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Destroying Dictatorships and Wagging the Dragon: On Umbrellas, Sunflowers, and Beijing's Chance to Change

Jack Healey, the Founder of the Human Rights Action Center

A little over 25 years ago, the Chinese military -- grimly named the People's Liberation Army, or PLA -- had encircled Beijing and finally stormed Tiananmen Square with machine guns and tanks in a brutal attempt to extinguish voices of courage and hope by having thousands of its patriots murdered for their audacity of difference. Quick condemnation from virtually all the world's nations dropped away fairly quickly in the few years following the massacre as economic might grew quickly throughout the People's Republic of China (PRC), especially in the corrupt capital and coastal east, and the lure of cash was too easy to resist. When concerns were raised about the massacre and continuing rights abuses and the prevention of any voice for the people, dismissive responses came quickly from inside and out. The PRC demanded other countries abide by the principle of "noninterference in internal affairs" and claimed that the Chinese were "not ready for democracy" so meddling by outsiders was found unwelcome and unhelpful both. Disturbingly, the answers from companies eager to trade and do business inside the PRC, and virtually all of the countries they came from, parroted the same refrains in the international community.

As an economic powerhouse, Beijing intended to not only centrally rule and control a huge population in a vast country, but to do so without any inputs from or freedoms to the billion-plus citizens themselves. Could a frozen politics sustain economic growth? Could China's citizens increase wealth while leaders denied their human worth? Uncommon exceptions proved the rule and Beijing got away with defusing all non-economic concerns with finesse or force as necessary. After the global economic downturn, things got more complicated. The nation was beset. Self-immolations by Tibetans, uprisings in Uighur areas, economic lags in the countryside, and cities experiencing environmental catastrophe challenged Beijing to maintain balanced control. Problems seemed everywhere with Taiwanese resentment at a trade agreement, a crackdown on dissent in Macau, and less pliable neighbors with Burma slowing down commercial relationship and Vietnam being deeply alarmed by Chinese flags planted in disputed territory. The attempts by CY Leung to limit Hongkongers' slate of choices to those acceptable in Beijing was too much and the Umbrella Revolution took to the streets. While the protesters continue in reduced numbers, the determination of Hong Kong has breathed new hope and new resolve into dissidents to reconsider standing up to Beijing for rights, and to accept the risks that come with it. The Umbrella Revolution isn't over nor is it resolved, but rather only just beginning and gathering strength for the next opportunity. Beijing has no reason to celebrate a problem resolved, even as it refuses to choose a path toward democracy and rights.

Media coverage of the Hong Kong protests had gaps. Stories filed overreported quirks like protesters organizing recycling and garbage while failing to reallyl note the substantial role played by religious organizations (especially Christian churches). Such features show a marked contrast to the PRC, where crowds leave rubbish strewn with abandon and even religious visibility is frowned upon with active independent advocacy prohibited completely. It is a tragedy that the chance to see the constructive roles that protesters (and religions) could play in civil society were ignored by Beijing, though they might have been studied to see how there might be durable peace in Tibetan regions by permitting more cultural and religious autonomy. They might have seen the willingness of crowds in Hong Kong to respect property and public space as a reason to step forward toward discussing (finally) what happened a quarter century before in Tiananmen Square so that China might exorcise that ghost and reconcile its failures. To really look at what is missing, let's look at the third of the "Three T's" taboo in the PRC for open discussion: Taiwan.

Last spring, the Sunflower Movement swept Taiwan. Students and other civil society groups took over the island legislature and shut it down, occupying the space physically and preventing the activities of government completely. The Movement was furious about a trade agreement negotiated with Beijing and without public feedback nor legislative oversight while undermining Taiwanese sovereignty and identity. Demands for the agreement to be withdrawn for review and legislative approval were met, and the Movement vacated the legislature after the current President, Ma Ying-jeou of the Kuomintang (KMT) Party, realized that the opposition had a supermajority while he had the lowest popularity ratings in Taiwan's history and had to back down. This was all quite a change from the not-so-long-ago old days when the KMT were the only party permitted and they ruled with an iron fist. When the Sunflower Movement rose up, activists found tremendous support from Hongkongers who flew in supplies, marched on the street, or sent a lot of cash to support them. Protests in Hong Kong began their first low-level presence as the Sunflower Movement had withdrawn from their direct action and the favor was returned with flights and wire transfers and voices to raise in chanting coming back into Hong Kong from Taipei. The connections continue to grow between them and others in China. Even the reported use of the Firechat app, widely installed on the phones of HK protesters to prepare for continued communications in the event of the cell network being shut down, had its origins in the same use by the Sunflower Movement only a scant few months earlier.

