Wednesday, October 01, 2014

On recent events in Hong Kong, and related lessons from American history

The BBC reports:

In China, an editorial in People's Daily warned of "unimaginable consequences" if the protests continued...

Unimaginable consequences! I literally can't imagine, actually. They can't roll out the tanks this time. In the age of ubiquitous digital photography and the Internet, it won't be a few grainy shots of one guy with a shopping bag.

I've been telling people for a while that I think that Chinese leaders are way too fearful of political protests. Look at the United States. Street protests may have affected the course of history a half century ago, but in my lifetime, street protests in America have proven to be ephemeral outbursts of emotion, more a substitute for change than a precursor of it. As I've said before, the system of government by elected representatives has evolved a nearly 100% effective immune system against alteration via protest.

For example, a hundred thousand people took to the streets of New York protesting the Iraq war. A decade later, we appear to be mired in eternal war in the Middle East. At this stage, I have serious doubts that the United States military will leave the Middle East in my lifetime. But those protestors, oh, I bet they felt heroic, like they were doing something world-changing when they were marching down that street in such massive numbers. Even that one inevitable guy holding the "Free Mumia" sign at the anti-war rally.

China's leaders need to learn to relax. Rather than clamping down on protests, they should learn from the West: create free speech zones, let the protestors expend their energy, let them lose focus and direction as the tide of life's million distractions gradually erodes their morale, and meanwhile make all the important decisions in incredibly boring committee meetings and reports, which are freely available (and sometimes even broadcast on television channels that nobody watches) but too numerous and too dull for any normal person to keep up with.

It turns out that if you construct your society just right, the drama and glamour of protests can be used, in a judo move, to undermine their effectiveness. The protest becomes a big identity-affirmation party, an end-in-itself. The shorthand "demo" (for "demonstration"), which is what many activist groups in the U.S. call a street protest, is apropos: the point becomes to show off. After the demo winds down, a bunch of energy has been expended, yet the same people are in charge and are even quite likely to be re-elected.

I don't know quite how we got here, and I'm not saying that I have a better answer, but I will note that if you told aliens that a widely held theory of change among many political activists on Earth was

  1. throw a parade;
  2. the government changes its behavior.

then the aliens might be confused. They might ask: what is the mechanism that you propose for this causal effect, given that the formal mechanisms for altering laws generally make no reference to parades, but rather to activities that take place mostly indoors, such as voting, drafting legislation, bureaucratic rule-making, and court decisions?

Ultimately, the Chinese government's attitude towards protest displays a deep, perhaps even touchingly naive faith in the raw power of people to change the government. It is heartwarming, in an odd way. And, all cynicism aside, I sincerely wish the Chinese people the best with the whole protest thing. Maybe they can keep it working better than we did.