decade.  Until it suddenly didn't.


Blogger Sixpence Notthewiser said...

Totalitarian regimes are living nightmares and China and Russia are perfect examples.
But there’s hope, no? Chile and Spain survived their tyrants but at what price. both China and Russia are run like mafia syndicates so if the heads are gone, so is the power. Hopefully Vlad will croak.


16 August, 2019 04:15  
Blogger RO said...

So much going on that we know, but always lots going on that we may never see or hear about.

17 August, 2019 04:19  
Blogger Mary Kirkland said...

The protests in Hong Kong are getting bad. I don't think China is going to let this go on for much longer before they really crack down which could be really bad for those people.

You're right, I hadn't heard anything about Russia.

17 August, 2019 09:05  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Sixpence: Hopefully. He must have pissed off a lot of people on the way up.

RO: Well, if people keep reading here, hopefully they'll find out a little more.....

Mary: China's economy is already suffering from the trade wars, and any crackdown would make things worse. I hope that will make them hesitate, at least for a while.

18 August, 2019 07:48  

Post a Comment

<< Home