Last week at the United Nations, after condemning Russia’s aggression in Ukraine and ISIS’s barbarism in the Middle East, Barack Obama acknowledged what, for non-Americans, is usually the elephant in the room: the morality of American behavior itself. “I realize that America’s critics will be quick to point out that at times we too have failed to live up to our ideals,” he noted. But while admitting that the United States cannot offer the world a model of democracy and human rights, Obama argued that it can offer a model of how a flawed society struggles to better itself. “What you see in America,” he said, “is a country that has steadily worked to address our problems, to make our union more perfect. … [W]e fight for our ideals, and we are willing to criticize ourselves when we fall short.”
By deploying the pronoun “we,” Obama slyly conflated state and society. He deflected criticisms of America’s government by spotlighting the struggles of America’s people. In so doing, he implicitly acknowledged something important: America’s greatest contributions to democracy abroad often stem not from Washington but from the Americans who mobilize against it.
Look at Hong Kong, where a group called Occupy Central with Peace and Love is playing a key role in a broader movement for free elections. If the name sounds familiar, it should. It’s a variation of the phrase made famous when protesters began congregating in New York’s Zuccotti Park roughly three years ago. In Washington, Hong Kong’s Occupy movement is widely admired for its challenge to China’s undemocratic rule. But in taking the name “Occupy,” Hong Kong’s protesters are paying homage to a movement that challenged the lack of democracy in Washington itself.
The relationship between the two Occupies dates to 2011. “Central” is the name of Hong Kong’s main business district. And the term “Occupy Central”—which has gained international renown over the last week—was coined a few years ago when Occupy Wall Street was gaining steam. In October 2011, soon after protesters began sleeping in Zuccotti Park, several hundred Hong Kongers created their own encampment outside the headquarters of HSBC, the world’s second-largest bank. Calling their movement, “Occupy Central,” they remained encamped there until September 2012, thus comprising one of the longest-running Occupy protests in the world.
A few months later, in January 2013, a law professor named Benny Tai proposed that protesters descend upon Central again, in the movement that became Occupy Central with Peace and Love (OCPL). At first glance, this new effort has little in common with the movement that started in lower Manhattan. OCPL is demanding electoral democracy: the people’s right to choose the candidates who will run for chief executive of Hong Kong. Occupy Wall Street, by contrast, was born from frustration that America’s electoral democracy was a sham because the country’s radically unequal economic system concentrated power in the hands of financial and corporate elites.
But it’s worth remembering that Occupy Wall Street never formulated specific demands. Its message was broader: that unaccountable elites—“the 1 percent”—had created a political and economic system that denied ordinary people a voice in their government and a chance at a better life. It was the breadth of this message that helped Occupy spread rapidly across the globe, as local activists adapted it to their particular circumstances.
And that’s exactly what Hong Kong’s new Occupy movement is doing today. Tai and his allies are not merely protesting a rigged electoral system. They are protesting the way China’s government and Hong Kong’s economic elite work together to empower themselves at the expense of the region’s people. Earlier this year, when The Economist unveiled its “crony-capitalism” index—“the countries where politically connected businessmen are most likely to prosper”—it ranked Hong Kong number one. The territory also boasts one of the world’s highest Gini coefficients, making it among the most economically unequal places on earth. As Jeffrey Wasserstrom of the University of California at Irvine and Denise Ho of the Chinese University of Hong Kong recently observed in The Nation, “The grievances of Occupy Central have much in common with those of Occupy movements worldwide: Hong Kong is a vastly unequal society, and government policies are seen as favoring real estate development over affordable housing, shopping complexes over little remaining farmland, and low taxation over more equitable redistribution.”
It’s no surprise, therefore, that the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, the Federation of Hong Kong Industries, the Chinese Manufacturers’ Association of Hong Kong, and the Real Estate Developers Association of Hong Kong have all denounced Occupy Central with Peace and Love. The protesters in Central may be focusing on electoral reform while the protesters in Zuccotti Park were focusing on financial power, but in both places, they were protesting the link between a lack of true political participation and economic unfairness.
We’ve seen this kind of global ricochet effect before. In 1968, demonstrations broke out in the United States, in Western Europe, and in Warsaw and Prague. America’s cold warriors—who admired the Eastern European students protesting Soviet domination but scorned the American students protesting the Vietnam War—denied any connection between the two. To do so would have sullied the moral divide between the free West and the unfree East. But as Jeremi Suri and others have documented, students on both sides of the Iron Curtain saw themselves as protesting the way their governments used the Cold War to impose authoritarian, militaristic policies that offended their values and blighted their lives. While advancing different agendas, they shared a common spirit.
The lesson of 1968, and of Hong Kong, is that the best way for Americans to promote democracy abroad is to struggle for it at home. Yes, the United States government can use its power against tyrannical adversaries. It can impose sanctions against Moscow, condemn Beijing, and bomb ISIS. But even the non-Americans who support such actions recognize them as tainted by the self-interest of a superpower that often supports tyranny itself. When America actually inspires non-Americans struggling for democracy, it’s less because of the actions of our government than the actions of those Americans willing to challenge it. The “most useful place to look for the inspirations that drive Arab democracy activists these days is not the speeches of George W. Bush but rather the protest movements among American civil rights activists in the period 1956-1964,” wrote the Lebanese journalist Rami Khouri several years ago. By choosing the name Occupy, the people risking their lives in Hong Kong are saying something similar about a new generation of American activists today.