January 2009 Dispatch - Are Global Protest Movements Becoming Regionalized? The Case Study of the 2008 G8 Summit

In activist communities worldwide, globalization has had an enormous impact, both in the composition of activist groups and the content of their messages. At the same time, regional concerns are playing a significant role in the ways protests are organized, managed, and deployed.

Regardless of their location or their target, it is clear that protest campaigns have, on the one hand, become increasingly globalized. The protests that took place during the July 2008 G8 Toyako Summit in Japan offer a case in point. Approximately one hundred transnational activists flew into Sapporo, a city located near the summit site, and joined various civil and protest activities. Over a loudspeaker, they broadcast statements denouncing the summit meeting as “antidemocratic” and “discriminatory against the poor.” These activists were drawn from East, Southeast, and Central Asia, as well as Europe and North America, and they voiced correspondingly global concerns—for human rights, global peace, and democracy, and against inequality and poverty. These themes echoed those of other major global protests, including demonstrations that took place against the International Monetary Fund and the World Trade Organization, the latter most notably in 1999 in Seattle. Indeed, protests of this kind represent what might be called an antiglobalization movement

On the other hand, global movements of this kind also appear to be organized on an increasingly regional basis. Though the activists who protested the Toyako Summit came from all over the world, and addressed topics of global importance, most of the participants came mainly from South Korea, Hong Kong, and Taiwan. Given this apparent dichotomy, the question arises: Will global social movements become regional?

One could argue that global social movements are and will remain regional, at least for the time being, for two practical reasons. First, the costs associated with flight to activist hubs near protest sites can be expensive. Second, the amount of time spent in transition to the protest site becomes a burden. The time doubles when taking into consideration the time spent to return to the originating country. These factors can be prohibitive especially to those based far away, but are less burdensome to regional activists, thus making it easier for nearby protesters to participate.

While time and cost are no doubt a concern, they may not be as important when compared with the other factors. Language is among these factors. Cooperative activities beyond the national borders are on the rise, yet many foreign activists do not speak the languages spoken in the countries where they protest. They invariably rely on English, widely accepted as the “global” language. Yet the levels of English fluency differ among participating activists, and this is a key factor. With their English ability, activists from Europe and North America tend to communicate with others on an individual basis, while those from nearby countries often rely on interpreters, especially when discussions delve into the details of the planned activity and necessary arrangements associated with it. Typically, interpreters are group leaders, well educated and knowledgeable about regional and global issues—and these individuals facilitate most intergroup communication.

Preestablished ties and preexisting communication can influence negotiation and cooperation processes among activists. Global social movements tend to enhance crossnational cooperation among participating activists—that is, activists who come together from different countries often regroup elsewhere, building on their previous cooperative activities. In the case of the 2008 G8 summit protests, regionalization was very much at work. Several months prior to the summit, Japanese media activists planned a temporary umbrella organization called the G8 Media Network, which helped to accommodate incoming foreign media activists and arranged international cooperative activities during the summit. As it happened, the foreign activists and groups that interacted with the G8 Media Network were actually regional, originating mainly from South Korea and Hong Kong. Under the auspices of the G8 Media Network, these groups of activists arrived prior to the summit and stayed until it concluded. Afterward, the same media groups discussed the continuation of crossnational cooperation. Though technically foreign, the dominant actors and groups who sought to continue cooperative activities were, in fact, only from neighboring countries.

Looking more closely at participants in the global protest activities provides further insight into contemporary global protest movements. At the 2008 G8 Summit protests, two different types of foreign participants were on display—those who had prior ties to host activist groups in Japan, and those who did not. The former group could be described as professional activists, whose preestablished ties ensure that they have good knowledge of a given protest’s scheduled activities. The professional group also organizes its own plans of action, precoordinated with domestic groups. The latter group tends to be traveling activists, a more or less independent and unorganized collection of individuals who enjoy traveling the globe and joining the activities offered at protest sites worldwide. The professional activist group is often drawn largely from neighboring countries in the region.

Most global social movements feature participants from around the world. At the same time, signs of regionalization also exist, making most protests both global and regional in nature. One could claim that the future of global social movements is regional. But whether global or regional, it is vital that we continue to study the composition of global protest movements and their abiding impact on civil society.