As I write, numberless brave people across the world are marching for what many of us take for granted: freedom. Throughout the Middle East and North Africa and in Asia, protests against corruption and authoritarianism are in full swing. In Europe and America, people are opposing right-wing populists, as they attempt to chip away at our liberties. All these protests have local causes, but they are all part of the universal struggle for freedom and democracy. Their extent is unmatched since those oppressed by the Soviet Union took on a superpower—and won.
In reference to the Spring of Nations, the revolutionary wave which shook Europe in 1848, the anti-Communist revolutions of 1989 are sometimes referred to as the Autumn of Nations. There are two contradictory lessons to be drawn here: while people power really can overturn despotism, reactionaries and autocrats can suppress the people just as easily, as happened in 1848.
Over the past decade, the new democratic movements have faced setbacks as well as victories: the 2011 Arab Spring ended in tears. But the spirit of that first uprising lives on—people in Iraq are chanting for secularism even now. We are breathing the heady air of 1848 and 1989, but whether that air will purify blackened lungs or make no impact is unknown.
Let us not be naively optimistic about the future. Instead, we should simply give the dissenters our full support.
Why we should care about far off people when we have so many problems of our own? Joshua Wong, one of the leaders of the anti-Communist Hong Kong democratic movement, has attempted to answer that question. With the help of Jason Y. Ng, he has written a book charting his journey from protesting school curricula at age of fourteen to becoming a political prisoner.
Wong articulates why the threat to democracy matters to every single person on the planet. Hong Kong is a canary in a coal mine, an early warning of the rise of a powerful, expansionary Chinese despotism whose tentacles extend across the world. It outlines the problems faced by democracy globally and provides a window onto the frontline of the battle for freedom. And Wong is only twenty-four years old.
The Dissident’s Tale
Hong Kong was returned to China by Britain in 1997. The people of Hong Kong had no input in the decision. British and Chinese officials drew up the terms and the British Empire was bid adieu by a teary Chris Patten, the last governor of the territory. Since then, the Chinese Communist Party has exerted increasing control over the otherwise free Hong Kong. At first, as Wong recounts, their influence was relatively subtle and insidious but, since Xi Jinping took power in 2012, the party has cracked down much more harshly on civil liberties and protestors.
Much of Wong’s book is about identity. As part of the first post-handover generation, Wong has no attachment to Britain or the empire, but nor does he have much love for the mainland. He does not favour independence from China, but self-determination for Hong Kongers. In 2047, the terms of the one country, two systems agreement, whereby China leaves Hong Kong on its own for the most part, will expire. But China seems bent on undermining that policy. Perhaps Wong would support independence if it were the only way to preserve Hong Kong’s freedom.
Wong’s journey started early. A devout Christian, much of his inspiration comes from figures like Martin Luther King Jr. At school, he protested against small things, harnessing social media to express students’ discontent at the awful lunches they were served. But soon he “realised there were bigger fish to fry”—though social media would also play a huge role in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy campaign.
In 2010, a new national education curriculum was proposed—a move to implement CCP propaganda in Hong Kong schools. In 2011, Wong and a friend launched Scholarism to oppose the plans: over the following year, they organised sit-ins, protests and boycotts and made speeches that galvanised young people and led the plans to be abandoned in 2012.
Wong tells us how this led to his involvement in the Umbrella Movement, the massive 2014 protests against China’s backtracking on promises to allow more freedom and democracy in Hong Kong elections. The Umbrella Movement petered out, but the fight for democracy continued: Wong and Nathan Law co-founded the political party Demosistō in 2016. Law won a seat in the Hong Kong legislature, but was removed in 2017 for departing from the prescribed oath at the swearing-in ceremony. A month later, Wong, Law, and their ally Alex Chow were imprisoned for unlawful assembly and incitement, for non-violent actions during the Umbrella Movement of 2014.
The heart of the book contains a collection of letters Wong wrote during his time in prison. They range from discussions of the boredom of jail life to moving exhortations to supporters not to give up. Wong’s sympathy for his fellow prisoners and challenges to the prison authorities bespeak an insightful and independent-minded young man. As a political dissident, writing letters from behind bars, Wong is reminiscent of his hero, Martin Luther King Jr. Indeed, Wong notes that the imprisonment of dissidents has often been a precursor to democracy—witness the achievements of Nelson Mandela and Kim Dae-jung.
Wong’s strength of character is not that of a lone, mythic hero: as he points out, countless others are fighting the same fight and being imprisoned for it.
One of the most moving letters details the fears for his family that led him to question his own actions:
Alone in my empty cell, I reflected … [that] perhaps every political movement I’ve either led or participated in over the past five years has … impact[ed] my loved ones. I’ve always operated on the assumption that I’m prepared to pay whatever price it takes to fight for my beliefs, but have I once paused to think about my family and consider the tremendous pressure that my actions, no matter how noble in my own mind, have created? Have I once sought their consent, or have I simply taken their understanding for granted?
Wong’s family is supportive of him and his resolution was only strengthened by his spell in prison, which ended later in 2017 (though he was imprisoned again for seven weeks in 2019). This is admirable: especially considering that the authorities have only become harsher since 2017.
