by Sooyeon KangJuly 19, 2021
As of late, many civil resistance campaigns have evolved in an oddly similar manner. In places as diverse as Algeria, Chile, Ecuador, Hong Kong, France, Haiti, Nicaragua, and Sudan, people first came together to seek redress in a certain policy space (in the form of a “reformist” campaign) before escalating their demands for a leader’s removal or seeking greater systemic change (in the form of a “maximalist” campaign).
Studies of mass movements typically assume demands to be fixed from the beginning and focus on strategies to pursue predefined ends. Consequently, they have overlooked how a movement’s goals might shift during the course of a campaign. In a recent project, generously supported by ICNC and the United States Institute of Peace, I identify this “demand escalation” phenomenon as an increasingly prominent path of unscheduled government change and find that it is not unique to the current generation, limited to a certain regime type, or a specific geographical region.
So, how does a group of people go from asking something of the government to demanding that it must go? I find that regime repression plays a key role in expanding the grievances the protesters have against the state and in betraying the remaining trust that people might have had in the government.
For example, in Hong Kong in the summer of 2019, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers (more than a million by some accounts) took to the streets to oppose a controversial extradition bill that would allow criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China. Between the start of this reformist campaign and when demands escalated were episodes of the police using excessive force by tear-gassing, beating, and arbitrarily arresting unarmed protesters. While the government could have kept the trust of the public by apologizing or increasing scrutiny of the police, the Hong Kong government sided with state agents and further exacerbated the public by labeling the largely nonviolent protesters as rioters.
Similarly, in Nicaragua in April 2018, several days of protests against a controversial welfare reform package escalated into the largest anti-government mobilization against President Daniel Ortega’s government, even after the welfare-overhaul initiative was cancelled. The government’s apparent concession did little to appease the demonstrators whose anti-regime sentiments were inflamed by the state’s “shoot to kill” strategy to repress the largely nonviolent protesters.
Regime repression has been known to backfire in various ways, whether by enabling enterprising activists to turn towards more disruptive acts, by mobilizing larger number of participants, or by, at times, appealing to higher levels of authority. I find that demand escalation is another way that state violence can backfire, and from the perspective of the movement, it is a strategic alternative to tactical escalation which is a form of violent tit-for-tat.
Not all revolutions demand revolutionary change from the start. Over time, people have come together to fight for better wages, corruption, inflation, environmental issues, women’s rights, racial justice, and indigenous rights, among other reasons. Many of these campaigns had a triggering event that became closely related to their demand, such as an increase in the price of bread or gasoline, but sustained reformist campaigns have also evolved into greater anti-regime mobilization.
For governments and policymakers that have an interest in preventing or preempting campaigns that demand their removal, a state’s gentle response to the people’s reformist demands can turn away public wrath while a harsh response can stir up greater collective anger.
For activists and movement participants, demand escalation, in contrast to tactical escalation that might easily lead to anti-government violence, can be a strategy for movements to up the ante without the risk of breaking down their nonviolent discipline and thus losing their supporters.
For observers of world affairs, demands escalating in response to brutal state violence can be a signal that the government has effectively lost the trust of a large segment of the population and will now face people’s demands for its removal. This might lead to more state violence and the government’s eventual departure. By understanding these possible paths, external allies of nonviolent movements can be more effective in planning for different scenarios.
Sooyeon Kang is a Post-Doctoral Research Fellow at the Mershon Center for International Security Studies (Ohio State University) and a non-resident Fellow at the Carr Center for Human Rights (Harvard Kennedy School). She received her doctorate from the Josef Korbel School of International Studies, University of Denver, and was a 2020-2021 Peace Scholar Fellow at the United States Institute of Peace and a Doctoral Research Fellow at the International Center on Nonviolent Conflict.Read More