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.