What do South African fallist protests, United States President Donald Trump, Brexit and United Kingdom opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn have in common? And how does all this point to solving Hong Kong, a really difficult crisis that the Chinese government shows no signs of managing successfully?
All draw on a societal mood of disaffection: a rejection of standard institutions and sources of power. Fallist protests drew on tactics in anti-police-state protests such as the so-called Arab Spring — leaderless movements mobilised by social media.
That Trump was drawing on a similar disaffection is evidenced by Bernie Sanders voters who switched to him — an anyone-but-establishment mood can sometimes be irrational.
In this case, what they got is someone who postures as anti-establishment by using inflammatory language.
Yet his actual agenda is surprisingly narrow: deliver big tax cuts for his real base, the super-rich, and deliver conservative judges as a thank-you to the right for their support. Everything else is bluster.
Trump, Brexit, fallism and the Arab Spring illustrate the dangers of this mood: it is easy to unite around what you do not want but much harder to focus on what you do want.
When #FeesMustFall broke out in its most angry form at Rhodes University in 2016, I drew on my experience of peacekeeping in anti-apartheid protests at the University of the Witwatersrand in the 1980s. Even so, little prepared me for the intensity and complexity of the protest movement.
As strong-arm policing tactics were deployed, the “leaderless” aspect showed its efficacy. The police and university administration had a very limited idea of who was actually leading and hence whom to target. Leaderless protest also showed its limitations, in that negotiations were frustratingly difficult. The group negotiating would arrive at a position then, at the next meeting, add new conditions.
In Hong Kong, the Chinese government faces a dilemma.
Traditional police-state methods are a poor fit to this form of protest. First, the leaderless nature makes it hard to stifle by arresting ringleaders. Second, to the extent that they do arrest leaders, it fragments the movement further, making it even harder to find negotiating partners.
Hong Kong also presents another problem. China may need it less than it did when the rest of the country was so poor, but it still represents a major economic resource that it can’t afford to lose. It also does not suit the style of intervention used in Tiananmen Square in 1989 — you cannot send tanks into a densely populated urban area without causing major chaos. Another important issue is that solving Hong Kong is a pointer to solving Taiwan. If Hong Kong goes bad, China can give up on any solution to Taiwan for a long time to come.
So: What is to be done?
The way around any hard problem is to step away from the personal and focus on the issues. As long as it remains a battle of wills between the Chinese government and the protest movement, there is no solution in sight.
My close-up and personal view of #FeesMustFall suggests a few pointers.
One: avoid escalation. On the Rhodes University campus the first time the police aggressively used rubber bullets and teargas, we had a massive escalation in the number of people protesting. In Hong Kong, measures such as firing teargas in an underground station are likely to have a similar effect.
Two: allow cooling-off periods. At Rhodes, after the tear-gassing incident, my view was that the university should close for the next day to take heat out of the situation. Instead, it opted for business as usual, resulting in a big escalation in conflict. Hong Kong can afford a complete shutdown of a day or two so people have space to think through options and to step away from confrontation as the only tool of discourse. The cost of not doing so is much higher than the cost of a few days of closure for business.
Three: acknowledge genuine grievances. If you stop at demands that you cannot concede or that take too much time to be realised, you are also stopping the conversation about solutions. In Hong Kong’s case, the real issue is that it is a society that has moved beyond accepting undemocratic, top-down rule. This is a very hard issue for China because resolving this in Hong Kong raises the question: what about the rest of China? But you do not answer a hard question by ducking it.
Four: amnesty for protesters. Unless this is done, the “leaderless” aspect is reinforced and limits options for negotiation. This can be accompanied by a Truth and Reconciliation Commission-type process similar to the one we had in South Africa, so all who have suffered harm can find closure.
Five: neutral facilitation. Our university protests suffered from leadership trying to solve the problem themselves. Once you are a party to a conflict, it is hard to avoid being judgmental about the other side. A neutral facilitator is better placed to find points of agreement and not get stuck on intractable aspects of the problem.
These are just a few pointers as to how the problem can be tackled. For China, the benefits of solving Hong Kong are huge. It can be a pointer to how to take on the Taiwan issue and can provide a road map to a more open society for the rest of China. The latter surely is better pursued now, under conditions of relative calm than left to when something triggers angry mass protest on the mainland.
At some point, China will be forced to address how to become a more open society. Very few countries have transitioned to advanced industrial societies without doing so. Singapore has, but it is a relatively small country and its approach does not generalise. Nazi Germany is hardly an example to emulate.
The real challenge for China is facing up to its own modernity: How does it become the sort of society that is consistent with its rapidly modernising economy without major, chaotic social upheaval? Getting this right is worth serious thought and Hong Kong presents a great opportunity to test ideas ahead of applying them to the rest of the country.
The Chinese government needs to make a choice: does it want to use the Hong Kong crisis as a catalyst to move the whole country forward, or is it willing to destroy its crown jewels at the cost of remaining stuck in the past?
Philip Machanick is an associate professor of computer science at Rhodes University. These are his own views.