From pole to pole, protest movements have been quieted by the coronavirus pandemic. They haven’t been silenced entirely, of course. They can still largely get their message out online in most countries. But it’s not the same.
It isn’t the same because part of the strategy in protesting is to provoke a response from authorities. By showing the unjust nature of the government by goading police into suppressing them, the activists create a far more powerful image than simply people marching and shouting.
So what happens when the crowds disappear and authorities are left in total control?
Prior to the pandemic, the world was experiencing an unprecedented level of mobilization. Dubbed “the year of the street protest,” 2019 saw millions of people take to the streets in 114 countries. Including the prodemocracy demonstrations in Hong Kong and the anti-government protests in Iraq, many of these grassroots movements seemed unstoppable. But then came the coronavirus. People began trading large gatherings for social distancing, and protest signs were swapped for face masks. No one yet knows when mass demonstrations will resume, if indeed some of them will be able to return at all.
In the case of Hong Kong, the Chinese government can’t believe its good luck. Massive protests rocked the island until January when the coronavirus hit. The communists have taken advantage of their good fortune by making a mass arrest of democracy advocates and bending the Hong Kong legislature to their will by forcing them to take up “national security” legislation designed to draw Beijing closer to the island.
China’s liaison office in Hong Kong last week called for national security legislation and controversially declared it was not bound by a clause in the city’s post-handover mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which bars the Chinese government from interfering in local affairs. Hong Kong is guaranteed “a high degree of autonomy” under the one country two systems principle enshrined in the Basic Law, but the liaison office said this did not mean “complete autonomy”.
“It would come sooner or later. They already said in 2014 they would exercise ‘complete jurisdiction’ in Hong Kong,” said Lee, once trusted by Beijing as one of the drafters of the Basic Law.
A Beijing policy white paper asserted that China had “comprehensive jurisdiction” over Hong Kong and the city’s “high degree of autonomy … comes solely from the authorisation by the central leadership”.
But protest movements are adapting to the situation, as they must. Creative solutions are found online, which gives some activists distinct advantages.
Unlike with a traditional demonstration, online activists don’t have to worry about seeking government permits to assemble, nor do they have to fear a physical crackdown. What’s more, they are not geographically confined: Online rallies can span an entire city, country, or even the globe, depending on who’s taking part. Social media has the added advantage of ensuring that a particular message can spread further and faster than ever before.
Though the internet does offer some alternatives for protest movements, online activism isn’t easily employed everywhere—especially in places where street protests aren’t just a method of signaling dissent, but the dominant form.
But what of nations where computers are rare, or where online activity is extremely restricted or closely monitored? Clearly, there is no “one size fits all” solution for activists seeking change. But it may be a very long time before street protests once again shut down cities and try the patience of police.
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