In 2010, the tiny North African nation of Tunisia rejected patriarchy, nepotism and tribalism and opted for Arab democracy. Soon its call for overthrowing absolutism engulfed the Arab world and ushered in a new beginning -- only soon to find itself undermined and overwhelmed, like Egypt, by organized, well-funded autocracies.
The democrats' movement was often swamped by blood and atrocities, but still the hope for democracy and freedom is alive and waiting for the next wave of uprisings -- sooner rather than later; no one can resist the call for democracy, freedom and human rights.
The Arab Spring Tsunami Goes Global
For the first time ever, an Arab-born movement reverberated in democratic countries such as Spain, with the Outraged Movement 2011-2012 (Indignados or Moviemente 15-M). It kicked off on May 15, 2011 in Madrid and 58 other Spanish cities, and called for more democracy and more youths represented in politics.
In America, there are also calls for more economic freedom and the opportunity for all Americans to make choices free of government incompetence, interference and control.
Ukraine overthrew its post-communist regime, cocooned and supported by the Russian Federation -- a revolt that triggering the ire of the new Tsar, Vladimir Putin, who, hardened by his nuclear might, helped himself to Crimea and is now threatening to create a "republic" in the eastern part of Ukraine and who knows where else.
The Arab Spring's yearning for democracy has now reached even China and pitched its tents in Hong Kong -- at Mong Kok in Kowloon as well as on the Hong Kong Island.
Tens of thousands of protesters throng Harcourt Road in Hong Kong, September 29, 2014. (Image source: Wikimedia Commons/Citobun)
When the British returned those territories to China in 1997, China agreed that it would maintain the democratic system there within what was called "one country, two systems." China called it: The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People's Republic of China; encompassing 426 square miles, a population of little over seven million and a per capita income of $41,421, one of the highest in the world.
Today, the Chinese authorities are going back on their promise of maintaining Hong Kong's special political status, inherited from Britain. Hong Kong, however, is trying to move the original -- pre-autocratic -- Arab Spring way: it is choosing democracy.
This movement is reminiscent of Tiananmen Square in early June, 1989; but certainly Chinese regime, which in the last decades has allowed economic liberalism without political freedom, would not want another Tiananmen. As in every dictatorship, the government's only fear is of its own people.
Now that more of the population has achieved an acceptable level of affluence, it is hungry for democracy and freedom of speech. The longer China procrastinates, the tougher the protestors will get. The young people are not ready to give up or be intimidated. They are serious about democracy.
What then are the possibilities to which China can turn to address the current protest?
China can go back on its decision to change the status of Hong Kong. China can honor its commitment under international law to adhere to the terms of its agreement with Britain. It can honorably blame its reversal either on the rule of law, or on the governance of the local officials of the territory, whom it could ask to resign. The decision to maintain Hong Kong's status quo would save the face of China and satisfy the youths.
The danger of such a decision is that China's resolve might appear weak, and create similar expectations elsewhere in China. China can still make use of repression, and has already sent the police into Hong Kong to attack protestors. But China might not wish to tarnish its image even further and damage the diplomatic and commercial reputation that it has built with Taiwan and other investors. Like all dictators, the Chinese leadership wants only one thing: to keep their power, and to keep it as easily and cost-free as possible.
China can wait, hoping that the youths will, in the end, get tired and abandon their demands. At times, it seems as if this strategy is working. There are moments when the youths' democracy movement seems to be losing steam. But China needs to be careful with this approach: after a period of dormancy, the democracy movement could easily pick up strength and be more effective in a second round. History has shown that such movements do not die; they just take shelter to let the storm pass.
3. Pretend to Solve the Problem
China could feign giving in to the youths' demands by adopting some minor changes to gain time, and then hope for the best. But this approach could backfire on China and result in even more discontent and violence. As China's economy improves, the expectations of the people increase. After having secured bread, they now want freedom.
The Arab Spring -- the original one, the wish for democracy, individual freedoms and human rights -- is a wish that will not go away. It will come back in different forms. Even if China is doing well economically, its human rights record is atrocious and its democratic credentials nonexistent.
Have the Arab dictators been able to stop the tide of democracy, or rather the democracy tsunami? No. And they are impotent despite of the use of thuggish police forces. When the time comes, people will rise up against the Chinese regime. Would the regime again use the army to quell an uprising, as it did in 1989, at Tiananmen Square? The diplomatic and economic costs in terms of trade could be immense.
This time, China is again making use of raw force to smother the widespread discontent in Hong Kong. But so far, it has wisely chosen not to crush peaceful protestors with tanks.
Possible outcomes include:
1. The Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong runs out of energy and the students pack up and leave the squares. If that happens, China's waiting game strategy will have won, and the communist regime will feel further strengthened to continue using force as a response to popular anger.
2. China will crush this mini-revolution to show the rest of the country and the rest of the world that communism and military might against one's own citizens "works," and that economic freedom has nothing to do with any other freedom.
By reaching China, the original Arab Spring has proven its importance: its determination to bring its gifts to the most traditional and closed political systems of the world -- the Arab countries, Ukraine and China. With the combination of the people's will and the digital revolution reaching the most secluded corners of the globe, the waters of the Arab Spring will certainly be knocking at other doors to grace more people with the sweetness of democracy, equal opportunity and the promise of freedom for everyone.