Top Stories of the Year: #1
I have to admit that this newsletter is biased.
I have a philosophical bias toward a belief in the efficacy of the good, which means that what the good guys are doing to save the world is always more important than what the bad guys are doing to mess it up.
That’s why the left going all in on racial politics is only at #5 in my countdown of the top stories of the year. It’s why the defection of prominent onetime supporters of liberty—or at least fellow-travelers—is at #2. The loss of allies of the good is a much bigger story than the usual bad guys doing the usual bad things.
This also explains what I put at #1. The biggest story of this year is not the betrayal of the cause of liberty by a faction of American conservatives. It is the extraordinary loyalty to liberty shown by many people across the world, above all by the people of Hong Kong.
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Before I talk about that, I want to reinforce the context that human life as a whole is way better than it has ever been. I attempt to reinforce this at regular intervals throughout the year, along with some potshots at politicians for catastrophizing about the state of the world in order to panic us into adopting their pet agendas.
On one of these occasions, I noted the irony.
One of the hallmarks of our age is the combination of enormous prosperity and material progress—alongside a constant sense of crisis and emergency. It is as if, precisely because we don’t have enough real problems to cope with, we have to invent fake ones….
I would call this the ultimate example of the First World Problem, except that even what we used to call the Third World is now getting richer—or at least significantly less poor. For that I’ll refer you to another Human Progress report about the 50% increase in per capita income in Sub-Saharan Africa since the beginning of this century.
At this rate, we’re going to end up with a whole globe full of people living in unprecedented affluence—and complaining about it all the time.
Something similar happens with political liberalism, and I use “liberal” here as it is increasingly being used: in the proper sense, meaning “pro-liberty.” Both sides of our political debate have increasingly vocal illiberal wings—the “woke” left and the “nationalist” right—who feel free to mutter their discontent with freedom precisely because they have so much of it that they take its blessings for granted.
Those who are still deprived of liberty, or who face the prospect of losing it, are showing us exactly how valuable it really is. Not just valuable, but valued.
While we’ve been focused on the upheavals of our own domestic politics, we might have missed the fact that this is an era of revolutions. On the one hand, recent years have seen a resurgence of authoritarian rule. But they have also seen a simmering rebellion against dictatorship.
Early this year, that came to a head in Venezuela, when the nation’s one remaining representative body declared Nicolas Maduro, who had won re-election in 2018 in a rigged vote, not to be the legitimate president. Officially, that made the head of the National Assembly the new interim president—but it actually meant a kind of open, low-grade civil war between the Maduro regime and everybody else.
I criticized the Trump administration for its hesitant response, but I pointed out the opportunities.
[W]e have had indecisive or disengaged US presidents before and still muddled through, because our enemies are far, far weaker than we are. So, for example, the consequences in Venezuela are not as grave for us as they are the Venezuelan dictatorship’s key sponsor, Cuba…. “Shop shelves on the Caribbean’s largest island have been increasingly empty of late with scarcity of basic products such as eggs, flour and chicken, and massive, hours-long queues for them whenever they come into stock.”
Taking down a socialist dictatorship in Venezuela would be good. Having this drag down the Communist dictatorship in Cuba would be better…. More broadly, though, one part of our goal may already have been achieved. A good overview of Venezuela’s descent into dictatorship notes the impact Venezuela has had on the turn to the left in Latin America generally.
“The region’s ‘pink tide’ fostered by Chavez had ebbed before other countries suffered the destruction visited upon Venezuela. By 2019, Lula of Brazil was serving time for corruption. Fernandez of Argentina was under indictment. Both had ceded power to successors to their right. So had Correa of Ecuador whose people had voted 2 to 1 for a constitutional provision that prevented his seeking yet another term.
“Only Bolivia’s Evo Morales remained in power….”
Venezuela was the leading edge of the post-Cold War resurrection of Communism, an attempt to try it all again and see if maybe it will work this time. The results have not been promising and are likely to suppress the allure of socialism in Latin America—at least until the intellectuals have had long enough to make us forget this disaster.”
The best part: did you catch that line about Bolivia’s Evo Morales being the only other South American socialist still in power? Not any more. He also was ousted in a popular uprising after a transparent attempt to rig the vote.
