When Cracking Down on Protests Backfires

Responding to mass demonstrations with violence doesn’t always lead to the desired results.

Security personnel grab student protesters during a demonstration.
Security personnel detain students during a demonstration in New Delhi. (Sajjad Hussain / AFP via Getty Images)

The threat of arrest and violence by security forces hasn’t kept hundreds of thousands of Indian protesters from taking part in nationwide demonstrations against the country’s new citizenship law. Nor did it prevent as many as 1 million people from pouring into the streets of Hong Kong for a New Year’s demonstration.

The tension has come to epitomize global protest movements: Around the world, repressive and democratic governments alike rely on draconian measures to suppress anti-government demonstrations. As many of these movements rage on with no end in sight, it’s worth asking how effective such crackdowns actually are. If repressive measures and violence don’t work to quell protests, then why do governments resort to them?

A protest movement rarely ends with the fanfare or attention with which it began. Some subside once their stated grievances are addressed. Others fizzle out as a result of splintering or protest fatigue. Still others go on for weeks, months, and occasionally even years.

Some governments seek to undermine the longevity of protest movements by acquiescing to protesters’ demands, whereas others choose to quash them with brute force. The latter is the playbook that has been adopted in Hong Kong, where demonstrations narrowly focused on an extradition bill evolved into a pro-democracy movement that is entering its eighth month. Though the movement began largely peacefully, it has since resulted in the worst violence the city has seen in decades. As Hong Kong police began employing toughened crowd-control measures such as tear gas, rubber bullets, and mass arrests, protesters traded in their umbrellas and banners for face masks and Molotov cocktails. In all, at least 7,000 people have been arrested, and two people have died.

Paradoxically, the clampdown has contributed to the movement’s durability. When Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, attempted to inhibit the protests by invoking a colonial-era law to ban the use of face masks, it ended up mobilizing thousands. Far from scaring people away from the demonstrations, “more people joined them,” Man-Kei Tam, the director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, told me. “The crackdown has not been effective … It has just backfired.”

In India, nationwide protests against Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s new citizenship law, which targets Muslims, have similarly gone on unabated in the face of deadly force by authorities. There, too, the government’s response has had the unintended effect of propelling more people to join the protests—if not in opposition to the unpopular law itself, then to the government’s heavy-handedness.

This isn’t to say that government crackdowns never work, particularly in countries that are already ruled by repressive and authoritarian regimes, such as Iran, or ones with poor oversight of security forces, such as Iraq. But even in countries where governments have long relied on repression to stamp out political dissent, crackdowns against mass protests have proved flawed. During the Arab Spring of 2011, efforts to quell uprisings sometimes had the adverse effect of reinvigorating them, turning what started as a nonviolent demonstration of thousands of people into a violent protest involving millions.

The more recent global mass protests also demonstrate the limits these measures have in subduing movements in which people feel undeterred, or even emboldened, by government suppression. In India, the protests have transformed from ones against a particular law into a fight for the country’s national identity; in Hong Kong, into a debate over the city’s future, leaving many protesters feeling as though they have nothing left to lose.

These risks, paired with the international backlash that often follows violent crackdowns, suggest that governments have little to gain by suppressing mass demonstrations. At best, these moves quiet dissent for a short period, while increasing the likelihood of the protests returning in a more sustained form. At worst, they risk entrenching the protests even further, attracting more supporters and potentially transforming the demonstrations into something that neither the government nor its participants can control.

The more prevalent protests are, the more common this kind of persistence may become. “In a period when political parties seem to have lost their credibility or their mass appeal among citizens … people look for more direct forms of political engagement,” Richard Youngs, a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at Carnegie Europe, told me. “It’s the way that politics is happening today.”