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[EXCLUSIVE] Hong Kong Democracy Protests — Democracy, Strategy and Tactics

The Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters had planned to have some kind of vote yesterday on how they would go forward.  But they didn’t.  From the South China Morning Post, Hong Kong’s leading English-language newspaper:

Occupy Central protesters and observers yesterday backed an 11th-hour decision to scrap a poll on the way forward for the month-old sit-in, saying the move made it easier to enter into more talks with the government.

Protest leaders announced the U-turn hours before the electronic ballot was to start at 7pm and apologised for not having sufficiently discussed with demonstrators the poll’s methodology and objectives. But shelving it did not mean they had shifted their stance or intended to end the occupation, Federation of Students secretary general Alex Chow Yong-kang said.

Some protesters had said the poll was redundant. A huge banner that called for delaying the poll was hung from an Admiralty footbridge yesterday morning.

Occupy co-founder Benny Tai Yiu-ting said: “The public may feel there are problems with the movement’s organisation and leadership, and we admit that … I promise that in the future, we will give sufficient notice to and discuss with protesters before making a major formal decision.”

For me, the lesson in this story is that “democracy” is not a self-executing political panacea. Democracy has a value — a high value — as ONE element of a fair and well-ordered society. But democracy can only serve its proper function as a check on the tyranny of the state when it operates within a system of well-defined and transparent laws and institutions. It is not surprising to me that the vote called by the protesters did not happen. There was no framework of law and institutional operation within which it could happen.

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Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters still occupy the ground in front of the main government offices — but what do they do now?

The smartest lawyers and statesmen in the rebel colonies worked for many months to draft the Constitution of the United States before it was finally implemented. Doing this created the framework of laws and institutions in which democracy operated as only one dynamic part of a system that was crafted after extremely careful deliberation by some of the wisest men who have ever considered these issues. The Framers of the US Constitution did their work after putting in place a temporary structure — the Articles of Confederation — to ensure a stable environment for long enough to work out the permanent “political operating system” for their country. They did not do their work in the heated stress and passion of an armed rebellion against the Crown. They first made an imperfect compromise in the Articles of Confederation to buy themselves the time they knew it would take to work out a truly well-ordered system. My advice to the protesters: study history.

“For me, the lesson in this story is that “democracy” is not a self-executing political panacea. Democracy has a value — a high value — as ONE element of a fair and well-ordered society.”

The problem, of course, is that there is no time for study.  The pro-democracy protesters have been improvising and responding to the largely pro-Beijing government’s actions from the beginning.  They are working from a base that is fueled by legitimate passion for liberty and fear of tyranny, but without a well-established leadership operating within a widely-recognized and accepted organizational structure.

“But democracy can only serve its proper function as a check on the tyranny of the state when it operates within a system of well-defined and transparent laws and institutions.”

In any conflict, all things being equal, the side with the more easily achieved strategic goal and the larger number of tactical options will prevail. For better or worse, in this situation, the side with both of these advantages is the pro-establishment side. For the pro-Beijing Hong Kong government, the strategic “victory condition” is maintaining the status quo, and they have a broad range of tactical options along the spectrum of patiently waiting out the protesters on one end to forcefully removing them on the other. I fear the pro-democracy side may not really realize this or, if they do, can think of no tactical response other than “keep doing what we’re doing.” Without regard to the merits of either side’s goals, this makes the pro-democracy side’s strategic and tactical position very weak. Unless they realize this and adjust their strategy and tactics accordingly, the outcome for them does not look good.

“In any conflict, all things being equal, the side with the more easily achieved strategic goal and the larger number of tactical options will prevail. For better or worse, in this situation, the side with both of these advantages is the pro-establishment side.”

This grim picture is playing itself out in a situation where the largest number of the anti-establishment protesters are high school and college students, without strong and experienced leadership that has been tested over time, and without any organizational infrastructure to support the building of strategic or tactical consensus.  Unless this situation changes, it looks increasingly unlikely that the pro-democracy movement will put itself into a situation where it can achieve a real “victory.”  If their only tool is a “passion for democracy,” they cannot prevail.

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Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement is fenced in by its own passions.

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