Both countries are run by regimes that are scared of their own people. In Russia’s case, the fear was visible on the streets of the capital, Moscow, this weekend when police arrested more than 1,000 people who were protesting against the authorities’ refusal to allow independent candidates to run in the city elections on September 8.
For China, the threat is visible in the streets of Hong Kong, a supposedly autonomous territory that was handed back by the former colonial power, Britain, in 1997. The protests there started in early June against an extradition bill that would have allowed Hong Kongers to be sent for trial in mainland China. But official lies, stubbornness, and brutality have sparked demonstrations over the last eight weekends with much wider and more worrying demands: for democracy, accountability and de facto independence. The alleged use of gangsters to beat up protesters, in apparent collusion with the police, has aroused particular anger.
In both cases, the outlook for the protesters is bleak in the short term. The Russian authorities have crushed bigger demonstrations in the past with heavy fines and jail sentences for the ringleaders. Throughout Vladimir Putin’s time in power, the opposition has struggled to gain critical mass, find a convincing leader, organize outside Moscow and a handful of big cities, and to find a message that appeals to the Russian mainstream. It is hard to see that changing soon. Apathy is the Kremlin’s biggest friend. It seems easier to stay at home, give up on politics – or emigrate. The only real path to change is a split in the regime. That could come, prompted by Mr. Putin’s declining popularity. But such a change may not bring the freedom and openness that the protesters yearn for.
Unlike Russia, and the rest of China, Hong Kong still has freedoms to fight for, and the protests there have reached a much wider section of society. The mainland authorities could in theory use brute force to crush the protests. The People’s Liberation Army is already garrisoned in the heart of Hong Kong. But a bloodbath would be a devastating blow to China’s legitimacy. Hong Kong was meant to be a showcase for China’s ability to win hearts and minds through effective, pragmatic government. Instead, social, economic, and political tensions in the territory run high. Military intervention would turn a crisis into a disaster. The authorities in Beijing may place their hopes on a stalemate rather than a crackdown. Over time, the protests may fizzle out. That was what happened with the “Umbrella” pro-democracy demonstrations in 2014.
In both cases, close by examples show how democracy can and should work. Ukraine has just had free presidential and parliamentary elections. The contest was open, and incumbents lost, spectacularly. In Russia, outsiders are not allowed even to make a token appearance in meaningless elections, before their defeat through “administrative resources.”
Only 130km from mainland China is Taiwan (which at least on paper is the “Republic of China,” an exiled remnant of the pre-communist regime). The campaign for Taiwan’s presidential election in January is already underway. Until the crisis in Hong Kong spooked Taiwanese voters, pro-mainland candidates were faring well. Not any more. The pro-independence president, Tsai Ing-wen, is back in the race and could well be re-elected.
This open and exciting contest contrasts sharply with the stagnant and secretive goings-on in the Chinese Communist Party leadership. In both China and Russia, the regimes have the guns, the surveillance, the media, the money – all you need to stay in power. Except for one thing: legitimacy.
Europe’s Edge is CEPA’s online journal covering critical topics on the foreign policy docket across Europe and North America. All opinions are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the position or views of the institutions they represent or the Center for European Policy Analysis.