Nonprofit, independent journalism. Supported by readers.


Russian and Chinese officials backed down after protests. Don’t expect that to be a regular thing.

The two countries learned a little something about how far they can push on citizens’ rights, but that doesn’t mean they’ll stop pushing. More likely is that next time, they’ll just act a little smarter. 

Protesters attending a demonstration demanding Hong Kong's leaders to step down and withdraw the extradition bill, in Hong Kong, on Monday.
REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha

Russian and Chinese authorities were confronted with protests this past week that forced each to blink. They learned a little something about how far they can push people on citizens’ rights, but that doesn’t mean they’ll stop – more likely that they’ll just act a little smarter.

The nub of protests in Hong Kong and Moscow is the well-founded fear that the Chinese and Russian criminal justice systems can do pretty much whatever they want to nearly anyone. At any time. The Russian protests started when Moscow authorities arrested investigative reporter Ivan Golunov on bogus drug charges. In Hong Kong, the fear of abuses via a proposed extradition agreement with the Chinese mainland was enough to get people going.

Golunov, who works for an online news agency based in Latvia (where at least the editors are out of the Kremlin’s reach), was released without charge. A couple of senior police officials were fired. In Hong Kong, the government suspended, but has yet not withdrawn, legislation that protesters fear would be used to seek the extradition of critics of the Chinese government. The New York Times called it China’s “biggest single retreat on a political issue” since Xi Jinping became president seven years ago, and organizers claimed that 2 million people – almost one of every three Hong Kong residents — took to the streets on Sunday to keep the pressure up.

A lot of ink has been spilled on what, exactly, Golunov’s arrest and release says about Vladimir Putin’s grip on Russia. The answer is not very much. There is plenty of corruption to investigate in Russia; Golunov’s targets included a deputy mayor of Moscow and various shady business figures.

Article continues after advertisement

It’s likely that someone with influence – but well below Kremlin level – wanted to make him pay, and they went about it in a characteristically ham-handed way. Alexander Baunov of the Carnegie Moscow Center says that while Russia does indeed have a serious drug problem, allegations of drug possession have become a favorite extortion tool of law enforcement: “Alleged drug possession is now a way that officials can extract a bribe, confiscate a business, force someone to emigrate or simply to keep silent.”

An uproar ensued this time, with reporters and editors joining the protest at a particularly inopportune moment for Putin. Golunov’s case drew attention away from a high-profile set piece: speeches by Putin and Xi at the St. Petersburg Economic Forum.

Three things followed: First, it became obvious that the story was making the entire power structure look bad. Second, the Kremlin officials could step in and be good guys. And third, they would make clear that’s where the matter ended.

So charges were dropped. Putin fired two senior Moscow police officials, who took the fall for the whole mess. Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova, whose job it is to publicly defend Russian officials, called it the “best day.”

But then, the next day came. And Moscow police arrested hundreds of people who had organized a protest in hopes of keeping pressure on authorities.

The Hong Kong protests illustrate the push and pull of “one country, two systems,” the principle China declared when it reassumed control over Hong Kong 22 years ago. It was meant to reassure Hong Kong residents and the world, and it might have turned out all right if China, as many Western policymakers had bet, would gradually liberalize politically as it became more prosperous. Under Xi, it’s heading in the opposite direction.

Hong Kong has a long history as a place where Beijing’s critics can stay close – but not too close. There have been other protests, notably in 2003 against national security legislation and the so-called “Umbrella Revolution” of five years ago over how elections are conducted.

The legislation introduced by Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing government would have allowed for extradition to the Chinese mainland, Macau and Taiwan (Hong Kong already has extradition treaties with other countries, including the United States and the U.K.). The legislation actually was launched in response to a case in Taiwan. A Hong Kong man allegedly killed his girlfriend there, fled to Hong Kong and could not be sent back to face justice.

But the real reasons for the protests are China’s human rights record in general and arbitrary criminal justice system in particular. You can’t commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre in mainland China, of course, but tens of thousands of people did in Hong Kong earlier this month. And the fact that mainland authorities have trotted out high-tech surveillance systems and locked up as many as a million Uighurs for “re-education” can’t make anyone feel confident their rights will be respected.

Article continues after advertisement

The protests were big enough that the government backed down. Chief Executive Carrie Lam might be in trouble with Beijing, but she hasn’t given up yet.

Hong Kong’s rebellious streak is a long-term irritant, but Beijing still is better off managing it than trying to settle it quickly by busting heads. If history is a guide, authorities will make a tactical retreat. But they’ll be back. “One country” is a principle, “two systems” is a tactic. It’s worth noting that the story of the 2014 “Umbrella Revolution” finally ended two months ago — when its leaders were sentenced to jail.