It has been nearly 20 years since one of the most earthshaking events of our time. On Nov. 9, 1989, East German authorities said citizens were free to cross the border dividing communist-controlled East Berlin from West Berlin, an outpost of democratic West Germany. It was a joyous surprise that helped end the Cold War, remove Eastern Europe from Moscow’s domination and unravel the Soviet Union.
The fall of the Berlin Wall also heralded a worldwide march toward freedom. In the following decade, the number of democracies rose from 69 to 117, according to the human rights group Freedom House, which in 1999 noted a broad pattern of “significant gains for human freedom at the dawn of a new millennium.”
That trend didn’t last. This year, Freedom House sadly reported that 2018 was “the 13th consecutive year of decline in global freedom.” Autocratic governments reign in Russia, China, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Cuba and Venezuela, among others. Illiberal, right-wing parties have won power in Poland and Hungary and gained followers elsewhere in Europe.
But if the spread of democracy eventually led to an authoritarian backlash, the backlash is now eliciting new demands for freedom. That spectacle is most visible in Hong Kong, where mass rallies against Beijing’s rule have taken place on 11 straight weekends — including a demonstration last Sunday, in defiance of police orders, that turned out as many as 1.7 million people.
The movement arose in reaction to legislation that would allow extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China. If enacted, that could allow the Beijing government to go after anyone it deems dangerous, including political activists. The Hong Kong government suspended the bill but has yet to withdraw it.
The protesters are now calling for democratic reforms and action against police brutality. They hope to protect the former British colony’s freedoms and rule of law from the iron hand of the Chinese government, which regained sovereignty there in 1997.
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The Hong Kongers cannot be unaware of the risks they run. Many have been beaten and tear-gassed by police. Beijing could send in tanks and troops at any moment to carry out a brutal crackdown that would mean death for some, prison for others, lost jobs for yet more, and the end of freedom in the territory. Still, they keep putting themselves on the line.
There are also signs of a growing opposition movement in Vladmir Putin’s Russia. Protests have been held in Moscow every weekend since July 14 to demand that the government allow opposition candidates to run in city council elections. But other issues, such as pension cuts and unwanted landfills, have spawned demonstrations elsewhere.
In Russia, as in Hong Kong, challenging the government carries serious hazards. Some 2,500 Moscow demonstrators have been arrested, with some facing charges that could put them behind bars for 15 years. Others have been clubbed with police batons.
The harsh response hasn’t cowed the popular movement. “Increasingly, Russians are turning to protests to express their dissatisfaction,” reports The Washington Post, citing a poll that “shows the number of people willing to take part in a political protest increased from 8% in 2016 to 22% in 2019.”
The persistence of these demonstrations has to worry Putin, who has presided over a steady erosion of living standards. A survey by a state-sponsored pollster found that only 32% of Russians trust him, the lowest figure in 13 years. Dissident and chess great Garry Kasparov tweeted that the protests are “a reminder that Putin, like every dictator, has no idea when or how his rule will end. Only that it will be sudden.”
Maybe the anti-government rallies in Hong Kong and Moscow are transient events that will soon subside or be snuffed out. But maybe they are the start of something big. It wouldn’t be the first time.