My formative years saw David Hasselhoff singing “Looking for Freedom” atop the Berlin Wall (1989) and Scorpions singing “Winds of Change” (1991) as the Soviet Union prepared to fall.
It was an optimistic time filled with hope for the future of people around the world who would be able to write their own destinies as they saw fit, and a time when it seemed the U.S. itself might even be inspired by it.
Frank Fukuyama wrote about “The End of History” first as an article (1989) and then a book (1992) speculating that we had reached a point of victory for humanity where liberal democracy had triumphed for good.
1989 wasn’t entirely triumphant. It’s been 30 years since ‘Tank Man’ stood athwart the People’s Liberation Army of China, in what seemed like an historical moment for that nation. We’ve seen much economic liberalization yet personal liberty has remained restricted.
Looking back the hopefulness of this era seems so, and I feel so, naive. In both security policy and economics we’ve forgotten which direction traffic flowed over the Berlin Wall, and indeed we’re seeking to build new walls. We used to talk about the ‘peace dividend’ but militaries are larger than ever. Trade which has brought so much wealth to the world, and the world’s least advantaged, is derided as a destructive force. How is it that we came so far, yet have forgotten so much?
Maybe that’s why I find the protesters in Hong Kong so inspiring. I’ve been advising against travel there as a tourist since before protests made their way to the airport. That doesn’t mean I turn my back on their cause.
Hong Kong and Kowloon were ceded in perpetuity in the 19th century to Great Britain, and the New Territories were ceded until 1997 just before the turn of the century. In 1984 the U.K. and China agreed that the entire area would revert to mainland China in 1997, but Hong Kong’s market-oriented institutions would remain in place for 50 years – through 2047.
Now, 22 years in, China treats Hong Kong as a Special Administrative Region. There’s passport control between Hong Kong and the mainland. But Beijing exercises increasing amounts of control.
Hong Kong has faced massive and escalating protests over mainland China’s control. The proximate cause was proposed legislation that would allow Hong Kong residents to be extradited to mainland China at the request of Beijing, however protests have expanded to seek greater freedom and less intervention from mainland China.
No one knows for sure what happened to tank man. The quarter of the entire Hong Kong population that’s turned out in protests is well aware of what can happen to anyone defying the Chinese state.
And while they talk about ‘free elections’ what they don’t seek to be merely one vote in support of Beijing, they want freedom.
Tell me you can watch this without tearing up.
More than thousand HKers sing Les Miserables' 'Do you hear the people sing?' at HK international airport with their calls for free election and democracy. Here is the Ground Zero in the war against authoritarian rule. That's the reason for us never surrender. pic.twitter.com/1MkTp4BkVg
— Joshua Wong 黃之鋒 (@joshuawongcf) August 10, 2019
“Do You hear the people sing,” by the way, is banned in China.
Myself I can’t look at the images from the airport, and elsewhere, without crying. This may be the most ‘Hong Kong-ish’ photo ever:
【Sorry for inconvenience. HK is sick.】
1. We would like to sincerely apologize for all inconvenience caused by the peaceful demonstration at the HK International Airport. pic.twitter.com/jduMrjBh4I
— Joshua Wong 黃之鋒 (@joshuawongcf) August 14, 2019
Chinese troops, meanwhile, mass near Hong Kong.
We can confirm the presence of a large number of Chinese paramilitary troops stationed at a sports complex in Shenzhen, just miles from the border with Hong Kong. Some seen here carrying shields and helmets. An officer wouldn’t tell us why they were there and forced us to leave. pic.twitter.com/cUzRLdiqb5
— Matt Rivers (@MattRiversCNN) August 14, 2019
The official U.S. position is “it’s none of our business” – such a departure from U.S. support for the Solidarity movement in Poland.
Wilbur Ross to CNBC on Hong Kong: "The question of it is what role is there for the U.S. in that manner? This is an internal matter."
— Eliana Johnson (@elianayjohnson) August 14, 2019
It’s not clear what the U.S. can do, or any of us can beyond paying attention, outside intervention could just as easily play into Chinese hands dismissing and minimizing the moment as some sort of external plot, delegitimizing the grassroots nature of the protests.
We may not be able to do very much, but we have our sympathy to offer and we can be inspired by what people will risk for freedom and not be so cavalier about giving away our own.