No good way out.

Hong Kong's Revolt Will Probably End Like Moscow's

Leonid Bershidsky is a Bloomberg View columnist. He was the founding editor of the Russian business daily Vedomosti and founded the opinion website Slon.ru.
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It's hard not to notice the similarities between Hong Kong's "umbrella revolution" and the recent rebellions in Kiev and Moscow. The crucial question is whether the Chinese protesters will topple their leadership like the Ukrainians did, or gradually crumble under government pressure like the Russians. I would bet on the latter outcome.

Like Russian President Vladimir Putin, supporters of Chinese leader Xi Jinping see signs of a U.S. conspiracy in the familiar attributes of the Hong Kong protests: The use of ribbons, the "mobile democracy classroom" in Causeway Bay, the self-organization, the voluntary cleanups, the rallying cries on social networks, the idealism and young faces of the pro-democracy protesters all echo the demonstrations in Moscow and Kiev.

Pro-Beijing newspaper Wen Wei Po recently accused Hong Kong student leader Joshua Wong of being on the U.S. government's payroll. Russian state television has portrayed the Hong Kong protests as U.S. attempts to destabilize China. Yury Tavrovsky, a pro-Kremlin sinologist, urged the Chinese authorities to "squeeze out the boil:" "I don't think it will be possible to somehow persuade the protesters, because the Americans are behind them, I'm sure of that."

The problem with the U.S. conspiracy theory is that it's impossible to buy if, like me, you experienced the Moscow and Kiev demonstrations first hand. The leaders were weak and non-essential. The protests would have gone on without them. If not through the leaders, how could any puppeteer exert influence? People took to the streets because they felt cheated, and in every case the deception was real. In Moscow, Putin's party blatantly stole a parliamentary election. In Kiev, the president reneged on his promise to sign a trade pact that would have put Ukraine on a path toward European integration. In Hong Kong, a plan to vet candidates for the city's chief executive nullified Beijing's promise of universal suffrage.

The U.S. neither perpetrated the deceptions nor opened people's eyes to them. People aren't as dumb as authoritarian leaders think. The creation of symbols, organization against common ills and the desire to keep protest camps clean are instinctive and universal. They require no more conspiracy or outside influence than a swarm of bees does to organize a new hive.

The government reactions have been no less instinctive, following what political scientist Christian Davenport has called the "Law of Coercive Responsiveness." Only the degree of repression has varied.

In Moscow in 2011 and 2012, the authorities tread carefully, detaining and quickly releasing only the most visible activists. The peaceful, mostly middle-class demonstrators freely posted their "revolutionary" photos on Facebook (I did, too). When a rally on May 6, 2012 turned a bit violent, Putin's repressive machine sprang into action, accusing 28 people of resisting police and sentencing them to considerable prison terms (most have since been amnestied). Putin did nothing that could have radicalized the protesters. He waited until the demonstrations turned repetitive and most people stopped coming, then gradually tightened the screws, creating today's smothering regime in a matter of months.

In Kiev, President Viktor Yanukovych started down the same path, but the cruel beating of several hundred students by riot police re-energized the protests and led to an escalation of violence. Two months after the rallies started, angry men on the barricades were wielding shovel handles and Molotov cocktails, not umbrellas.

In Hong Kong, the authorities used tear gas last weekend. Like the beating in Kiev, the move has provoked and re-energized the protesters, who are now threatening to occupy government buildings -- just as the Ukrainians did, with bloody consequences.

Hong Kong chief executive Leung Chun-ying and his bosses in Beijing can still play the Putin game and refrain from the use of force. Chances are that the protesters will disperse. Like the Muscovites, the demonstrators are a well-educated, middle-class group who have little support in the rest of the country and lack the desperation to risk their lives.

Alternatively, the authorities can unleash more tear gas or bring in the Chinese military. That could lead to a violent, Kiev-style scenario, but the ending would be different. Unlike Yanukovych, now hiding in Russia, the Chinese leadership has the resources to put down the Hong Kong protests even if the city's entire 7 million population joins them.

This leaves the protesters with an unpleasant choice: Either go home and watch Beijing tighten control just like Putin did in 2012, or fight like Ukrainians and lose a bloody battle. Something tells me they will choose the first, safer option.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Leonid Bershidsky at lbershidsky@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Mark Whitehouse at mwhitehouse1@bloomberg.net