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Non-violence is a superior tool for political change

Non-violent protests seem to be erupting all over the place. Martin Luther King would be happy. So would Mahatma Gandhi. In Russia in the eastern city of Khabarovsk marchers each Sunday for the last three months have been protesting the arrest of their governor. In Belarus even larger numbers protesting the recent manipulated presidential election are still marching every weekend. In the United Kingdom the anti-Brexit marches last year were mammoth. Also that year and this, Extinction Rebellion, sparked in part by the protests of the Swedish schoolgirl, Greta Thunberg, are protesting laggardness on countering climate change and demanding the preservation of the environment. They have inspired many people to take the issues more seriously. 

In Hong Kong for months demonstrators kept at it at great danger to themselves- leaders were imprisoned and many beaten. At the moment it looks as if they have been defeated since China forced the authorities to introduce and implement repressive legislation. But the mood of resistance hasn’t changed and now Beijing knows it’s ruling over a hot underground of feeling and unless it wants to see Hong Kong’s role as Asia’s premier financial centre undermined it can’t go much further- it is interesting to see that only one person has so far been put on trial because of the new security law. Maybe China has gone about as far as it judges expedient. In the US, Black Lives Matter has organized hundreds of demonstrations. There has been violence on the fringes, but BLM organisers have been able to dampen these down, persuading most of the ultra-militants that this is counterproductive if they want the country to vote Donald Trump out of the White House.

Never, I think, have there been so many non-violent protests in different parts of the world at the same time. But they have been going on here and there for decades. We mustn’t forget the Velvet Revolution with half a million participants in Czechoslovakia in 1989 that helped undermine the authority and confidence of the 41-year long communist government. As one country after the other in the Eastern bloc overthrew its government, after Mikhail Gorbachev had came to power in Moscow, barely one shot was fired. Gorbachev himself for the most part abjured violence despite the advice of much of his entourage. Non-violence ruled supreme. Likewise half forgotten is when in 1986 millions of Filipinos took to the streets in Manila in peaceful protest and prayer and the dictatorial regime of Marcos was toppled on the fourth day. In 2003 Georgians ousted the soured regime of Eduard Shevardnadze in the Rose Revolution. Protestors stormed the parliament building with flowers in their hands. In 2019 the presidents of Algeria and Sudan announced they would step aside after decades in office thanks to peaceful campaigns of resistance.

Still controversial was the pushing into exile in Russia the corrupt President Victor Yanukovych of Ukraine in 2004. Controversial, I say, because during the peaceful protests in the Maidan in central Kiev the protestors were not shot at and some killed, as the West has maintained, by Yanukovych’s police and agents but by sharp-shooters of the neo-fascist leagues. Their purpose was to raise the temperature of the demonstrators’ wrath against the president and turn their political allegiance towards the West. The US was happy with this outcome- the fascists groups sensed- or even knew- it would be. Non-violence was sabotaged.

As Azerbaijan and Armenia go to war yet again over a small piece of disputed territory it’s not difficult to see neither side will win and that there will have to be one more cease-fire, freezing the status quo. One can also see that a non-violent movement could have achieved more sympathy for the Armenians than the present use of destructive artillery.

A study made by Erica Chenoweth, a political scientist at Harvard University, argues that non-violence is the most powerful way of shaping world politics. She studied 323 non-violent and violent campaigns over the last 106 years and showed that non-violent campaigns are twice as likely to achieve their goals as violent campaigns. She also showed that it takes only about 3.5% of the population actively participating in the protests to ensure serious change. “There weren’t any campaigns that have failed after they have achieved 3.5% participation during a peak events”, Chenoweth told the BBC- a phenomenon she calls the “3.5% rule”.

It took her, Chenoweth explains, some time to work out why she was getting such results from her research. She came to realize that it was because violent protests necessarily exclude people who abhor and fear violence, whereas peaceful protestors maintain the high moral ground. She also points out that non-violent protests have fewer physical barriers to participation. David Robson, who recently posted on the BBC’s website an important essay on non-violence, wrote: “You do not need to be fit and healthy to engage in a strike, whereas violent campaigns tend to lean on the support of physically fit young men.”

Chenoweth presents convincing evidence that non-violent campaigns over the last 106 years led to political change 53% of the time, compared to 26% for violent protests.

Non-violent demonstrations are less likely to alienate the police and the security forces. Of course, as Martin Luther King and Gandhi would attest, beatings can be common and jail an ever looming prospect. Nevertheless, the self-discipline of their marchers profoundly affected public opinion- with King in the northern American states, with Gandhi in Great Britain.

Success is not guaranteed. Peaceful resistance has failed 47% of the time, says Chenoweth. The most notable failure in our times was the massive student protest in Tiananmen Square in 1989 when the supreme leader, Deng Xiao Ping, gave the order to send in the tanks and thousands were killed and most decided never to join a protest again. Still, it split the monolithic Communist hierarchy and is not forgotten today. Maybe something still simmers in China as parents tell their children about what happened. My own impressions when visiting China, limited as they are, have given me hope that the flame of the candle is not squashed.

As Martin Luther King once said and President Barack Obama often repeated, “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”

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Jonathan Power

Jonathan Power for 17 years was a foreign affairs columnist of the International Herald Tribune, now the New York Times. He has written eight books on foreign affairs. His latest is "Conundrums of Humanity- the Big Foreign Policy Questions of the Day".

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