Protests across the globe have garnered attention from governments wary of the demands of protestors and consequences of the widespread coverage the events have received.
Many of the protests are anti-government, but motivation varies across countries. In Chile, Iraq and Lebanon, demands for an end to widespread corruption and inequality are at the forefront.
Hong Kong protestors have been mobilized for more than five months against what they view as an authoritarian regime in China that threatens to undermine their independence. The common thread has been massive throngs of people disrupting public spaces and demanding action from those in authority.
The Exponent asked two Purdue professors, Mark Tilton and Giancarlo Visconti, to analyze the significance of the events unfolding internationally. Both specialize in the field of comparative politics, Tilton with a focus in East Asia and Visconti in Latin America.
Tilton offered his analysis of the situation in Hong Kong, while Visconti weighed in on Chile.
What is the historical significance surrounding the relationship between Hong Kong and China?
Hong Kong was handed back to China in 1997 with the agreement that for 50 years, it would be self-governing. China has become much richer and more powerful since then, and the current president, Xi Jinping, has really changed governance in China. China had a single authoritarian leader under Mao Zedong. When Deng Xiaoping came to power in 1978, he set things up so that China would not again have a single dictator like Mao, but Xi Jinping has reversed that, so there’s a kind of new, hard authoritarianism in China and they are trying to reign in the independence of Hong Kong.
What end are the protestors aiming to achieve?
What sparked off the protest was a move by the Hong Kong government to allow extradition to the mainland. That’s what set people off. Hong Kong people are essentially trying to defend human rights and freedom of expression in Hong Kong against Chinese oppression. Basically, the citizenry in Hong Kong says that, “We should have the right to say what we want politically. We should have the right to read what we want,” and they say Hong Kong should be, in terms of its legal system, separate and independent from China. And the mainland says, “Hong Kong is China” and wants to impose more unification of Hong Kong.
Are anti-government protests common in China? Why have the Hong Kong protests become so problematic for the People’s Republic of China, the central governing authority?
There are lots and lots of protests in China. The Chinese government tallies up how many protests there are every year, and for a long time, the central government has been very happy for local residents to protest against their local officials. For a long time, the central government has been aware that there’s a lot of corruption and thievery at the local level, and it’s a good thing for local people to protest, but it’s different when it’s a matter of criticism of the top leadership. That’s what you had with Tiananmen Square, and that has really been squelched. Hong Kong is a small place. There’s about 7 million people there — that’s 0.5% of the Chinese population — but it’s a place where there’s this model of this other kind of society one could live in that is pretty attractive to people on the mainland.
What role do the U.S. and similar Western democracies play in Hong Kong’s fight to remain democratic?
China could just go in, occupy the whole place, just turn it into another part of communist China, but they don’t do that, partly because the only reason China has grown economically is because of dense economic ties with the West. It is being cautious about how bad it looks. ... At one time, Hong Kong was a very important kind of window to the world and gateway to China. That has changed now that China is so much richer and more sophisticated. In a way, it doesn’t need Hong Kong as much as it did, but it still needs decent economic relations with Western Europe and the U.S., so that’s why they don’t want too much violence in Hong Kong.
What sparked the protests in Chile?
Everything started with the increase in the cost of the subway. So it actually was a marginal increase. It wasn’t something that big, but that was a trigger for very large and not very usual protests for the case of Chile. In 2011, there were massive student protests, but not with this amount of support among the population. The explanation for this issue, I would say, mainly relies on inequality but not just in terms of economic inequality, but spatial inequality, segregation and cost of living. So it’s not just about the cost of the subway, but people saw this opportunity as a way to express their discontent with the system.
Since the end of Augusto Pinochet’s dictatorship, Chile has been seen as an economic and democratic success story in the region. How has this success related to public discontent?
If we go back to the dictatorship, it’s true that we’re able to see that the country really improved in economic terms if we just pay attention to economic growth, but economic development is much more than growth. It’s not just increasing the mean income, it’s being able to provide good education, good health, public transportation, and the state has failed in trying to do that, so the provision of public good is not good for our country.
What are the protestors’ demands? What will it take to end the protests?
There is no one leader behind these protests, very similar to what happened in France with the yellow jackets, so there are a lot of things that people are requesting. It’s hard to really tell what is the key factor, but after checking some evidence from surveys, just people talking and expressing their ideas, it seems that this is mainly about inequality and the cost of living. One way to address that will be with important tax reform and with a pension reform.
Could these protests have stemmed from outside influences? What role have foreign countries, including the U.S., played in the protest?
I think it’s very unlikely that there is a government or a group that is actually able to generate (the protests that) happened here, but yeah, I mean, the U.S. always has striven to have a role in domestic politics in Latin America. I don’t expect this will be the exception.