From Minsk to Hong Kong, people’s power no longer works

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From Minsk to Hong Kong, people’s power no longer works


TThe West’s ineffectiveness in the face of the blatant use of torture, illegal arrests, savage imprisonment without trial and blatant abuses of international law, even close to home in Europe, is one of the symptoms. the darkest of our time. The popular power that we saw embodied in the strikes at the Gdańsk shipyards, the fall of the Berlin Wall and even the Arab Spring did not presage the new era of democracy we once hoped for. Instead, the 21st century is defined as a new era of nimble autocracy and vicious strongman domination.

As Foreign Minister Dominic Raab prepared the UK’s response to the forced landing of a Ryanair plane last Sunday by a Belarusian MiG-29 over its airspace to ensure the fictitious detention of a well-known democracy activist, Roman Protasevich, it must have crossed his mind that Britain’s response would have been so much stronger within the EU. The UK is now a bit Sir Echo, weakening the West. This is part of the reason why Belarusian President Alexander Lukashenko can act with impunity, as he refuses to acknowledge his loss in the presidential election last August.

Protasevich had scorned fears that his enemy would resort to such actions, which could provoke an international outcry. They did, but the lack of hard-hitting collective action to back up the angry words is most striking. The EU managed to agree on an overflight ban largely in its own interest – who now wants to overfly Belarus? – which, if it lasts a year, will cost Belarus some $ 200 million in air fees; and offered up to € 3 billion in grants and loans in the unlikely event that Lukashenko relinquishes power. The United States will impose sanctions on nine state-owned companies. But what about Belarus’ valuable potash exports? In Lukashenko’s terms, the sanctions are easily canceled.

The EU is suspicious. He doesn’t want to push Lukashenko any further into Putin’s embrace; and when the autocrat threatens to flood the EU with immigrants and drugs in response, European governments fear. In any case, he is a wise reader of his options. It was one of the first signatories of the China Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), so Belarus is the third largest recipient of Chinese BRI money. In addition, the EU’s offer seems paltry: Chinese President Xi Jinping describes the vast Great Stone industrial park outside Minsk as the “jewel” of the BRI. Lukashenko will note that Germany relies on China for its markets and Russia for its gas: Angela Merkel’s response to her piracy will be cautious, knowing that both are allies of Belarus. It can set new precedents for politicizing and violating airspace, and get away with it.

Lukashenko is not alone. China’s repeal of its Hong Kong treaty promises and the attack on basic citizens’ rights are not seriously contested: protests, such as those in Belarus, are effectively suppressed, with leaders summarily arrested regardless of who they are. their precautions. Likewise, any demonstration in Myanmar against the coup d’état of the military junta and the house arrest of Aung San Suu Kyi. Popular power has ceased to function.

Why? First, the surveillance techniques, developed and refined in China, have achieved new efficiency. Lukashenko does not nonchalantly boast that other activists in exile will soon be arrested. “We know you by sight,” he said last week. Its brutal security services, which already have 400 political prisoners to their credit, will use cutting-edge Chinese digital technology to identify and track suspects.

Second, there is the fact of Chinese power and money, and its rebuttal of the proposition that economic success lies in the necessary partnership between a functioning democracy and honest capitalism. All over the world, rulers of one-party states believe they can emulate Chinese “Leninist capitalism,” ordering their banking systems to provide unlimited credit and control their populations. Worse, too many Western companies and governments are getting along; they want export orders, especially from China.

Third, the West in general, and the United States in particular, is weary of war. The cost in lost lives and disfigured bodies in the illegitimate and failed interventions in Afghanistan and Iraq has been too high. Democracies with volunteer armies cannot send young men and women to war, ignoring international law but responding to focus groups, without eventually triggering backfire – thus endangering the will to fight when ‘there is a real need. There is no appetite in lifting a finger to oppose the new despots.

And, most sinister of all, growing sections of the Western political right no longer believe in the practice of genuine democracy – and a large number of Western electorates tacitly agree. Democracy is a system that functions as a whole, encompassing elections and all the freedoms that support it. These are not just basic human rights; they are the foundations of good governance and of civilization itself. They frame a capitalism that does not degrade into cronyism and sclerotic monopoly.

But in 2021, neither a majority of the American Republican Party nor in the current British cabinet – nor the governments of Poland and Hungary and much of right-wing opinion in the EU – believe in this practice or culture. To hold political power, however it is acquired, is too attractive. Watch the British Conservative Party deprive up to 2 million people of the vote by cynically demanding ID cards at polling stations to prevent non-existent voter fraud – or the massive attempt by American Republicans to do the same. There is little political sanction.

But don’t think Roman Protasevich, raped by sadistic guards, sleep-deprived Russian political prisoner Alexei Navalny, or Hong Kong protesters languishing in jail are someone else’s problem. The values ​​from which they suffer are indivisible and universal. President Joe Biden promises a summit of democracies. He is right. We must fight for our values ​​abroad – but, just as important, we must live them at home. It could be your suddenly downed vacation plane or your child being held indefinitely without trial after a protest march. Pay attention. Democracy is precious; the assault on it anywhere is our concern. It’s time to wake up.

Will Hutton is an Observer columnist

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