A bit of conventional wisdom I’ve heard for decades is that the people of China are not interested in freedom, either because they value social conformity and “stability” too much (as if the Communist Party has ever provided it), or because they have been bought off by a deal in which they trade freedom for rising prosperity, while it lasts.
A look at the history of China makes this a lot less certain. The “Democracy Wall” protests sprung up almost the moment the leftovers of Mao’s dictatorship crumbled. Within a decade, we had the Tiananmen Square protests, which gave us Tank Man, one of history’s great symbols of individual defiance of tyranny. While the Chinese government has worked hard—particularly in recent years—to suppress any threats to their system, new challenges keep breaking through. There’s a lot of evidence that China’s huddled masses are yearning to breathe free.
And if the Chinese are supposedly being bought off by prosperity, then why is the regime having the greatest difficulty in its most prosperous city, Hong Kong?
Since 1997, China has been trying to swallow an economically and culturally dynamic city with a long history of living under the rule of British law, which is also used to enjoying a high degree of freedom of speech and other civil liberties. Hong Kong was absorbed under the slogan, “One Country, Two Systems,” with the assurance that despite ceding sovereignty to China’s central government, its citizens would be able to maintain their relatively free way of life.
It has been something of a mystery to me why the regime has been willing to maintain this agreement for so long, until I heard recently that the “One Country, Two Systems” slogan was originally put forward in an attempt to lure Taiwan into reunification. So you see the Chinese central government’s incentive: prove they can be good boys in Hong Kong, or give up on any prospect of getting to swallow Taiwan, too. It’s a geopolitical version of the Marshmallow Test.
But this is all going to get a lot harder now. Many of us expected that “One Country, Two Systems” would be untenable in the long run. The two systems are so fundamentally opposed that one of them will eventually have to win out. The long run has arrive in the form of the last few month of mass protests in Hong Kong. As part of its general drift toward bringing Hong Kong under its yoke—not so much a plan as a constant, general pressure—the central government has been pushing for an extradition law that would require Hong Kong to send wanted men back to the mainland. In effect, this threatens to assert mainland jurisdiction over Hong Kong, at least in special cases where the central government wants to avoid having to operate under the rule of law in Hong Kong’s courts.
Hong Kongers know that this spells the end of their liberty, and they are not having any of it. Four months ago, they launched an escalating series of protests. In June, in an attempt to out-wait the protests, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive suspended the extradition bill in the Legislative Council, but did not withdraw it. Since then, the protests have only grown, and the protesters have added to their demands greater accountability for the police for their attacks on protesters, and most important, the election of the Legislative Council and the Chief Executive by universal suffrage.
You can see how powerful a threat this is to the mainland regime. If they allow this to happen in Hong Kong, they face the threat that it will spread elsewhere and other Chinese citizens will claim the same freedoms. But can they crack down? Consider the latest round of protests, where 1.7 million people flooded into Victoria Park to join the protests. This is about one quarter of Hong Kong’s population. To kill the protests is to kill a major Chinese city and a center of its prosperity, with who knows what consequences for China’s connection to the global economy.
And this is not just about suppressing people. It is about contending with the power of an idea. Protesters are appealing directly and explicitly to “our basic human rights and freedom,” and to give you an idea of how infectious these ideas can be, check out this video of a crowd at Hong Kong’s airport, which has become a center for the protests, singing “Do You Hear the People Sing?”—the revolutionary rallying cry from “Les Misérables.” The young activist who posted it adds: “Here is the Ground Zero in the war against authoritarian rule. That’s the reason for us never [to] surrender.”
As a longtime fan of Victor Hugo’s novel, and its musical adaptation I have to admit that this really got to me. If the purpose of art is to give men spiritual fuel, this is the most powerful fuel you can get. People will give their lives for this, and they may be called upon to do so when it comes time to man the barricades. More on that below.
But something even more astonishing has emerged from these protests: Hong Kongers using the American flag and our national anthem as symbols of their protest.
Here in America, we have our own ersatz dissidents who claim that our original flag is a symbol of evil, and we have the New York Times launching a series dedicated to the thesis that “nearly everything that has made America exceptional grew out of slavery.” People in the rest of the world know better. They know what America stands for, and they know which country has done more than any other for the cause of freedom.
