Over the past few weeks I was introduced to literature on the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. I remember when Britain transferred control of Hong Kong to China when I was in High School. Many predicted the collapse of their economic success under a repressive Communist government while others expected China to avoid any major change under their One China, Two Systems philosophy. Over the past twenty years, Hong Kong has disappeared into the vast enormity that is China. It seems China never intended to interfere directly in Hong Kong’s economic system although the Communist Party has found ways to establish its influence. Yet looking back it is difficult not to hold the British to account for its neglect to fully democratize Hong Kong. This transformation was never safe in the hands of China. Yet British neglect allowed for economic dynamism without full political participation.
The Umbrella Movement emerged out of the Occupy Central Movement. This was a campaign to use Civil Disobedience to bring about democratization in Hong Kong. Universal suffrage was long promised to the citizens of Hong Kong. While the Basic Law allowed for universal suffrage in 2008, the Chinese Communist Party postponed its arrival but promised its fulfillment in 2017. In 2014, China allowed for a means of universal suffrage that sets limits on the influence of popular elections. Again, it is beyond ridiculous that Hong Kong depends on negotiations with China to achieve full democratization. The British should have made this a reality before China had any influence on the city’s political system.
Civil disobedience has become a tool for democratization in Hong Kong. But this establishes an awkward contradiction. Democracy allows for greater political participation under the rule of law. The supremacy of the law is necessary for democratization. Any institutions who claim greater authority than the law leads to a disproportionate political control antithetical to the ideals of democracy. But civil disobedience requires both respect for the law and a will to challenge it. This is a dangerous combination. The law is derived from the institution of the state. Its strength does not depend on its ability to enforce the law but on the behavior of its citizens to follow without coercion. Civil Disobedience challenges the legitimacy of the law. It disrupts the fundamental political institution of democratization.
Martin Luther King is known for his use of Civil Disobedience to bring about political and civil rights for African Americans with the end of Jim Crowe legislation. As an American, I have internalized the story, yet my knowledge of African American history is poor. Ta Nehisi Coates has challenged the King narrative as palatable for White America. There is some truth there. Indeed, Michael Eric Dyson has quoted King’s speeches made to purely African American audiences and found they are not so accommodating to White America. It amazes me there was so little racial rebellion from African Americans throughout American History. Despite De Tocqueville’s claim to Democracy in America, the African American was alienated from this experience even in New England.
It is a false dichotomy to choose between the ideas of Malcom X and Martin Luther King. They reflect different aspects of a historical experience. But King is elevated not simply because his strategy of non-violence was acceptable to a White America. His approach reflected a nuanced view of political philosophy. While the United States was a liberal democracy in name, it failed to incorporate the perspectives and views of African Americans. The law was undermined by institutional racism reflected in Jim Crowe policies of segregation. The rule of law is founded on the equality of all persons under the law. King’s Civil Disobedience rejected a law based on racism rather than human equality. The wider recognition of this reality brought about a fundamental change in the American experience.
The Umbrella Movement incorporates civil disobedience into demands for democratization. Civil Disobedience is a dangerous gambit because it erodes respect for the law. Its justification depends on an absence of opportunity to participate within the political process. It is not enough to have a vote. Nor is it enough to have representation. It is necessary to have one’s views and opinions considered within the political system. Civil Disobedience challenges the political system. It draws attention to the corruption of the law to the power of other institutions. Yet it may also alienate its participants from legal methods of political participation. Not because the system abandons them but because they have abandoned the political system.
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