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.

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.  

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