The high stakes in Hong Kong’s battle for democracy

There are two possible outcomes of the current Hong Kong protests: success for pro-democracy demonstrators or an authoritarian triumph for China. As Michael Petrou writes, either result will have dire consequences for democracy everywhere.

By: /
15 August, 2019
Anti-extradition bill demonstrators protest at the departure hall of Hong Kong Airport, August 12, 2019. REUTERS/Issei Kato

The large and long-running protests in Hong Kong, which appear to be headed to a confrontation — maybe a violent one — with Chinese authorities, are not just about a proposed extradition bill or the territory’s relationship with China’s central government. They’re not just about Hong Kong at all. Demonstrators there are instead on the front lines of a much larger global conflict between democracy and authoritarianism in which Canada is deeply invested but, sadly, largely absent.

Canadians are perhaps naïve about democracy’s fragility. Anyone born in Canada has known only stable, liberal democracy in their home country. And in living memory, those who looked abroad witnessed the so-called “third wave” of democracy that swept through Latin America, parts of the Asia-Pacific, and Eastern Europe between the 1970s and ’90s, more than doubling the number of democracies in the world.

But more recent years have witnessed backsliding in places like Turkey, Hungary and Venezuela, the rising power of authoritarian Russia and China, and, most worryingly, the election of an American president whose commitment to the democratic norms necessary for democracy’s resilience is selective and weak.

Hong Kong, where protesters are demanding genuine universal suffrage, is far more important to this struggle than its small size might otherwise suggest. One of the lessons of the third wave of democratization, as has been highlighted by scholars such as Daniel Brinks and Michael Coppedge, is that countries do not democratize in isolation. They tend to emulate the levels of democracy, or its lack, in their neighbours. Success for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrators will embolden and strengthen those who share their values elsewhere in the region. An authoritarian triumph for China will have the opposite effect.

The implications for governance elsewhere are not limited to Asia. Writing about the transition from Communism in Russia and Eastern Europe, British political scientist Archie Brown has examined the influence and impact of Western countries, including Canada. Mikhail Gorbachev’s 1983 visit to Canada while he was Soviet agricultural minister shifted his political thinking in a way that would bear fruit when Gorbachev became president and ushered in perestroika. Elsewhere in Eastern Europe during this time, Brown writes, what happened in distant countries shaped people’s beliefs about what was desirable, but what happened in neighbouring countries told them what was politically possible.

In today’s more globalized world, this distinction matters less. Serbian democratic activists have collaborated with Iranian ones. Polish veterans of the pro-democracy struggle in that country, including founder of the Solidarity trade union Lech Walesa, visited Tunisia and Egypt to offer advice following the Arab Spring uprisings there. A successful defence against increased Chinese dictatorship in Hong Kong has the potential to be an example and inspiration anywhere in the world.

Success for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy demonstrators will embolden and strengthen those who share their values elsewhere.

This is what makes Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s response to the protests in Hong Kong so disappointing. This week, Trudeau addressed the crisis by affirming his desire for “de-escalation” and calling for “peace, order and dialogue.” The protesters’ “concerns,” he said, are legitimate.

Missing was any declaration of solidarity with the protesters. Trudeau offered no affirmation that protesters in Hong Kong not only have legitimate concerns but just demands, and that these demands are Canada’s also.

Compare Trudeau’s words with those of Hillary Clinton, who tweeted: “May we all stand in solidarity with the people of Hong Kong as they speak out for democracy, freedom from repression, and a world they long to see.”

Conservative leader Andrew Scheer had a similar response. “Now, and in the coming days, we are all Hong Kongers,” he wrote on Twitter.

And former Liberal interim leader Bob Rae, also writing on Twitter, has stressed that Hong Kong cannot be considered only a Chinese issue. He also noted Ottawa’s moral and legal obligation to the 300,000 Canadians who live and work in Hong Kong.

Trudeau’s actions on Hong Kong are complicated by ongoing tensions with China related to Canada’s arrest of Meng Wanzhou, a senior executive at Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, because of an extradition request from the United States. China has detained former Canadian diplomat Michael Kovrig and entrepreneur Michael Spavor, seemingly in revenge, and has restricted Canadian imports as well.

Trudeau may be operating on a belief that the Meng Wanzhou issue is less likely to be resolved if Canada is belligerent on other matters, and so Canada has done little to challenge Beijing. This summer, Small Business and Export Promotion Minister Mary Ng visited China and tweeted a smiling selfie from a Canadian ice cream shop in Beijing while, reportedly, Kovrig and Spavor are kept in prison cells where the lights are left on 24 hours a day.

There’s no evidence that Ottawa’s go-softly strategy will result in China releasing its two Canadian hostages. And in the meantime, Trudeau’s muted response to events in Hong Kong puts Canada on the sidelines of a bigger and more consequential contest.

It may not seem obvious, but protesters in Hong Kong are fighting for our freedom too. The rise of authoritarianism is a threat to democracies everywhere. Protesters in Hong Kong deserve our support, and China deserves to be told that there will be consequences regarding bilateral relations between Canada and China should they send in their soldiers and tanks. Such a stance may not stay Beijing’s hand. But it would put Canada more clearly on the right side of a struggle that won’t diminish in the years ahead.

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