Brutally ruled by the KMT until the 2000 election of Chen Shui-bian as the first (and only) opposition leader elected President and who served two terms, Taiwan has become a leader for both democracy and rights in all of Asia. Having setbacks with the KMT return to the Presidency in 2008 and their focused determination to prosecute Chen and imprison him as a lesson to other who don't toe the KMT line, the people of Taiwan have risen to the occasion and have demanded that reform continue and are showing the lie to companies and countries who have claimed that anyplace in Asia is "not ready" for democracy.

Beijing regards Taiwan as a separatist and "splittist" province that should be reunified with the PRC, and they have long held out Hong Kong as an example of the vaunted "One Country, Two Systems" approach where areas are allowed to operate with a framework of better civil and political rights (to say nothing of the long entrenched rule of law, advanced civil society development, et cetera). Currently restricted to Hong Kong SAR and Macau SAR, the hope was to entice Taiwan to reunify with the PRC and to be permitted to retain its own legal and political framework. The Umbrella Revolution has changed the playing field and the protesters have won that game, even though Beijing hasn't seemed to realize it yet.

Overreaching in attempts to control even the chance of choice in Hong Kong elections, Beijing has illustrated rather publicly to the world -- notably to Macau and importantly to Taiwan -- that "One Country, Two Systems" is only true to the extent that ossified men with old ideas in Beijing feel like allowing it to be true on any given day. Taiwan is more clear than ever on the consequences of accepting to live under the rule of the PRC and is more likely than ever to never agree to it. The alliances formed between Taiwan's Sunflower Movement and Hong Kong's Umbrella Revolution are only likely to persist and develop over time and the direction they'll develop won't be focused on adhering to Beijing's agenda but on adhering to a democratic one and one that protects human rights.

Beijing is now a witness to a vibrant demonstration that was polite enough to give new meaning to "civil" society and to the role that religious organizations can play in a free society. They have been given notice by these protests that the trajectory will be toward freedom, toward democracy, toward human rights. They must realize that keeping references to the Tiananmen Massacre censored from media and books in the PRC is not a road map to success for them longer term. The "Three T's" that the Umbrella Revolution announce to China is that they must reckon with their past (there will need to be an accounting of Truth for abusing the human rights of its citizens to reconcile); they must open a path to democratic participation, including self-determination, for their people (a Transition must be plotted to a free society); and they must endeavor to protect the human rights of their citizens not as a luxurious afterthought to Shanghai's gleaming towers but as a recognition of the universal and inherent nature of human rights and their protection being the highest duty of government (the Triumph of an open society over a closed one).

Congratulations to the protesters in Hong Kong and to the participants in the Umbrella Revolution there and the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan. Beijing didn't win the game by the old rules, but the real game they might win would be to follow a similar road map for reform throughout the PRC. The peoples of China, over a billion, will not be compliant to being ruled without a voice forever. Like the Taiwanese, Macanese, Hongkongers, and the world, the people of China have dreams. Beijing must bear in mind the risks incurred in denying dreams and continued delays by rereading a poem by Langston Hughes.

Write your representatives and senators (see www.contactingthecongress.org for how) and ask them to keep attention focused on the behavior of the governments in Beijing, Hong Kong, Macau, Taipei, and everywhere: if governments seek to deny participation to its citizens or to protect the rights they're entitled to under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, there should be consequences. The protesters in Hong Kong, and the activists in Taiwan, and those who struggle to speak out for justice should be commended and supported in every symbolic and practical way. The Sunflower Movement and the Umbrella Revolution are inspiration to the best in us all.

Follow Jack Healey on Twitter: www.twitter.com/HRAC

posted Oct. 09, 2014

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