In the current political climate it seems there is a protest taking place every week. The inter-connectivity of the modern world makes large scale demonstrations easy to organise. Given the current political discourse they are also likely to gain support from a section of society. Yet, the growth in the popularity of protest has given rise to questions concerning their pertinence and effectiveness. It may seem there is a lot to protest about, but are there too many polite protests?
An estimated one million people marched nationwide against the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union in 2019. Nonetheless, the UK Prime Minister has suspended parliament and increased the likelihood of leaving the EU on the 31st of October without a deal. The imminent threat of this makes it is possible to argue that the protests were all in vain. No doubt mass action energises people otherwise distraught at the direction of current affairs and signifies that democracy is alive and kicking. Yet the regularity and overall niceness of such action is diminishing the significance of people power.
There are some stand-out examples of modern-day mass action. The Extinction Rebellion protests which have gained ground in recent months are one. Their use of civil disobedience distinguishes them from other protests. The group are calling on the UK government to take drastic action to halt the effects of climate change. In April during a widespread campaign, the group marched on Heathrow Airport, blocked off entrances to the London Stock Exchange and staged sit-ins on the top of trains in Kings Cross station. Over one thousand people were detained as London came to a brief standstill. Yet, disappointingly for the protesters, little has changed with regards to climate change.
Another more commendable example of people power is the protests in Hong Kong. The protests started against an Extradition Bill, a bill which would allow Hong Kong suspects to be taken to mainland China for questioning. The law sparked a wider movement against the growing Chinese interference within Hong Kong. By taking the bold move of occupying Hong Kong’s main international airport and cancelling all flights, activists illustrated how large scale disruption is a key way to make an effective statement and create change. In doing so the protests entered an entirely new phase. Like Extinction Rebellion, the protesters are attempting to strike at the artery of modern society. Hong Kong has been brought to a standstill as the political masses and those in power lock horns. What started as peaceful protests has now become a battle for control.
Those on the opposing side argue that such disruption is unacceptable, that it interrupts the lives of ordinary people and violates the peace and rule of law enjoyed in Hong Kong. Many would say this will turn the people against the protesters. In fact, such a bold move only serves to strengthen their cause. It heightens awareness of the struggle, while increasing the potential for violent fight-back from the authorities.
The heat is already rising in Hong Kong as videos circulate showing police brutality in use. Solidarity with the young woman shot and blinded by police has become a theme of the protests. No doubt this incident, amongst others, resonates within Hong Kong society. The ongoing disruption turns the protest into a cat and mouse game between protesters and police, the results of which are played out in the media and online. It is hard to see a scenario in which increased police aggression, and perhaps Chinese intervention, will dampen the protesters cause. Peaceful disruption to infrastructure requires courage and organisation to stand against violent authority. The strength to do so can make it a tremendously effectively form of protest.
The people of Hong Kong are protesting against a power much greater than themselves, perhaps the greatest power of our times, China. Their battle is the archetypal people versus the state contest, fought on the streets of this small territory in the face of their mighty neighbours. Modern day David vs Goliath in the South China Sea. This issue of Chinese state interference resonates deeply in Hong Kong. Hong Kong served as a refuge for members of the Kuomintang government and its supports, as well as ordinary Chinese people, who were in opposition to Communist rule. Despite British withdrawal in 1997, Hong Kong has remained a partial democratic oasis. Hong Kong possesses limited autonomy under the “one country, two systems policy” but any substantial encroachment by the Chinese state meets with fierce resistance.
Close ties to China make airport blockades such an effective tactic. On average the airport handles 6 million passengers each month, as well as over 400,000 tonnes of cargo. Halting this essentially halts life in and out of Hong Kong. It shows the Chinese and Hong Kong executives that the rights of the people matter more than the smooth operation of this capitalist city-state. It forces business and those in powerful places to recognise the passion of the protesters.
Parallels can be drawn between this and the actions taken by Extinction Rebellion. What differentiates the Hong Kong protesters from their environmental counterparts is that the protesters in Hong Kong are fighting a clear enemy. They possess a well-defined purpose with an achievable and realistic aim. Extinction Rebellion’s commitment is strong, but their aims are vague and the enemy a global threat. It becomes difficult for their actions to promote sufficient change when the issue they are fighting is so broad and the challenge so monumental. On the contrary, Hong Kong protesters are somewhat blessed in their struggle due to the passage to reform being more concrete and accessible.
Extinction Rebellion and the Hong Kong protests similarly demonstrate the gulf in resources between the people and the state. The increased violence during the stand offs between police and protesters in Hong Kong arouses a passionate consciousness of the little man fighting back. The state has the power of the police force, with weapons and tactics alien to untrained protesters. In a worst-case scenario for Hong Kong, it also has the Chinese army. Protesters lack such weighty resource. They do have what the state does not: the people. They have the organised masses. This weapon is worthless without tactics, courage and resilience. Targeted disruptions like the airport occupation puncture the skin of the Hong Kong and Chinese state and show that the people are not pushed over so easily. What makes the Hong Kong protests special is their clear objectives, their willingness to shut down infrastructure and their strength to stand tall in the face of authority.
A Saturday afternoon march through city streets looks more like a fun day out for all the family than an effective protest. Real change occurs through real action. We can commend Extinction Rebellion for its tactical deployment of civil disobedience; that said, it is feared that their struggle will have no immediate impact. This is in part down to the apathy of the wider population and the intransigence of those in power towards this complex issue. The Hong Kong protesters serve, however, as a beacon of hope for the oppressed, for the many across the globe who are alienated by their rulers. The outcome of the Hong Kong protest is yet to be seen; whatever transpires, those brave young Asian rebels should be an inspiration to us all.
Written by Michael Wood
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