Instead of a "color" revolution, the Chinese island of Hong Kong is having an "umbrella" revolution this week. The name comes from the inexperienced protesters' resort to umbrellas to fend off tear gas. The protesters have gathered by the tens of thousands to protest what they consider a violation by the mainland Chinese government of the "one nation, two systems" principle under which the former British colony reverted to China in 1997. Since then, Hong Kong residents have continued to enjoy a greater degree of civil liberty than exists on the mainland -- but the islanders are understandably jealous of their privileged status and vigilant against encroachments on their freedom by the central government. In a few years, Hong Kong will elect its local chief executive for the first time; under the British the governor was appointed by London. For the present protesters, the milestone has been marred by Beijing's assumption of a right to screen or vet all candidates for the high office. That is, whoever might get nominated by the islanders, the central government will decide who actually gets to run. For the protesters, this means that the Communist party on the mainland gets to play the role of the guardian council in Iran. While that doesn't mean Communists will take over, it is presumed to mean that no one will be elected who isn't duly deferential toward the Communist leadership in Beijing, just as the Iranian council ensures that no one is elected who isn't duly deferential to Ayatollah Khamenei. The umbrella revolutionaries want Beijing to rescind its decision, but both Beijing and the current regime in Hong Kong has made it clear that that won't happen -- especially not at the dictate of a relative handful of "radicals."
To the extent that Chinese Communists remain "totalitarian," they are the people least likely to make any concessions to "people power," as was made clear most forcefully in Tiananmen Square 25 years ago. A communist party typically sees itself as the only legitimate representative of "the people," whether it's in power or not -- and leaving communism out of the question there are plenty of reasons to question the legitimacy of "people power" demonstrations anywhere, especially when outside observers spend so much time lecturing China about the importance of the rule of law. "People power" is incompatible with any vision of "rule of law." Liberals who applaud "people power" wherever they see it betray their liberalism, since "people power" is always a radical strategy. It may be appropriate sometimes for liberals to become radicals when "people power" rises in a polity that lacks a rule of law, but liberals often are too quick to identify the lack of liberalism in a country with the lack of a rule of law. They find it hard to concede that there might be a rule of law that isn't a liberal rule of law. Some see no rule of law in China because they assume that the Communist party can act arbitrarily when it pleases, with nothing to constrain it. Therefore China must be in the wrong in the current dispute with Hong Kong -- it must be exerting arbitrary power over the local elections and thus the locals are right to resist. It's certainly the protesters' prerogative to dislike Beijing's decision, and they should have a right to say so -- and in Hong Kong, as far as I know, they do have that right without having to hit the streets. But that doesn't mean that they're right. For one thing, they may not speak for a majority of people on Hong Kong itself. For another, it isn't for outsiders to judge -- at least not by their foreign standards. Is it wrong for the U.S. Constitution (Article IV, Section 4) to require that each state in the Union have a republican form of government? Does that compromise local autonomy at all -- and for that matter do all Americans agree on the meaning of small-r republicanism? It may sound outlandish to Americans for anyone to raise those questions, and it probably sounds just as outlandish to the Chinese government when people question its right to hold candidates for local offices to some standard of fitness. That doesn't mean that the Chinese are right, but we ought to consider the possibility that there is no right or wrong in such matters. That in turn doesn't mean the umbrella people are wrong, but it should be one thing to sympathize with protesters, and another to assume, as we too often do, that they deserve to win and should be helped to win. Neither side in Hong Kong is necessarily our side. When we decide that one side is our side, we've probably overstepped our bounds. Individuals should be able to choose sides without crossing that line, but governments ought to be more diplomatic. To use a sports metaphor, root for whom you like, but don't run on to the field.