Last month, I was called to jury duty. Here in the US, many people, instead of seeing jury service as a quintessential civic duty, regard the obligation with impatience, exasperation and contempt. This is regrettable. Jury duty is an extension of the freedoms Americans enjoy and an opportunity to participate in a “process through which constitutional rights and values come alive in practice.”
The on-going protests in Hong Kong make this clear. Their initial impetus was an extradition bill that would have circumvented the Hong Kong legal system (which has a long history of jury trials thanks to its inheritance of British common law) and sent criminal suspects to Mainland China, effectively destroying the one country, two systems principle. As Melissa Chen points out elsewhere in this magazine, the fear that any dissident could be targeted isn’t unfounded. Stories of billionaires and booksellers kidnapped by Beijing operatives, prosecuted in show trials on the Mainland and, in some cases, even tortured, are well known.
In Mainland China, there is no independent judiciary and no jury trials and the conviction rate is 99.9%. Despite official pronouncements about reform, the rule of law is as empty of meaning as the Chinese Constitution’s promises of free speech. Everything is subordinate to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). From the horrific organ-harvesting of political dissidents to the aftershocks of the one-child policy, China’s human rights record remains atrocious and the government continues to hide the horrors of its past. Since Xi Jinping’s rise to power, Chinese authoritarianism has enjoyed a major resurgence.
Knowing full well what awaits them, people in Hong Kong protested the extradition bill through well-organized and creative demonstrations. Two million people—40% of the Hong Kong population—have taken to the streets. While public pressure eventually forced the Hong Kong government to suspend the bill, no reassurances were given that there won’t be future attempts to resuscitate it. This has revived other grievances concerning the fundamental matter of Hong Kong governance, an unresolved issue at the centre of the 2014 Umbrella Movement. At the time of writing, the people of Hong Kong are continuing their protests, putting themselves on a collision course with the CCP.
As a Chinese-American who grew up in the United States, I sympathize with the people of Hong Kong in their fight for freedom. Hong Kong has established the basic framework of a free and prosperous society with a dynamic market economy (its Basic Law explicitly forbids implementing socialism); a vibrant civil society; a clean, streamlined government; the rule of law; an independent judiciary; freedom of speech; freedom of assembly; and many other robust civil liberties. Hong Kong (like Taiwan) is a living refutation of the CCP’s nonsensical claims that they offer the only route to prosperity, security and spiritual salvation and that Western values (with the exception of those of Karl Marx) are incompatible with the Chinese character. Hong Kong is a mature, sophisticated society, filled with free people capable of self-rule. These self-evident truths make it an existential threat to the CCP.
In his last public interview in 2005, the late Nobel Laureate Milton Friedman predicted that the prospects of freedom in China depend to a large part on what happens in Hong Kong:
Political freedom will ultimately break out of its shackles. Tiananmen Square was only the first episode. It is headed for a series of Tiananmen Squares. It cannot continue to develop privately and at the same time maintain its authoritarian character politically. It is headed for a clash. Sooner or later, one or the other will give.
If they don’t free up politics, [China’s] economic growth will come to an end—while it is still at a very low level.
The situation is not all bleak. Personal freedom has grown greatly within China, and that will provoke ever more conflicts between the individual and the state. The new generation is educated and has travelled abroad. It knows the alternatives out there first hand. So, the authoritarian character is softening somewhat.
Hong Kong is the bellwether. If the Chinese stick to their agreement to let Hong Kong go its own way, China will follow. If they don’t, it will be a very bad sign. I’m optimistic, however.
In his bestselling Capitalism and Freedom, Friedman famously emphasizes that economic freedom is necessary but not sufficient for political freedom to take root. In 2019, although China’s economy is the second largest in the world, its growth has slowed to its lowest point in twenty-seven years. Many internal problems continue to plague the country and, while political repression may work temporarily, the underlying issues cannot be brushed under the carpet.
