The recent democracy protests in Hong Kong have shone a light on the city’s relationship with Beijing and the role of modern authoritarian regimes in our changing geopolitical landscape. So the big question stands, is it all coming to a head as it did in 1989? 

Thirty years ago, in the Summer of 1989 Francis Fukuyama wrote an article called, ‘The End of History’. For those unfamiliar, this thesis defined the end of history as:

the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution … the universalisation of Western liberal democracy.

Society in his mind was:

witnessing … the passing of a particular period of post-war history’.

The USSR and the Eastern Bloc were disintegrating under pressure from internal and external pressure, and even in China there were rumblings about democratic reform as the nation opened to Western investors.

There was a great sense of legitimate optimism. Liberal democracy had become the ideological benchmark. And, the best part, is that this was not crème brûlée politics. This optimism was based on actual statistics and historical evidence rather than tweets, red buses and tangerine misgivings.

Thirty years on though and the world has not become the liberal utopia Fukuyama predicted. In fact, things have changed a great deal. Democracy is no longer the solid standing ground that it once was. It is a brand that, whilst still symbolically strong, doesn’t quite deliver what it used to.

The Cambridge Analytica and Russian hacking scandals have shown that democracy is open to manipulation and intrigue. It has lost its concrete standing and is now more akin to playdough in a child’s play area. In its place is  the resurgence and resurrection of the People’s Republic of China and Russia. Authoritarian regimes with capitalist sympathies are the latest #trend now. And you thought influencers were bad.

The most prominent authoritarian player, China, is currently preoccupied with Hong Kong, a territory passed over from the British into Chinese control in 1997. The territory is currently engaged in a series of pro-democracy protests. The starting point of the current run of violent protests goes back to the Umbrella Movement (September-December 2014), a relatively peaceful sit-down protest with placards and umbrellas.

Nearly five years on and the umbrellas are no longer just symbols but means of protection, alongside hard hats, masks, goggles and makeshift riot shields. They form part of the kit which protestors (who renewed action on March 31st, 2019) must wear in order protect against tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons.

To say that Hong Kong has descended into riot would be an obtuse suggestion. By and large the protests are violent but not citywide. There are quiet comparisons being made with Tiananmen Square — a massacre that China has nearly made its own population forget, with restrictions on search terms that may link to it. Despite this, the world has not forgotten and will not let China forget either, should it decide to engage in similar action in Hong Kong.

And so, Xi Jinping is caught in ‘Gǎn shàng èrshí’èr’, or Catch-22. If he doesn’t use force the protests will continue, causing further economic and political disruption, but if he does, the consequences could be catastrophic. The protestors know this too. Which is why, despite Carrie Lam repealing the extradition law, they will continue to poke Beijing with a stick.

Catch our interview with Kenneth Cukier on Friday morning as part of our build up to The Economist’s Open Future event in October.

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