Where would the world be were it not for rebellions? Where would France and America be? For that matter, what would art, philosophy, politics and society be without revolt? At a more personal level, what would teenage years be like without rebellion? I am sure parents would have an answer to that: “Peaceful.”
Rebellion is an expression of disaffection. It is action for release from the clutches of an oppressive system. Rebellion need not be physical or violent: think of the suffragettes, the civil rights movement and rock ’n’ roll. These were considered untoward and therefore rebellious in their time because they questioned the status quo and challenged accepted norms.
There is inherent violence in oppression, even if not overt, because of the skewed dynamics of power and the resulting impact on the oppressed.
Though one could assume rebellions to be social movements, there have been instances of one person’s actions causing society to change course. The actions of Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, John F. Kennedy and Greta Thunberg easily come to mind.
That being said, there are two social movements today that have the potential to change nations and the world. One movement is structured, insofar as it has an identifiable leadership providing a platform for people to express their concern about climate change. The other is amorphous, with no leadership. Even so, this movement is as coordinated as a murmuration of birds.
On the face of it, the Britain-based Extinction Rebellion and the Hong Kong protest movement are similar. Both sets of protesters include young people who are worried about the future; they are both facing powers that be who are unwilling to budge.
In London, police have banned Extinction Rebellion protests. In Hong Kong, not only are police using harsher tactics against protesters, the administration has also dug up draconian colonial-era laws to aid police in stamping out protests. China would rather see Hong Kong lose its economic role than cede control
Whereas the Extinction Rebellion has inspired similar protests in other countries, the Hong Kong protests remain contained in the city. Support protests or vigils in other nations have largely been held by Hongkongers living there.
This lack of support for Hongkongers is not surprising and cannot be seen in isolation. Internationally, there has hardly been a peep about the lockdown in Kashmir after the abrogation of Article 370, or the riots in Catalonia after the sentencing of separatist leaders.
These three events all have to do with a regional identity that refuses to be subsumed into a larger national one. In the case of Hong Kong, the United States is taking an active interest in the movement because it helps its trade war against China. Britain is fairly silent on Hong Kong, not because it is busy with Brexit but because it has a similar issue brewing in Scotland.
In the case of Kashmir, US President Donald Trump wishes to mediate an end to the imbroglio because it would look good in his Nobel Peace Prize nomination. Britain, on the other hand, is silent not only because of Scotland but also because the Kashmir issue boils down to a Hindu-Muslim conflict. It could cost British Prime Minister Boris Johnson an election if he were to choose a side.
Why has the Extinction Rebellion garnered so much global support while people ignore other existential crises faced by citizens and caused by governments? Is it only because there is more information about climate change?
There is some truth here. Previously, there was concern for polar bears and sinking islands. Suddenly, with heatwaves, wildfires and cyclones, climate change has become personal – everyone is a victim. In comparison, people are less able to relate to the Hong Kong protest movement and therefore see it as unimportant, even though it is about identity and democracy. More importantly, there could be an incorrect assumption that it is an internal matter, in which outsiders have little say.
Whether it is a rebellion to prevent climate change or to preserve identities, governments have responded similarly – by imposing harsher measures. This is not surprising because, at the heart of the matter, both movements are asking for the same thing: that the government change its ways, and listen to and respect the people, instead of selling them down the river for the sake of profit or national identity.
The Extinction Rebellion has had success in drawing masses because people have progressed from sympathy to empathy and have finally arrived at personalisation of the impact of climate change. Unfortunately, Hong Kong’s identity issue is so particular that it prevents others from relating. Thus, there is hardly any sympathy for this issue, let alone empathy or personalisation.
Governments do not wish to be seen acquiescing to protests, no matter how right the demands. Nor are governments inclined to allow secondary identities to subvert existing national identities. So the projections don’t look good for either the Extinction Rebellion or the Hong Kong protests.
Perhaps governments might eventually cave in and prevent climate change, although it might be too late by then. However, government acquiescence in the case of Hong Kong would be a bridge too far.