Why the sudden challenge to autocracies?

Pro-democracy protests from Hong Kong to Moscow may indicate a reversal in the decline of liberties and rights.

Reuters
People paste post-it notes on a demonstrator as part of the "Lennon Wall" movement during a protestat Hong Kong airport, China July 26.

Since 2006, or just after the United States stumbled in forcing a democracy in Iraq, the world has witnessed a decline in political rights and civil liberties. Democracies like Turkey and Hungary have faltered under nationalist populism. Russia and China have championed authoritarian rule. The U.S. largely withdrew as liberty’s global protector. It was as if democracy’s ascent in the 20th century were in tailspin.

Yet 13 years on, this troubling trend could be in reverse. From Algeria to Slovakia, young people have taken to the streets over the past year or so to push for a range of democratic ideals, from free elections to corruption-free governance to equality before the law. Ukraine and Ethiopia, both key players in their regions, have seen a rebirth of democracy under new leaders.

The most unexpected protests have been in Russia and in China’s semiautonomous territory of Hong Kong. In particular, the protests in those two giants of autocracy indicate there is a limit to how much people will tolerate a loss of basic freedoms and the right to self-governance. They also show a strong memory of what happened 30 years ago when Beijing brutally ended pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square and the popular uprisings in Eastern Europe led to the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet empire.

Since 1989, the universal ideals of democracy have become even more universal despite setbacks in many countries. Certainly the internet and social media have helped, along with higher incomes, better education, and more freedoms for women.

Perhaps the best symbol of this aspect of globalization today are the thousands of paper notes being left on a remnant of Germany’s Berlin Wall in support of the Hong Kong protests. In Hong Kong itself, people have set up “Lennon Walls” to rally people against a deeply unpopular bill that would allow extradition of almost anyone to China.

Another aspect of the recent protests is the prominence of women on the front lines. In Sudan, where a rebirth of democracy may be underway, women led protesters in chants against a dictatorship. In Moscow and Hong Kong, women injured by police are now held up as martyrs. In Iran, women’s defiance of wearing headscarves in public is now a symbol of resistance. And after large protests in Slovakia, a woman who fought corruption, Zuzana Caputova, was elected as president.

China may yet crush the Hong Kong protests, while in Russia, President Vladimir Putin wields a strong stick against the mostly urban protesters. But at least the signal has been sent that democracy’s decline is not inevitable. Once a foundation for freedom has been laid around the world, it is hard to break. Protesters will find a way to stand on it.  

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.