2014 in Review: Protest as Power

by Jeffrey Ding, undergraduate at the University of Iowa

Forget what Time magazine tells you– 2014 was the year of the protest: from the 2014 Ukrainian Revolution (which resulted in the impeachment of President Yanukovych… which resulted in Russia’s invasion of the Crimean Peninsula… which resulted in the imposition of some of the hardest-hitting economic sanctions in recent history against Moscow… which has partially resulted in, or is at least contributing to, the increasing likelihood of the collapse of Russia’s economy); to the protests in Ferguson, which have caused an entire nation to become both conscious and conscientious of racial disparities in its law and order; to the impending consequences of the civilian outcry following the massacre of 43 trainee teachers in Mexico; to the four corners of the world and beyond, the international community has sought, throughout 2014, to remind itself what makes the status quo legit… and to repair the latter when answers aren’t forthcoming—

Yet perhaps the most significant protest, and certainly the one against the most powerful foe, was the Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong, which faced off against what might be the most powerful political entity in the world – the Communist Party of China. As an intern at Hong Kong’s Legislative Council this past summer, I had a front-row view of the struggle for genuine democracy in the Special Administrative Region. So I may be biased, but I think the Hong Kong protests offer a more comprehensive referendum on the power of a protest both this year and years to come. The protests in Ukraine were bolstered strongly by the Western media and international support; the protests in Ferguson were fueled by #activism in social media and outrage at injustice. The protests in Hong Kong incorporated all these factors but strongly leaned on a unique element – economic leverage.

As I wrote about in my last post , the concentration of wealth in a few corporate elites will begin to exert increasingly more political influence. Back in the day, boycotts against bus companies worked; nowadays, how do you boycott a bank? You can’t hide your money under the mattress, without the help of a bank to buy the house to put the bed in.

This past July, I marched with over 500,000 protestors for the cause of universal suffrage. Earlier that summer over 780,000 Hong Kong residents cast their votes in a poll organized by Occupy Central with Love and Peace, an advocacy group which threatened civil disobedience to pressure the Chinese government to allow electoral reform, which satisfies international standards. The vast majority showed their support for civic nomination, a public option in nominating candidates for Chief Executive that was intended to preventing Beijing from vetting the candidate choices, to be included in the electoral reform.

But the even more important numbers were the threatened economic costs. Some notes from my research on the economic impact of Occupy Central, the official name for the civil disobedience action in the central financial district of the city:

  • Barclays said unexpected shocks like Occupy Central could cause a property market slump that would take Hong Kong longer to recover than after the 2003 and 2008 crashes
  • The Big 4 accounting firms jointly issued an advertisement warning that multinational companies and investors could move their regional headquarters away from Hong Kong
  • HSBC released an equity investment strategy which downgraded Hong Kong to “underweight” status citing the risks posed by Occupy Central
  • Professor Lui Ting-ming, a well-known economics academic at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, estimated the illegal campaign may inflict HK$1.6 billion a day in financial losses on Hong Kong; while Legislative Councillor Cheung Wah-fung, who represents the financial services sector, has put the estimated worth of missed stock transactions on the local bourse at HK$10 billion an hour, if “Occupy Central” is to be followed through.

After the movement concluded on December 11, following two and a half months of occupied streets, the economic consequences were surely exaggerated and may have been the reason Beijing swayed at all from the initial stance on electoral reform, despite Hong Kong’s role as an important international gateway. The declines in 4th quarter growth and retail sales that occurred will likely be tempered by the bounceback effect from a major typhoon in Hong Kong – overall economic output is made up after lost time. Marketwatch even argued that Occupy Central is just background noise and the property market is the crucial aspect of the economy as Hong Kong has one of the highest housing prices in the world. Not coincidentally, it also has one of the highest levels of income inequality in the world as well.

There were limited successes to be celebrated for sure – including spillover to Taiwan elections and dramatically increased international awareness and sympathy – as outlined in this post on the China Elections Blog.  But the stated goal was not achieved before the protests concluded. The unique aspect of economic leverage ultimately didn’t carry enough weight.

So what can we learn from this year of protests? Well, the first thing, is that protests are not new. Remember, Time declared 2011 to be the Year of the Protestor.  But there were improvements in 2014. Social media combined with recorded footage resulted in broad coalitions with a cause. As power concentrates, protest adapts by becoming more diffuse. We learned an even more prominent tool in the future will be to leverage capital against its brokers. And I think we learned an ally for the future. Anonymous played a significant role and hackers somewhat stopped a major movie release which would have made millions of dollars. And I can’t help but imagine a future protest alliance of hackers and protestors, of boots on the ground and reboots of the code (I don’t even know if that’s a thing).

Let 2011 keep its status as Year of the Protestor. 2014 was the beginning of a new way of protesting. Let’s see what 2015 brings.