Authoritarians Beware: Protests are Spreading

Steven Lum, Staff Writer

This past year has been a summer of protests. While many were already brewing, the pandemic gave a jumpstart to movements across the world, from Asia to Europe to North America. The common theme of these protests? Citizens feel that their governments aren’t listening to them.

The protests in Hong Kong are arguably some of the most violent and longest-running protests of this year. Coincidentally, the roots of these movements were planted around the same time as the roots of the Black Lives Matter movement were in 2014. Ever since Hong Kong’s 2014 Umbrella Protests, both the governments of Hong Kong and China have been cracking down on dissent. There have been allegations of kidnappings, extrajudicial killings and beatings. 

Hong Kong has enjoyed more freedoms than its neighbors in Shenzhen and Macau by maintaining a government modeled after the British colonial government with elections that managed the colony from 1841 to 1997. However, in March of 2019, when pro-Beijing legislators introduced an extradition bill between Hong Kong and mainland China, mass protests engulfed the city. By June, the police were firing teargas at crowds on sight. At one point, protesters occupied all of the major university campuses, essentially turning them into fortresses. China is known for its murky judicial process that is easily influenced by outsiders and which often perpetrates human rights violations. The key concern about this extradition bill was that it would allow mainland Chinese agencies to operate within Hong Kong without notifying the Hong Kong government, an unprecedented move. The extradition bill was withdrawn in September of 2019.

Because of the pandemic, the protests have since lost their steam and have subsequently simmered into small acts of defiance, although now an “anti-terrorism” law so broad almost anything can be considered a terrorist act has been put into place, effectively stifling peaceful protestors and criminalizing political dissent. It also covers the entire world. Any person, even if they’re not Chinese citizens, is affected by this. 

In Africa, protests in Nigeria have brought the country to a standstill. These protests have been centered around police brutality, specifically within the Special Anti-Robbery Squad, otherwise known as SARS. This is not the first time SARS has caused protests. The Nigerian government has changed the names of SARS and its predecessors as a half attempt at convincing its citizens that they really have changed the police. Instead, it’s staffed by the same officers and committing the same kind of police brutality, which is why Nigerians are protesting. These protests continue to gain support and have spread internationally to countries with Nigerian communities. 

Now to Europe, in Belarus. Their president, Alexander Lukashenko, is known as “Europe’s last dictator,” and for good reason. He’s held onto power since Belarus’ first elections after it broke away from the Soviet Union in 1991. The 2020 presidential elections in Belarus were riddled with irregularities and protests against Lukashenko are ongoing. There have been clashes between protesters and the government that have often turned violent. There have even been reports of people being tortured. Because of this civil unrest, the government has taken away all media credentials, which are required to legally report in Belarus, effectively allowing reporters to be arrested at any time. It’s surprising the European Union hasn’t done more in regards to Belarus besides using strong words to condemn the violence, though the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic is most likely the biggest factor behind this lack of action. 

In the United States and Canada, Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests from coast to coast in nearly every community sprung up over the summer. To a smaller extent, indigenous protests have also started to gain steam, and often protested alongside BLM activists. The vast majority of protests were peaceful, but some were met with violent force, especially in New York City. Many wonder what the next steps for the movement are, but there is no clear answer. Despite the violence, there were also heartening moments during the summer, like people singing in Washington, volunteers signing up protesters to vote, as well as the Portland Moms/Dads and various other quickly organized community groups. 

Perhaps a more surprising place where protests have recently popped up is Thailand. Its democracy movement is similar to Hong Kong’s in that protestors are calling for the repeal of restrictive freedom-of-speech laws. It has strict lese majeste laws which essentially prohibit  anyone from defaming the Thai King, King Vajiralongkorn. These laws’ roots run deep; they are actually written in the country’s constitution stating that people must hold the Thai king in reverence. However, it’s quite difficult to do that when the Thai king spends nearly the entire calendar year in a German hotel. King Vajiralongkorn is overall much more controversial than his father, who worked to help people. In an unprecedented move, protesters in Thailand openly jeered the royal motorcade. Normally, everyone protesting would be jailed, but surprisingly this crowd wasn’t. While many of the student protest leaders have been jailed several times, the protesters continue demanding a more democratic government and for the king to give up all military units under his personal command and return them to the military. 

It seems that these movements are only getting the ball rolling. 2021 will be an interesting year, especially after the U.S. elections. Whatever happens in these countries, authoritarians that preside over stable countries will take notice. They will not want the same energy to spread to their nations and ultimately usurp their power. At the end of the day, however, the will of the people cannot be ignored.