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Nithin Coca
The Future of Asia's Protest Movements
15 May 2015

Last year saw protests in many countries in the world's economic powerhouse, Asia, and 2015 portends more of the same. What does the future hold for these youth-led movements?


Yellow umbrellas, sunflowers, yellow shirts, red shirts, and ribbons. These were the symbols of Asia in 2014, as seen from the most basic level – the city street. At many times in 2014, the modern economic hubs of Seoul, Taipei, Bangkok, and, most notably, Hong Kong, saw their urban landscapes taken over by unprecedented, historic protests.


At first glance, pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong, the hunger strikes by the families affected by the Sewol Ferry disaster in South Korea, or the red and yellow shirt protests in Thailand may have seemed focused on specific concerns relevant only to people in those societies. But take a step back and the movements are, actually, quite similar. To be sure, the focus of Hong Kong's youth leaders was on the push for the city-state to gain its long-promised democracy, but the fuel of the discontent was high living costs, limited affordable housing, and rising income inequality – the same challenges facing South Korea and Thailand.


In Seoul, at first glance, it seemed that last year's sit-in protestors in the city center wanted justice for the hundreds of victims of Sewol. But what they were calling for – an investigation into what they see as deeply ingrained corruption and collusion connecting the ferry company, the police, and politicians, perhaps even the president – had implications far broader than a simple criminal case.


“One of the main causes of social malaise in Korea is the widening polarization in society between the haves and the have-nots,” said Youngmi Kim, an Associate Professor and Korean expert at Central European University.


Thailand, too, saw similar slogans about corruption and inequality at both red-shirt and yellow-shirt rallies. And the most dramatic, though lightly covered, protests took place last March in Taiwan, where youth stormed past police barricades and occupied the Taiwanese parliament, in opposition to a trade deal with China that they believe will erode the island-state's independent political identity.


This is, actually, not unprecedented, but we have to go back to another era, the 1980's, to find something similar. Then, mass protests in South Korea, Taiwan, and the Philippines led to the overthrow of dictatorships in each of these countries. The cautionary tale was in China, where massive student protests in 1989 led to the horrific massacre at Tiananmen Square, one of the darkest moments in modern Chinese history, and the imposition of martial law.


The situation today is quite different from the 1980's, with the region far richer and more connected than before. Nevertheless, Asia faces a large “Democracy Gap,” compared to the rest of the world. Economic growth has not brought more representative governments to the region in the decades since the 1980's. And it is not only political institutions that have lagged. Corruption remains high, and media freedom is dropping, as Reporters without Borders, a France-based NGO, noted in its 2013 and 2014 World Press Freedom Indexes. Now, only Taiwan is ranked as having a “satisfactory” media environment, and countries such as Japan, Thailand, Hong Kong, and South Korea have seen their rankings drop, some dramatically.


Moreover, economic power is becoming more concentrated in the rich classes. The GINI coefficient, which roughly measures inequality, has risen substantially in the past decade in Hong Kong, China, and Thailand. A higher coefficient means greater inequality, and according to a report released by the OECD, if Asia was taken as a whole, from 2001 to 2010, its GINI coefficient would have risen from .39 to .46, a stark contrast to the dips seen over the same time period in many South American and African countries at similar development levels. For comparison's sake, The Netherlands has a GINI coefficient of just 28.9.


Anything above .40, analysts believe, increases the potential for social unrest – the very unrest we are now seeing in the region. It should come as no surprise that Hong Kong, one of the world’s richest per-capita GDP economies (higher than the Netherlands), has a GINI coefficient above .53, making it one of the 15 most unequal societies in the world.


Adding to this, the economy is slowing down in the region. South Korea, Taiwan, and Thailand are seeing the lowest growth rates in years, due partly to internal issues, but also because their mutual, top trading partner – China – is also seeing a slowdown.


Of course, no discussion about Asia is complete without discussing the huge elephant in the room – China. It remains authoritarian – perhaps becoming even more rigid under President Xi Jinping. Thus far, there are no widespread protest movements taking place within the country’s borders.


China's influence is most clearly a focal point for protests in Taiwan and in Hong Kong, where, 16 years on, reunification has not yet brought about the common identity that Chinese officials were hoping for. Even in South Korea, protestors have cited the recently announced free trade deal with China as an example of President Park Park Geun-hye's incessant, possibly corrupt collusion with business and disregard for the interests of ordinary Koreans.


“Social and economic polarization is tearing Korean society apart. Hong Kongers, by contrast, are testing the margins of maneuver that Beijing may or may not leave them,” Central European University’s Kim said. “At the same time, there is a common quest for participation and accountability in both countries.”


Except for perhaps Taiwan, where the dreaded China trade deal is currently on hold and the ruling, pro-China Kuomintang has been losing at the polls, the protests have not been successful. Hong Kong’s protestors did not get their demand for free elections for chief executive in 2017, no independent commission has been designated to investigate the Sewol tragedy, and Thailand is now ruled by the military, which has arrested red-shirt activists, made public protests illegal, and clamped down on media freedom. If anything, the space for civic engagement is shrinking in East Asia.


One reason is that the movements have a strange relationship with each other. Taiwan fears it will become like Hong Kong, while Hong Kong fears it will become part of mainland China, without any of its traditional freedoms. Neither knows much about what's happening in Thailand or South Korea. None of the movements, including those in Hong Kong and Taiwan, is coordinating against the common culprit, China.


China today is somewhat more open than in the 1980's. Yet, during the peak of protests last year in Hong Kong, most protesters felt that China would “never change” despite the fact that, in 1989, Chinese students were at the forefront of change. The recent push by Hong Kong’s Occupy protestors to “confront” Chinese mainland tourists demonstrates this attitude. In the end, this may be the movement’s downfall – the lack of solidarity throughout the region and the inability to develop a common message.


“Even among the [Chinese] who know – and many know – about the Occupy protests, support for the protesters faded when the situation in Hong Kong became tense and contentious,” said Victor Louzon, a Fox Fellow and expert in East Asian history at Yale University.


Nevertheless, this is only the start. The movements were focused not on building revolutions to sweep aside old powers, but to bring concrete changes to a society and increase the ability of citizens to have a say in their society. Momentous change rarely happens in a year, and a greater role by youth and technology could bridge the gaps between the movement’s goals and its current capacity.


If this is Asia’s century, then watch the protests closely, because whether they succeed or fail will show what type of Asia will lead the world in the decades to come.


Nithin Coca is a freelance writer who focuses on cultural, economic, and environmental issues in Asia. He can be followed on Twitter @excinit.


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