Street demonstrations have flared up in cities around the world.
Lee Duffield writes that these have hallmarks of being one world movement with its causes in failing economic resources, exploitation, corruption and crime — and attacks on democratic rights.
THIS LAST WEEK, it has been mostly Chile and Hong Kong.
In Hong Kong, the police administration sent out a media spokesman to say law and order were “close to total breakdown”. That was after two days of intensified clashes with demonstrators inflamed by the first deaths on their side, one man who fell from a building, one shot at point-blank range. A police officer was set on fire and 30 people were injured in the latest stand-offs. Now-routine news coverage shows Hong Kong as a battlefield.
In Chile, workers across most of the country’s industries – miners, petroleum and building workers, public transport employees, wharfies, public servants, teachers, airport staff, agricultural workers – went on strike to support crowds confronting the government in cities up and down the long coastline.
MOVEMENT ACROSS THE WORLD
This movement across the world started bit-by-bit in some countries late August then flared up like an inferno right through October, continuing now. Several cities all at once began going through the same scenes: barricades, beatings, fires, tear gas, rubber bullets and live fire, charges against police lines, stone-throwing, cops with shields, their opponents in riot gear of their own, general paralysis blocking transport and work.
Even the beleaguered Hong Kong stock exchange, with mayhem just outside the door, started seeing falls — 2% in a day. There are so many demonstrators they cannot be ignored and while they keep coming, cannot yet be suppressed without lethal force.
Economic impacts are coming through. The eruptions have started to dampen the exploding global tourist trade: hundreds of thousands are occupying famous landmark squares and boulevards in all parts. The disturbances caused the cancellation of major international gatherings in Santiago de Chile: the APEC trade summit scheduled for this month and a United Nations meeting on climate change.
News media have been catching the events and looking for a sign of why — picking it up directly enough as it is there on the street in each place. This is a transparent world outbreak, mobilising millions, nothing hidden on the demonstrators’ side, authorities not managing to block it — hard in 2019 when everybody is transmitting pictures. The movements are being treated one-by-one in the news, as news is geared to follow events, place by place.
But the same things are happening and reasons are looking the same, in Hong Kong and Chile and other places across a panorama:
- Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru and Venezuela were Tuesday’s news – 12 November – and saw the exit of another head of state: ‘Bolivia faced its worst unrest in decades amid a political vacuum Tuesday… Evo Morales, who transformed the Andean nation as its first indigenous president, fled the country following weeks of violent protests... as his supporters and foes fought on the streets of the capital,’ said this despatch from Time.
- Iran, getting economic stress from American sanctions, saw the first eruptions, suppressed like recurrent protests before them by the Islamist regime.
- Iraq, the oil-rich State impoverished and smashed by war, has seen the most violent clashes, in Baghdad and at Basra in the South. Estimates of the dead run to more than 300.
- Lebanon, taking on the burden of waves of refugees from Syria, now has an uprising against domination by corrupt political organisations in the government. Those include the armed Shiite Islamist movement, depleted in respect and strength by its participation in government and the war in Syria.
- The Netherlands.
- Pakistan, where the government is confronted by two main opposition parties together, the staggering economy and aggressive actions by India, pushing to get a permanent hold on the disputed territory of Kashmir.
- Spain returned the governing Socialists at elections last Sunday (10 November), but they lack a majority and have to struggle with the drive-by Catalonia to secede as an independent country. In yet another check on “business as usual” conservative economic management, they have been forced into a minority coalition with the anti-establishment, anti-austerity party Unidas Podemos.
- An article posted by the ABC’s Zena Chamas provides a good summary, linking most of these cases. It includes protests by the Extinction Rebellion over climate change, started in England, rolling around the globe, led by teenagers and even children, with all kinds now joining in.
All of the locations have separate and different kinds of battles. Some of the governments under fire are conservative, some Left of centre. Some in the street movement are organised radicals, like the Leftist and also extreme Right activists who got into the French “yellow vests” protest movement and hardened up the actions against police.
By contrast, very many of those taking part are making their first entry into politics; things have become bad enough that they feel they have to do it. Many of the rebellions were set off by impositions felt hardest by plain folks, like increases in urban train fares — the metros where “real people” go have become the battleground.
