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The strongmen vs. the streets

A protester is arrested on Saturday in Moscow. Photo: Anadolu Agency via Getty

The world’s two most powerful authoritarian states have been unable to quell pro-democracy demonstrations that have now spanned several weeks and drawn global attention.

The latest: Flights out of Hong Kong were canceled today after protesters flooded into the airport, while Moscow witnessed its largest protests in seven years over the weekend. Video of police battering demonstrators has emerged from both cities. Broader crackdowns now seem likely, particularly in Hong Kong.

The Chinese government today claimed Hong Kong's uprising contains “sprouts of terrorism."

  • Some fear such language will be used to justify a heavy-handed response from Beijing, or harsh charges for those detained.
  • Under pressure from Beijing, Hong Kong airline Cathay Pacific today threatened to fire staff who participate in "illegal" demonstrations.
  • As flights were halted at Hong Kong’s airport, one of the world’s busiest, Chinese police were ominously assembling in nearby Shenzhen.

What to watch: “If the unthinkable happens and there is a violent crackdown in Hong Kong, then China’s relationships with the U.S. and its allies will likely get much worse,” writes Bill Bishop in his Sinocism newsletter. “I hate to be so negative but it does feel like we are approaching the precipice of something very worrisome.”

While the protests in Moscow haven’t matched the scale of Hong Kong's, the more than 50,000 who took to the streets on Saturday comprised the largest demonstration against the government since Vladimir Putin’s return to the presidency in 2012.

  • Some 2,400 people, including top opposition leaders, were arrested at previous demonstrations, which began after the barring of opposition candidates from municipal elections.
  • Alina Polyakova of the Brookings Institution says tensions were already running high in Moscow, so it took just "one little spark to incite something.”
  • She says falling standards of living across Russia over the last several years — reflected in smaller-scale protests over pensions and the environment — translated into greater shows of public support for the opposition than the Kremlin likely anticipated.

What to watch: Polyakova expects “an escalation of repression."

  • She says Putin can't afford to be perceived as weak, particularly since he already “looks like a lame duck to many people" in the face of constitutional term limits.

The big picture: Both China and Russia have accused the West of fomenting the unrest.

The bottom line: That's all part of the playbook, as is further repression. Unfortunately for the protesters, democratic reforms are not.