Located at the crossroads of East and West, Hong Kong continues to serve as a bellwether of the future of freedom in China. The current wave of protests engulfing Hong Kong is only the latest in a “series of Tiananmen Squares.” Unlike people in the rest of China, Hong Kongers have known political and personal freedom, which gives them a unique perspective. If you have experienced true oppression, there is no other feeling like it. Frederick Douglass writes,
I have often been asked how I felt, when first I found myself on free soil; and my readers may share the same curiosity. There is scarcely anything in my experience about which I could not give a more satisfactory answer. A new world had opened upon me. If life is more than breath, and the “quick round of blood,” I lived more in one day than in a year of my slave life. It was a time of joyous excitement which words can but tamely describe. In a letter written to a friend soon after reaching New York, I said: “I felt as one might feel, upon escape from a den of hungry lions.”
This time, the struggle is against the hungry CCP lion that hopes to devour Hong Kong. After witnessing first hand how freedom has already been greatly eroded in their city, the people of Hong Kong finally decided to draw a line in the sand. In this last fight for Hong Kong, crowds broke new records and the ongoing protests have evolved into a broader political movement that rivals, if not surpasses, the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
Yet, this still may not be enough.
Despite overwhelming support for the protestors among the general public (and even among many rank-and-file civil servants), Carrie Lam, the unelected Chief Executive, and the pro-Beijing stacked Legislative Council of Hong Kong remain deaf to their demands for accountability and transparency.
At this point, it has dawned upon most Hong Kong protestors that their political system was set up to fail, yet they still persist. Despite unprecedented police brutality, the protestors refuse to back down. Right now, Hong Kong is on the verge of martial law. Knowing there is nothing left to lose, many young people have even expressed their willingness to die and some have backed up their moral convictions with action, demonstrating a courage every bit as great as of that of the signers of the US Declaration of Independence, Malcolm X and Tank Man.
It’s easy to take freedom for granted. Here in the US, I can easily browse Google, Facebook and YouTube, without ever having to worry about a nationwide firewall. All those websites and more are censored in Mainland China.
After teaching classical liberal principles in the classroom, economics professor Nikolai Wenzel decided to fight to preserve them in Hong Kong and joined his students in the streets:
When I first heard of the troubles in Hong Kong, I initially thought I’d play it safe. This was not my fight, and there wasn’t much I could do. I would teach my classes and stay away from demonstrations. But I was faced with a moral choice. Hong Kong has a tradition of rule of law, Hong Kong is a land of liberty, Hong Kong has become a second home.
I grieve for the people of China, who are living in an increasingly totalitarian state, and especially the millions who have been incarcerated in the re-education camps of Xinjiang. But Hong Kong is different. It has a proud tradition of free institutions, and the light of freedom risks being snuffed out. It is time to push back, thoughtfully and courageously, against Beijing, and deny it the international legitimacy it craves.
At the very least, we must tell the story of Hong Kong.
Tyranny and oppression can be exposed through words, but sometimes people have to resist by force. Sometimes that is the only option left. In The Gulag Archipelago, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn laments that he and his fellow prisoners did not resist when they had the chance:
And how we burned in the camps later, thinking: What would things have been like if every Security operative, when he went out at night to make an arrest, had been uncertain whether he would return alive and had to say good-bye to his family? Or if, during periods of mass arrests, as for example in Leningrad, when they arrested a quarter of the entire city, people had not simply sat there in their lairs, paling with terror at every bang of the downstairs door and at every step on the staircase, but had understood they had nothing left to lose and had boldly set up in the downstairs hall an ambush of half a dozen people with axes, hammers, pokers, or whatever else was at hand? After all, you knew ahead of time that those bluecaps were out at night for no good purpose. And you could be sure ahead of time that you’d be cracking the skull of a cutthroat. Or what about the Black Maria sitting out there on the street with one lonely chauffeur—what if it had been driven off or its tires spiked? The Organs would very quickly have suffered a shortage of officers and transport and, notwithstanding all of Stalin’s thirst, the cursed machine would have ground to a halt! … We didn’t love freedom enough. And even more—we had no awareness of the real situation … We purely and simply deserved everything that happened afterward.
Free people should recognize they have been blessed with a rare gift. Rights, like muscles, require regular exercise. They atrophy from neglect. Once freedom is lost, it is gone forever. Americans should be thankful for the freedoms they enjoy, especially the right of free speech and the right to bear arms protected by the First and the Second Amendment (freedoms demanded on the picket signs of at least one Hong Kong demonstrator). Speaking out against injustice, deliberating on a jury panel and learning how to defend oneself with a firearm—these are all forms of active, regular participation that make freedom come alive. Let us never forget these lessons.