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.”
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