The final part of Unfree Speech discusses recent events in Hong Kong. Last year, two million citizens protested on the streets, facing down police brutality, against a proposed extradition bill which would allow people to be tried on the Chinese mainland, where the justice system is far more corrupt. The bill was rescinded, providing another victory of a people against a superpower, which gives us reason to hope.
But the threat still looms. Wong discusses the rise of authoritarianism in India and elsewhere, urging us to see the fight for democracy as a global issue. Hong Kong, he says, is at the centre of this struggle, for the dissidents there are fighting against China, one of the most powerful states in the world, a country which has used its economic clout to bully companies like Blizzard Entertainment and Apple into doing its bidding. The CCP is stepping up its longstanding efforts to homogenise and bring under control all regions of the country—including, notoriously, Tibet and Xinjiang—in order to secure resources, tighten its grip and to become the leader of an illiberal power bloc in what is fast becoming a new cold war. China, writes Wong, is “the most powerful autocratic regime and the largest consumer market on the planet [and therefore] the single biggest threat to global democracy.”
“Our struggle has become your struggle, whether you like it or not,” he comments. And, in one of many pop culture references (he is, after all, one of “a new generation of rebel” as Ai Weiwei puts it in his introduction), he calls the Hong Kongers’ fight “an infinity war,” which “I am afraid, may be coming soon to a political theatre near you.”
What Can Be Done?
Wong provides some practical advice for those who wish to contribute to the fight. I’ve adapted parts of his advice to those who wish to support Hong Kong:
- Follow hashtags such as #StandWithHongKong on Twitter and share protestors’ tweets.
- Follow developments via independent and trustworthy news outlets, such as Hong Kong Free Press.
- Organise or participate in events in your own country in support of Hong Kong: if overseas Hong Kongers organise a protest, join it.
- Watch documentaries about resistance to oppression, such as Ten Years (2015), for more information and inspiration.
- Travel to Hong Kong to see the situation for yourself and report what you see.
- Write to your representatives and to the United Nations to demand support for Hong Kong (see Demosistō’s website for details of how to do so).
- Sign petitions.
- Patronise businesses and media outlets that resist Chinese attempts to suppress free speech and boycott those who kowtow to such attempts.
- Donate to the US-based Hong Kong Democracy Council.
- Speak to the people you know about the situation and raise awareness.
Wong also recommends some courses of actions for people concerned about the rise of autocracy in their own countries. These can be summarised as: engage in politics, vote, speak freely and openly and participate in civil society.
Free Speech, Fellow Travellers and America
Freedom of expression is a cornerstone of liberty and resistance to oppression: why then are some on both the woke left and the populist right so concerned with trampling it? Perhaps if they understood that throughout the rest of the world people are risking their freedom and lives for these basic principles, they would not be so eager to surrender their own hard-won rights. Unfree Speech is a reminder that free speech is essential to a free society. If you are on the left, you will merely be handing away freedoms to the populists who are winning elections in Europe and America right now. If you oppose free speech, you must reflect on where unfree speech might lead you—and I’m not sure you’ll like the answer.
Unless that is, you are a fellow traveller of tyranny. Right-wingers who adulate Vladimir Putin and leftists who cosy up to Iranian ayatollahs may not mind the erosion of freedom, in theory. I wonder, though, whether they would actually like to live under such a regime and what they make of the fact that so many people are suffering under and fighting against them. Ex-Muslims are often slurred as native informants for standing up to religiously mandated tyranny. Are we to dismiss all dissidents as unwitting tools of American imperialism?
I despise Donald Trump. But Wong reminds us that America is still a beacon of hope to many of the world’s oppressed. In 2019, Wong addressed a congressional committee to ask for US support for Hong Kongers. Confronted with mainland Chinese protestors outside the Capitol Building, screaming “Traitors!,” he responded, “Take a deep breath of this air of freedom in America. You don’t get much of it back home.”
Donald Trump signed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act into law last year. This Act allows the US to sanction Hong Kong officials engaged in the repression of dissent. This is a small indication that even Trump’s America can act as a friend of liberty. (Wong also commends “fearless congresswoman” Nancy Pelosi for her support of Hong Kong and her 1991 protests against the Tiananmen Square massacre).
The mass revolutionary fervour of 1848 failed; that of 1989 succeeded—Tiananmen Square aside. We should be wary of undue optimism. But we should also stand by the world’s rebels and dissenters, who are fighting not only for their own freedom, but for ours. As Wong puts it, “We are all in this together.”
And even the failed uprisings of 1848 achieved some successes, such as the destruction of absolute monarchy in Denmark. They left their mark on future generations of rebels, who succeeded in overturning tyranny. Perhaps, then, that air of 1848 and 1989 will purify us. Maybe the USA, for all its flaws, will once more become a provider of that oxygen rather than a force of suffocation—as it has been for the Kurds, for example.
So, a cautious optimism is justified. There is a battle to be fought. But it is heartening to find people like Joshua Wong on the front lines.