Photo: Reuters
Photo: Reuters

Opinion | Youth protests across the world have much in common

With India’s economy soft and jobs scarce, discontent levels could rise sharply

The city was eerily quiet on the day after the district council elections in Hong Kong. There was an uneasy calm after months of an escalating storm that culminated in a siege at Hong Kong Polytechnic University by college and high school students.

The pan-democrats won a landslide victory, getting 90% of the 452 district council seats after 71% of the electorate turned up to vote. While the district council is only an advisory local body to the legislative council, the elections were widely seen as a referendum on Beijing’s stance on Hong Kong’s autonomy.

As a reminder, the protests themselves started in June against plans to allow the extradition of locals to mainland China for certain criminal offences. Many in Hong Kong felt that this would undermine its judicial independence and endanger dissidents. Though the bill was eventually withdrawn in September, there is a widely-held view that Beijing is trying to do away with the Basic Law, signed in 1997, that came into place for a buffer period of 50 years that guaranteed Hong Kong its autonomy under the “one country-two systems" model.

The official governance structure for Hong Kong has an “elected" chief executive who is the head of an executive council, with a two-tiered system of an independent judiciary and partially-representative government. An electoral college made up of elected members from functional constituencies technically elects the chief executive, who is then appointed by the Premier of the People’s Republic of China. While the system is largely a legacy of the old British system, Beijing has inserted itself into the process of selecting candidates for election and appointment at various levels of Hong Kong’s government.

Unofficially, Hong Kong policy is coordinated through the liaison office of the Central People’s Government in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. It coordinates activities of the People’s Liberation Army’s (PLA) Hong Kong garrison with the foreign office. The current director of this office, Wang Zhimin, has been a central figure in handling Beijing’s response to protests, along with chief executive Carrie Lam.

In the aftermath of the triumph of pan-democrats, it seems likely that either Hong Kong’s liaison officer or chief executive will end up as a scapegoat (or both could lose their jobs). Even though many in Hong Kong expected a stronger reaction from China at the height of the protests, it now seems more probable that Beijing will kick the can down the road for a more opportune time to impose itself on Hong Kong.

The protests are emblematic of a 2019 that saw civil disobedience in many countries around the world. An under-reported Arab Spring 2.0 has been visible in Jordan, Sudan, Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, and Lebanon. In Sudan, sustained civil disobedience for over a year resulted in the overthrow of dictator Omar al-Bashir, who had held power for 30 years. Protests in Latin America called “Primavera Latinoamericano" (Latin American Spring) were triggered by a series of government actions, particularly in Chile, Haiti, Ecuador, and Bolivia. The protests everywhere carry a message against authoritarianism, against the established elite and against the repression of freedoms in the name of anti-corruption drives. In economic terms, they represent disaffection both against rising inequality (in Hong Kong, for example) and against left-wing populism (in Venezuela). It is no coincidence that these movements are happening after economic growth has waned in many of these countries.

A common characteristic of the protests is a trust gap between those in power and those who feel the impact of what they consider unfriendly policies. Another common factor is that the spark has usually been small—a hike in subway fares in Chile or a tax on WhatsApp calls in Lebanon, for example. Yet another is that the protests seem to cut across common markers of diversity, such as race, gender, and religion, and appear to be leaderless mass movements held together by messages on apps such as Telegram. Some protest movements have created their own hugely popular real-time coordination apps, such as the one used by the Tsunami Democratic in Catalonia. The app is designed on a hub-and-spoke model such that if any hub or node acts suspiciously, it can be removed without affecting the whole. Its users are called “water drops" who are collectivized and coordinated into a real-time wave. Hence the name tsunami.

Those in authority are exercising their muscle to perpetuate rentier systems (in Arab countries, for example) or further consolidate their power (in Hong Kong). Using “riot software", younger and younger people are adopting civil disobedience across the world. The protests are by and large peaceful at the core, but the periphery has often turned violent, like it did in Hong Kong.

For India, the message is clear. At a time when the economy is soft, jobs are hard to come by, and households are struggling, an unduly harsh and arbitrary exercise of authority could set off protests. India is a large, heterogenous country with escape valves for societal angst, but it may be wise not to take the young and jobless for granted.

P.S: “Power is of two kinds. One is obtained by the fear of punishment, and the other by acts of love. Power based on love is a thousand times more effective and permanent than the one derived from fear of punishment," said Mahatma Gandhi.

Narayan Ramachandran is chairman, InKlude Labs. Read Narayan’s Mint columns at livemint.com/avisiblehand

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