- In the face of protests, the leaders of Hong Kong and Indonesia have to maintain a precarious balance. Carrie Lam is caught between ‘one country’ and ‘two systems’, while Widodo needs to keep the secular right, religious right and liberal left onside
Like Hong Kong, Indonesia has recently witnessed the largest street protests in decades. There are telling similarities between the two outbursts.
Although Hong Kong residents are largely protesting against the intrusion of authoritarian Chinese politics into their territory, which was given visible form in the move to amend the extradition bill, an underlying cause of the protests is the prohibitive housing costs resulting from private property developers' rapacious hold over the market.
In Indonesia, students demonstrated late last month against laws that were seen as a sign of President Joko Widodo's retreat from the commitment to economic and political reform that had secured him a second term in office earlier this year.
The demonstrators focused on a law that would weaken the country's anti-graft agency and on plans to revise the criminal code that would introduce severe penalties for offences such as insulting the president and indulging in extramarital sex. In the economic sphere, the protest agenda was galvanised by popular opposition to a move to give business interests more power over Indonesia's land, mining and other resources.
Much as Hong Kong is witnessing its greatest challenge to Chinese rule since the handover, Indonesia's demonstrations were the largest since a Bastille-style storming of Parliament in 1998 ended the gilded 32-year autocracy of president Suharto.
There is an ironic difference between the two uprisings. Hong Kong's protesters are acting against the steady erosion of the freedoms the territory had enjoyed under British rule.
By contrast, Indonesia's demonstrators were mounting an attack on the authority of a democratically elected president and a political system which, for all its faults, represents Indonesia's liberation from the authoritarian practices of the Suharto era. The September protests occurred before Widodo, known popularly as Jokowi, is due to be sworn in for a second term on October 20; they had been preceded by riots in May over his re-election.
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Perhaps there is a hidden hand in both crises. It is widely believed that the violent protesters in Hong Kong, unlike the peaceful majority of demonstrators, are working for shadowy forces whose identity may never be known. In Indonesia, clearly, Widodo represents a democratic threat to the political rise of Suharto-era personalities; he has frustrated those longing for iron political stability and unbridled profit.
That said, as in Hong Kong, political and economic grievances came together in Indonesia in a way that was difficult for the ruling elite to unravel.
This is because there are basic contradictions at work in both cases. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor's fundamental challenge is having to meet opposing demands under the "one country, two systems" formula. Given its national mandate, the Chinese leadership naturally focuses on the "one country" part.
However, given their desire for continued autonomy, disgruntled Hongkongers emphasise the non-negotiability of the "two systems" safeguard. Theoretically, it should not be impossible to balance the two demands. After all, the formula worked well at its inception and for many years thereafter. However, when "one country" rubs off on "two systems", something has to give.
Since mainstream Hongkongers have been demanding neither greater autonomy nor the restoration of eroded freedoms " only the preservation of the rights that still exist " the onus falls squarely on China to honour the "two systems" principle even as it demands, legitimately, that Hong Kong stick firmly to the "one country" bottom line.
Hong Kong must respect 'one country' to keep 'two systems'
The extradition bill tested this equation in a way that drove constitutional tensions from the quiet corridors of power out onto the seething streets. The eventual withdrawal of the bill came too late to defuse the anger generated by its planned introduction and even the interim promise to let it die a legislative death.
Lam is caught in a vice. Her authority comes from Hong Kong but her power emanates from Beijing. China does not have to bear responsibility for, but exercises a silent veto on, her actions, whose impact is felt by Hongkongers, who can vent their rage only on her and her government.
The contradictions are less acute in Indonesia but they are present.
Widodo presides over an uneasy ideological coalition among the liberal left, which demands pro-people economic reform and political space for freedom of thought and expression; the secular right consisting of redeemed members of the ancien regime who support the interests of corporate Indonesia and laws that privilege political stability; and the religious right, which is economically and politically conservative but which makes its support conditional on the extent of Islamisation of the country.
The liberal left and the religious right represent mass forces; the secular right signifies the military-bureaucratic-business nexus that was powerful under Suharto until mass forces " primarily the liberal left but without opposition from the religious right " overthrew him and put the nexus on the defensive.
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Just as Lam cannot alienate either China or Hong Kong, although they both possess the ability to destroy her, Widodo's problem is that he cannot let go of any of the three contending constituencies, although both the liberal left and the religious right could make his presidency untenable and the secular right could subvert his rule from within.
The best he can hope for is to have two of the three forces on his side. The danger is that he will be forced to choose a combination of the secular right and the religious right to keep his grip on both palace and street politics. The liberal left might fall by the wayside.
Those who wish Hong Kong and Indonesia well will hope that their leaders strive, with all their political might, to uphold the popular democratic impulses that legitimise their authority and justify their power. They could fail, but they must not give up without a fight.
Derwin Pereira is founder and CEO of Pereira International, a Singapore-based political consultancy. He is also a member of Harvard University's Belfer Centre for Science and International Affairs
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