EMOTION, DETERMINATION, DEATH
Here's what the movements in all the cities have in common:
First is the emotion. Participants everywhere are showing they are angry, indignant, disgusted, stressed, distressed, sometimes despairing but not giving up. They are persistent, keeping it going now, in strength, over months.
They are very determined and mean to get what they want. What they want is hard to gauge but it will be a very big order. The demonstrations are run as peaceful but not just symbolic protests. They make it plain that it must not come down to getting cleaned up by the police and silenced.
They are prepared to get rough, they dig in, keep coming back, and push back. The language of high school debates – that you should argue nicely – will not work. It has been tried by the government in Hong Kong, with its daily appeals for calm. In Chile, the conservative President Sebastián Piñera began by calling the demonstrators “evil delinquents” then backed off, became conciliatory and began trying concessions — getting knocked back on those.
PROTESTS, A REVOLUTION – OR “CHALLENGE”?
It has gone beyond calling this international rash of outbreaks a protest movement. It has not gone so far as revolution, as there is no armed insurrection and no standing organisation, it is still people just joining together in the street where mobilisation is in its early stages. The big crowds cannot themselves displace governments overnight. A right word might be that it is a hostile challenge — to the authority, legitimacy and power of anybody in charge.
Concessions, cabinet shake-ups, even the resignation of heads of government, as in Bolivia and Lebanon, do not satisfy these crowds. The Hong Kong campaigners began by demanding an end to plans to send persons accused of a crime to the Chinese mainland. That was suspended, considered not enough and they have moved to their five demands, including resignation of the Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
They really want an end to Chinese government interventions in Hong Kong and to be governed into the future on democratic lines. All of the movements want a better life that means not getting exploited economically, having political and social freedoms, taking part in open democratic government.
The seriousness of it all is being underlined by death. In Chile, they have a strong folk memory of the criminal use of state power — so no illusions. The barbaric military coup of 1973 was followed up with thousands murdered and handing over of the economy to an American-based experiment in ungoverned “free enterprise”, called the “Chicago boys” prescription in honour of the neoliberal putsch coming from that city. It meant wholesale privatisations, tax holidays for business corporations, more costs and impoverishment for ordinary citizens — all leading to this bad situation in 2019.
This year’s death toll in Chile is 18 with 1,100 injured, 38 of those shot. The threat to the Hong Kong demonstrators that the Communist Party in Beijing will order another Tiananmen Square massacre is obvious to all. They are prepared to face it in what has become a desperate campaign for democratic rights.
CAUSES OF OUTBREAKS
What are the causes?
Explanations being put forward for the explosion of 2019 include:
- huge economic inequality;
- far too many going into poverty;
- a very small, very rich minority getting richer;
- no jobs, especially for the young;
- no money, with a great and real worry about going hungry; and
- very poor government services, especially meagre education and negligent health care — the costs of “small government”.
Fear of climate change is banging on the door in many parts, where rivers are threatening to go dry, or drought driving extra numbers into overcrowded cities. The cities themselves can be contributors, getting less liveable. Ten of the 14 capitals listed here have over five million inhabitants, headed by Jakarta with 9.6 million, Cairo with 9.5 million, Lima with 9 million and Teheran with 8.7 million.
The demonstrators time and again blame the “system”, a potent charge as it supports removing the entire State structure and starting again — no compromising, no concessions. Talk against the “system” in Eastern Europe 30 years ago saw the crowds demanding total removal of the communist government there. Much of the focus was on removing the nomenklatura, the elite class of party loyalists fixated on getting themselves luxury goods from the West, out of touch with the deprived majority at home.
The “system” in 2019 is the more complex “free enterprise” model with economic freedom well on its way to conversion into a criminal free-for-all. General aversion to business regulation or tax matches up with grand-scale official corruption. Abused and disillusioned citizens go out on to the street to show they will stop it if they can, with no expectations that things will change or can be settled through concessions and “moderate reforms”.
Media editor Dr Lee Duffield is a former ABC foreign correspondent, political journalist and academic.
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