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2014: A historic year for social movements in Asia

East Asia
South Asia

Hong Kong during the Umbrella Revolution, October 2014. Pasu Au Yeung under a Creative Commons Licence

You probably heard about what happened in Hong Kong in September, where Occupy protesters took over some of the city-state’s busiest streets, calling for the right to vote freely and fairly.

But do you know about the Sunflower Protests, which took place in Taiwan in March, when protesters, most of whom were young, stormed past police barricades and occupied the Taiwanese Parliament, opposing a trade deal with China that they believed would erode the island-state’s independent political identity?

Or about the hunger strikes of family members of the victims of the Sewol Ferry disaster in Seoul, South Korea?

Add in the pro-election movement in Indonesia, and the red-shirt/yellow-shirt protests in Thailand, and you have a region showing signs of impending massive social change.

It makes sense – in a region where economic growth hasn’t meant an increase in democracy, where free press is incredibly limited and corruption remains high, frustration has turned 2014 into a historic year for social movements.

Does this foreshadow the long-awaited political maturation of East and Southeast Asia’s citizens, who are finally calling for a greater say in their political and social future?

On the surface, each movement looks focused on specific challenges in the region; but dig a little deeper and commonalities are everywhere. Occupy’s goal is for Hong Kong to gain its long-promised democracy, but the triggers for the resentment can be found in living costs, limited infrastructure and rising inequality, the same challenges facing Indonesia and Thailand.

In Seoul, at first glance, it seems that protesters in the city centre want justice for the hundreds of victims of Sewol. But read the pamphlets and the main demand – an independent investigation into what they see as deeply ingrained corruption and collusion connecting the ferry company, the police and politicians, perhaps even the president – has implications far broader than a simple judicial case.

‘In all cases, protesters are calling for accountability and greater transparency in the political and economic realms,’ says Asia expert Matteo Fumagalli, Head of the Department of International Relations at Central European University.

Even Asia’s darkest corners are showing sparks of discontent. In Chinese-occupied Tibet, which has been under de facto martial law for years, and which remains a no-man’s land for foreign journalists and NGOs, there has a been a spurt of horrific self-immolations, cited by experts as a reaction to massive public anger at Chinese oppression, combined with the absence of public space for a safe civic discourse.

Nearby, in occupied East Turkestan (in Chinese, Xinjiang) the shift has sadly turned violent, with the deadly knife attack by Uighur militants in Kunming, Yunnan the most noteworthy example. The attack was followed by mass public convictions in Urumqi. in the latest of what is becoming an even more vicious cycle of violence and repression.

China’s shadow looms large not just within its borders, but abroad as well. The authoritarian superpower, accused of propping up dictatorial regimes across the world, has been a focal point for protests not only in Hong Kong and Taiwan, but also in South Korea.

There, protesters have cited the recently announced free-trade deal with China as an example of President Park Geun-hye’s incessant, possibly corrupt, collusion with business, as well as her disregard for regular Koreans’ interests, especially those of farmers.

In Thailand, where the coup in May created a new, military-led, unconstitutional government which subsequently took steps to curb public debate, media freedom and citizen power, the new military leaders met with officials from China, one of the few countries not to denounce the blatantly anti-democratic steps taken by the Thai élite.

What does this all mean? Asia is the world’s most populous continent, and the vast geographic, cultural and economic differences between countries such as OECD-members South Korea and Japan, still-developing Indonesia and Thailand and occupied Tibet and East Turkestan, make comparisons challenging and co-ordination nearly impossible.

'The window of political opportunity, already narrow, is closing down' - Matteo Fumagalli

And therein lies the problem. Protests can take place in Hong Kong partly due to the city-state’s special status, which allows for an enlarged civic space that fellow ‘Chinese’ citizens in Tibet and East Turkestan, not to mention Beijing, can only dream of.

Remember, it was only 25 years ago that China had its own youth uprising, when students took to the streets across the country and, most famously, gathered in Tiananmen Square. But ask students at Occupy Central if they believe their movement will spread to the mainland and the answer is: ‘China will never allow it.’ On a recent trip to Chengdu, also a hotspot in 1989, I noticed police buses at all of the city’s main gathering spots, a recent phenomenon related both to Occupy and to the turmoil in East Turkestan.

‘Politics is local in China,’ says Fumagalli. ‘This, incidentally, plays to the advantage of the Chinese Communist Party, which can feel confidently in power as long as horizontal mobilization – many protests scattered across the country – do not morph into a vertical one, connecting the spots into one large movement against the party.’

This is because the movements have a strange relationship with each other. Taiwan fears it will become like Hong Kong, while Hong Kong fears it will become like occupied Tibet. But the movements in Hong Kong and Taiwan, and those facing repression in Tibet, are not co-ordinating against the common culprit, China, which is responsible for the tension in each particular region. Hong Kong cannot win unless China changes, which means it cannot win until Tibet is free.

As for the other social uprising movements in Southeast Asia? Few Occupy protesters knew what was happening in South Korea, Thailand, or Indonesia, so co-ordination seems out of the question.

In the end, this may be the movement’s downfall – the lack of international solidarity throughout the region. ‘I do not think that the outcome [of Occupy] will have a larger impact, mostly because I fear that the outcome is there already: China will not budge. The window of political opportunity, already narrow, is closing down,’ continues Fumagalli.

Nevertheless, this is only the start. Asia’s 2014 Spring was focused not on building revolutions to sweep aside old powers, but to bring concrete changes to a society and increase citizens’ ability to have a say in their society. Change rarely happens in a year, and a greater role of youth and technology could bridge the gaps between the movement’s goals and its current capacity.

‘Young people throughout Asia have access to new ideas through the internet and more readily share information on a global scale through social media,’ says Peter Manikas, senior associate and director of Asia programmes for the Washington DC-based New Democratic Institute.

‘Changing demographics, such as the “youth bulge”, will have a large impact on Asia and programmes that engage young people in the political process will be essential in the years ahead.’

An Asia that is more responsive to its citizens is undoubtedly good for the world, which will be watching closely to see if an enlarged, active, civic sphere emerges, or if Thai-style repression becomes the norm.

Whatever happens, the impact will be felt around the world. If this is Asia’s century, then watch the protests closely, because whether they succeed or fail will show what type of Asia will lead the world in the decades to come.


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