How should the world react to protests in Hong Kong?

Causeway Bay, a busy shopping district in central Hong Kong last week: metal and wooden barricades surround tents; people sit on the floor discussing. Signposts in Chinese and English everywhere. It is “Occupy”, the movement led by students demanding more democracy from their administration and the government in Beijing. There are lots of police, but everything seems to be relaxed. Immediately next to the protest camp shoppers check out the latest smartphones and gold jewellery.

Only a few miles away in Admiralty a similar picture: next to protesters sitting on the street there’s a gym. Through the windows, I can see people sweating on treadmills and stationary bikes. People in suits take selfies in front of the police cordon.

I got these impressions during a business trip to Hong Kong. Of course, the situation was not always as relaxed. Only a few hours after I saw these scenes police clashed with protesters, and several people were hurt.

Where will these protests lead to? This is hotly debated in Hong Kong. The city seems to be both divided and torn between general sympathy for the protesters, fear of the reaction by the authorities and doubt over possible outcomes.

The role of the world

These are not questions for Hongkongers alone. How should the world react? How outspoken should Western governments be? Wolfgang Ischinger, a respected former German diplomat who now heads the Munich Security Conference, recently wrote in an op-ed that foreign policy was never a decision between black and white

Yes, Western democratic countries share many values with protesters in Hong Kong. But should they risk alienating the government in Beijing and would it even help?

When I worked in democracy support at International IDEA one of the central tenets of our activities was always the conviction that democracy can only come from within a society. At best, the outside world can give some support.

An opportunity for China?

Hong Kong seems to offer an excellent opportunity to experiment with more freedom, something that China desperately needs. Not only because democracy and freedom are values in and by themselves, but because the country is already running into governance problems. There are limits to how much you can decide and control on a central level. Alas, the central government in Beijing sees the protests as a threat to stability and is afraid that other parts of the country may take Hong Kong as a model.

On Tuesday, the Hong Kong government started to talk directly with the protesters. Whatever will come out of these talks, at least it is an encouraging sign. Any workable solution will be local.