More people have taken to the streets in the past 12 months than any year since 1989. 2019 surpasses even 2011, the year of Occupy Wall Street and the Arab Spring. Around the world, demonstrators challenge corruption, unjust laws and political repression. People are tired of the ageing establishments that have failed to tackle problems like climate change or wealth disparity. Protests peaked in October 2019, and in places like Chile and Hong Kong, are ongoing.
Government decrees sparked protests. In Lebanon, it was a tax on Whatsapp calls, in Chile a 4% hike in metro tickets, in India a law that grants citizenship to neighbouring refugees so long as they aren’t Muslim. Hong Kong’s protests started with a bill to extradite criminals to mainland China.
Amnesty International identifies five common causes:
- Corruption: Protestors accuse their leaders of misusing public funds and demand their resignation. Egypt (October -), Lebanon (October – ), Chile (October -). Iraq, (October- ) Pakistan (November – ) Colombia (November -).
- Cost of living: Austerity measures, sanctions and faltering economies have increased day-to-day costs, particularly petrol. Egypt (September), Haiti (November 2018 – ), Ecuador (October), France (November 2018 -), Iran (November – ).
- Climate justice: Protestors, particularly the young, rally against government and big businesses’ slow response to climate change and environmental ruin, including forest fires. In September 2019, 7.6 million people in 185 countries participated in climate strikes. Worldwide school strikes, Extinction Rebellion (January -). Bolivia (October).
- Political freedom: Protestors demand true democracy or greater independence in their respective regions. Hong Kong (June -), Sudan (September – ), Catalonia (October), India (October – ). Guinea (October-).
Chile is the wealthiest country in South America, yet suffers crippling inequality. Unrest has cost over $3 billion in damage, 26 people dead and over 3,461 injured. In response, the government promised a referendum in April 2020 to replace the current constitution, drafted under Pinochet, with a civilian one. Two-thirds of Chileans support the protests, according to Al-Jazeera.
Hong Kong protestors demand universal suffrage and accountability for police brutality. China is trying to bring the autonomous territory closer into its fold, and have it comply with its laws and restrictions. Demonstrations have seized the city every weekend since June and forced its economy to a halt. The protests have cost Hong Kong $950 million in police overtime.
Government responses are more restrained than in the past. They know indiscriminate killing can vilify the state and embolden its critics. In addition to lightning-fast coordination, smartphones and social media let protesters broadcast state brutality for the world to see. Were Beijing to pull a Tiannemen square in Hong Kong, it could not hide it again. Mass arrests and nonlethal weapons like water cannons and rubber bullets make a better strategy. Protests have largely been peaceful; though in some cases have broken out into riots. The most violent crackdowns are in Iran, where the government is hiding bodies.
The protests of 2019 expose a faltering world order. Neoliberalism has reigned supreme since the Cold War and is predicated on economic freedom and limitless growth. Since 2008, however, new wealth has fallen into increasingly fewer hands. According to Oxfam, the world’s richest 26 people own more than the poorest half.