Probably the most important foreign policy article I linked to this year is a long essay by Robert Kagan arguing that authoritarianism “has reemerged as the greatest threat to the liberal democratic world.” This requires a certain re-alignment in thinking. During the Cold War, we were accustomed to thinking in terms of “left versus right” and regarding right-wing authoritarians as “friendly dictators” in the fight against the totalitarian left. But the real alternative all along was liberal versus illiberal. Remembering that is going to require some mental adjustment both in our foreign policy and in our domestic politics.
Some are already being dragged into that realization. A recent article describes how the attempted assassination in Britain of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal has ushered in a UK-versus-Russia Cold War.
Without a doubt, though, the main front line this year in the global fight against authoritarianism has been the former British colony of Hong Kong. Here is my overview from the middle of the year.
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….
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….
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….
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….
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.
Since I wrote that, they have been manning the barricades—literally—and they have been giving their lives for the cause of freedom.
I also highlighted another recurring aspect of the protests: “Hong Kongers using the American flag and our national anthem as symbols of their protest.” Our intellectuals may not know what America means, but oppressed people around the world know that this is the country of freedom.
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There are worse things China is doing, and I have linked to harrowing reports about the vast concentration camps in China’s Xinjiang province. What distinguishes Hong Kong is the people’s ability and willingness to fight back.
I was particularly struck by the degree to which freedom commands the loyalty of the city’s youth, and I wondered about the effect this would have on its sense of its own identity: “Freedom and self-government is becoming the defining cause for a generation of young people in Hong Kong and possibly the defining cause for Hong Kong itself.” Eventually, I came up with a name for this: “Tank Man City.” Later, I explained this in more depth.
Hong Kong is giving us a whole city full of Tank Man. I am not exaggerating. Consider this feature on Hong Kong’s protesters—most of them 20-year-old kids—preparing for their confrontation with China’s dictatorship by writing final letters to be read by their loved ones after their deaths or disappearance. Given the ruthless ethnic cleansing the Chinese government is committing in Xinjiang, their fears are justified—which merely highlights their courage.
The months of protests and the last few weeks of violence and killing might have caused the people of Hong Kong to be weary of the conflict and to want to back down in their demands for liberty. The exact opposite has happened….
This serves notice to the central government that they cannot impose their rule without killing an entire city—that they will encounter fierce resistance all the way down, at every level.
Nor are the people of Hong Kong completely alone. Taiwan has recently proclaimed its support and even offered itself as a haven for Hong Kong dissidents. This is significant because the slogan “One Country, Two Systems,” the alleged guarantee of freedom under mainland sovereignty, was originally coined in an attempt to lure Taiwan into reunification. That idea is now dead for the foreseeable future.
In mainland China, as far as I can tell, the reaction to Hong Kong is largely one of resentful silence. But even there the cause of liberty is not dead. I linked early in the year to a report about the impact of a courageous Chinese scholar’s broadside against the country’s swerve toward one-man rule.
All of this matters to us here in the United States on the level of foreign policy.
The United States has an essential national interest in the spread of liberty across the world. It makes the world a better place in general, and it makes it a far safer and friendlier place for us. We are going to have to hope that the cause of liberty is powerful and appealing enough on its own to be able to sustain itself without America’s active support—at least for a while.
Events in Tehran and Hong Kong and many other places around the world give us some confidence that it will be.
That’s why this also matters to us on a deeper level. At a time when our own domestic politics is swerving toward various forms of illiberalism, it remind us that the cause of liberty can survive under far more hostile circumstances.
In the fight for freedom and the fight for a moral society—these are two aspects of the same issue—we are not alone. Not even close to it. There are many millions of people across the world who are our allies in this cause, and who are showing far greater dedication to it than we will ever be called upon to give.
The events of 2019 helped remind us that liberty is so fundamental and essential to human life that it is a cause that will never be lost.
This wraps up my overview of the top stories of the year. For the next week, I’ll be re-sending a selection of my best articles from 2019, before I return to covering the emerging stores of 2020. In the meantime, take advantage of the final days of our Holiday Sale.—RWT