Watching Hong Kong protesters with the American flag, I was reminded of a line from Thomas Jefferson’s last letter, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Declaration of Independence: “May it be to the world, what I believe it will be, to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all, the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded them to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.”
One report on the Hong Kong protests singles out another lines in that song from “Les Misérables”: “Who will be strong and stand with me?” We look to others around the world to stand with the protesters in Hong Kong, and we look very specifically to the response of the president of the United States, who at the very least can lend his moral support to a struggle for liberty in the name of our founding ideals.
Alas, for that, we have to look to Donald Trump. His earliest response to Hong Kong was to repeat the language of mainland government propaganda, referring to the protests as “riots” and declaring them to be a purely internal Chinese matter: “I don’t know what China’s attitude is. Somebody said that at some point they’re going to want to stop that. But that’s between Hong Kong and that’s between China. Hong Kong is a part of China, they’ll have to deal with that themselves.”
He followed that with this eloquent rallying cry for the cause of freedom: “The Hong Kong thing is a very tough situation, very tough. We’ll what see what happens. But I’m sure it’ll work out. I hope it works out for everybody, including China, by the way.” He went on to say in response to a follow-up question, “I hope it works out for liberty,” but the tone had already been set, which is one of passivity and an indifferent shrug of the shoulders.
More recently, under pressure to get tougher, he warned China against a Tiananmen Square style crackdown by threatening that it would interfere with trade talks with the US. This seems rather inadequate, but it is more demonstration that Trump sees everything in foreign policy from only one perspective: that of trade war.
The prospect of another Tiananmen looms over this whole story. Orville Schell, a reporter who covered the Tiananmen Square Massacre, describes the parallels.
As the Hong Kong movement has passed the seven-week mark set in Tiananmen Square and continued to gather momentum, some kind of intervention has come to seem ever more likely. On August 1, the People’s Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong released a provocative video showing troops undertaking urban riot-control exercises. “We have the determination, confidence, and capability to safeguard China’s sovereignty, security, and development interests, and to safeguard Hong Kong’s long-term prosperity and stability,” a PLA spokesman warned. Video footage of troops mustering at a stadium just across the border in Shenzhen began circulating soon after, creating a sense hauntingly reminiscent of May 20, 1989, when martial law was declared and word reached the protesters in Tiananmen Square that PLA troops were already bivouacking outside the city. Then, party officials began charging—as they had during Tiananmen Square—that the unrest in Hong Kong was the work of ‘black hands’ from the United States, suggesting it was foreign manipulation rather than local democratic sentiment that has caused the protests….
The Tiananmen Square demonstrations taught that powerful movements of dissent against the Chinese Communist Party are almost always destined to end in confrontation. Why? Because such challenges are intolerable to a Leninist one-party system that allows no notion of a dissent and whose leaders are perennially worried about displaying weakness….
“Any violent crackdown would be completely unacceptable,” said US Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell on August 10. “The world is watching.”
But the world was also watching on June 4, 1989, over live satellite links when Chinese leaders killed and wounded untold hundreds, even thousands, of protesters in Tiananmen Square. China is, of course, a very different place today, and its leaders are painfully aware of the global costs of a Tiananmen-style military crackdown in Hong Kong. But given the absence of evident alternative approaches to the escalating confrontation, it is not easy to imagine how else it will end.
If the way through for Hong Kong’s protesters looks harrowing, this is also true for the mainland government. Chinese leader Xi Jinping has been trying to consolidate dictatorial power and reconstruct Maoist one-man rule. Now he faces the choice of either killing a city, and possibly the Chinese economy along with it, or letting the principle of self-government defy his authority.
In 1989, the Tiananmen crackdown was held back until after a summit with Mikhail Gorbachev, because the regime did not want the tanks to start rolling until after that meeting was over. Today, it is widely expected that the regime is waiting until after October 1, when they celebrate the 70th anniversary of the Communist Party’s takeover of China. They might want to reflect that so far, no Communist Party dictatorship has made it much past 70 years. Let us hope this is the maximum amount of time it takes for that form of tyranny to finally hollow itself out.
As October 1 approaches, Hong Kong protesters had better get ready to move on from “Do You Hear the People Sing?” To “One Day More.” As in Victor Hugo’s story, they are about to face a day of decision and of reckoning, not merely for themselves but for their country.