August 16, 2019
IntelBrief: Pro-Democracy Protests Rock Hong Kong and Moscow
In both Hong Kong and in Moscow, long-simmering undercurrents of political opposition have pitted protesters against their unrepresentative authoritarian governments. The origins of these two unrelated protests are intensely local—Hong Kong began as a reaction to an extradition law with mainland China while the Moscow protests were a result of the exclusion of opposition candidates from city council elections. Each of these demonstrations has grown into something more substantial and more dynamic than mere pushback against the issues that initially sparked the resistance. Particularly in Hong Kong, the protests have grown exponentially, with hundreds of thousands of people peacefully protesting against the encroachment of Beijing’s authoritarian rule. The protesters in Hong Kong and Moscow are demanding accountable and transparent representative government from authoritarian regimes that see democracy as anathema to their ironclad grip on control.
In Moscow, police have used extreme force to crack down on the tens of thousands of protesters in a series of demonstrations, two of which were lawfully permitted by the Russian government (July 20 and August 10). The protests kicked off in July when election officials excluded opposition candidates from the upcoming September 8 city council elections while allowing candidates from Russian President Vladimir Putin’s United Russia party to participate. Each of the last five weekends there have been widespread protests in a city unaccustomed to organized political opposition. On July 27, police arrested more than 1300 people, using batons to beat protesters. The protesters are primarily young Russians, and the movement is essentially leaderless, which has caused concern within the Kremlin that these demonstrations could touch off a broader movement that spreads to other cities throughout the country. While it is difficult to gauge popular sentiment in a country like Russia accurately, Putin’s United Russia party is losing support as grievances proliferate over corruption and a faltering economy. Putin views any dissent as tantamount to treason and sees foreign machinations, specifically from the U.S., as the instigator of these protests. Ongoing protests are unlikely to force meaningful change in Putin’s regime, and Russian security forces will continue to beat, arrest, and detain all elements of political opposition.
In Hong Kong, the protests are larger in scale and scope compared to what is happening in Moscow and have brought the territory to a standstill at times, particularly after protesters shifted their focus to the airport. Hong Kong police have used tear gas and non-lethal projectiles in tight quarters, such as in subway stations, leading to injuries. The protesters have overwhelmingly been non-violent, though there have been several incidents of people being beaten by protesters. In late July, young male counter-protesters (possibly linked to Triad criminal gangs), almost certainly operating with the tacit connivance of the government, attacked protesters as security forces stood by. Recent reports have indicated that Beijing has amassed troops and police near Hong Kong, sparking fears of a 'Tiananmen 2.0’, a reference to the infamous deadly crackdown by Beijing in 1989.
For its part, the Trump administration has said little about these pro-democracy protests, while Congressional members have been more vocal in showing support for the protesters while simultaneously urging restraint by the Russian and Chinese governments, respectively. In past statements, President Trump has been openly supportive of both Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping, remarking on their popularity and calling them 'tough’ leaders. In an August 14 tweet, President Trump tied the Hong Kong protests to his much-desired trade deal with China, saying, 'China is not our problem, though Hong Kong is not helping…’ China is exceedingly sensitive to public criticism, and a unified U.S. voice supporting the Hong Kong protesters could have some impact on how Beijing seeks to resolve the crisis. Given the President’s focus on a trade deal with China, and his statements that these are 'internal matters’ for Beijing and Moscow, a strong pro-democratic position by the U.S. remains unlikely.
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