Gary Kasparov, once best known for his skills on the chess board, is now an outspoken activist in support of democratic principles and against the regime of Vladimir Putin. (As you might imagine, he’s not terribly popular with the government back home.) This week he’s published an editorial for the Washington Post in which he takes a look at the emerging protests in Hong Kong. He notes some key differences between this revolt and the short lived movement in the same direction which took place in Russia previously.
While still far from a sure thing, Kasparov feels that the social conditions in Hong Kong have created a more fertile ground for an emerging democracy. He notes that the young people in the region, while not old enough to remember the transition of control in 1997, have essentially lived lives where they enjoyed rights and privileges which their counterparts in and around Beijing have never known. They actually have something to lose, and it’s a sense of freedom which they hold dear. The Russian people, on the other hand, knew only a brief flicker of hope before Putin came down on them like a hammer, and the results of their efforts did not create any pleasant memories.
But perhaps even more importantly, Kasparov notes a key difference between Putin and the party leaders in China. The Chinese actually need their citizens, whereas Putin can afford to discard them at will.
But there is something deeper at work. In truth, the Communist dictatorship in China needs its people—especially its young, educated, and global-minded ones—in a way Putin doesn’t. Hong Kong is still a large and strategically critical piece of a Chinese economy that depends on consumers in the free world, consumers who have far more information about the protests than nearly anyone in heavily censored China. A Tiananmen massacre in Hong Kong, transmitted around the world on millions of Chinese-made iPhones, could turn “Made in China” into a bloody mark.
Putin, on the other hand, has no use for the people of Russia, especially its young and educated. He and his junta are turning the country into a petro-state, and exporting natural resources to an insatiable global market doesn’t require entrepreneurs or programmers, let alone writers and professors. It’s also harder for disgusted consumer-countries to boycott oil and gas. That would require coordinated political will, a substance Putin knows is far rarer in the free world than the platinum and diamonds in the Ural Mountains.
This is a brutal assessment, but it has the ring of truth to it. China has immersed itself in the global economy for generations and continues to try to expand its overseas markets in every manufacturing and service sector. While still a comparatively closed society, Chinese leaders know the eyes of the world (and the world’s consumers) are on them. This may not do anything to curb their tendency to pollute at record setting levels, but they do have public relations concerns. And internally, they need a generation of workers who are educated, driven, and willing to pour their efforts into the nation’s future prosperity. A society of slaves doesn’t fill that bill, so they may indeed remain cautious about coming down too hard on the protesters.
Russia, on the other hand, does indeed seem to be in the hands of a group of thugs who have managed to defeat the police and take over the warehouse. Rather than wishing to build anything lasting and substantial, they are exploiting their available resources and selling them off as fast as possible. What the people may think or be willing to contribute is of little concern as long as the checks keep rolling in.
Between the two, Kasparov paints a picture of Russia where the idea of fundamental freedoms is dead for the foreseeable future. But in Hong Kong, who knows? Maybe they have a road forward after all.