There is a bitter Orwellian irony about what's been happening recently to the cause of freedom in the world. The evaporation of democratic rights in Hong Kong at the hands of Communist China is helping to expose a new malevolence, closer to home. Something of immense consequence is occurring: a civilizational self-loathing, a perverse disenchantment with the concept of government by consent of the governed.
In the two nations that have done the most to advance democracy and human rights over the past century, the United States and Great Britain, political and cultural elites have acquiesced as violent mobs continue to assault the statues, images, and symbols that embody the highest human achievements of our civilization. Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, Christopher Columbus, and even the abolitionist and statesman Frederick Douglass have all been targeted in America, while in Britain statues of Winston Churchill and Queen Victoria, as well as London’s sacred Cenotaph war memorial, have been attacked by rioters. No one is safe from the guillotine of rage unleashed by the radical Left. Basic civil liberties—including free speech, academic freedom, and religious freedom—are considered disposable by the new Jacobins of social justice.
Meanwhile, as angry crowds gathered in London, Bristol, and Oxford to denounce Great Britain for its imperial past, peaceful demonstrators in Hong Kong rallied to preserve their civil liberties, with some displaying the Union Jack. As petulant protesters marched in Washington, New York, and other American cities to curse the United States as irredeemably racist, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy activists were flying the American flag.
“Courage is the first of human qualities,” Churchill said, “because it is the quality that guarantees all the others.” The deficit of courage—the failure to honor and defend the ideals and institutions that have built our civilization—is a harbinger of democratic decline. By contrast, the people of Hong Kong have given the West a lesson in moral courage.
Indeed, China’s decision last week to impose its national-security law on Hong Kong is the regime’s latest attempt to silence the brave voices of democratic dissent. Those voices came to a crescendo in 2019 when a third of the city’s 7.5 million people gathered in demonstrations to thwart Beijing’s effort to extend its authoritarian rule. In the 1984 Sino–British Joint Declaration, China pledged to respect Hong Kong’s autonomy and freedom of speech, of assembly, and of the press. But Beijing has long viewed the former British colony as a threat to its dictatorial system and a sanctuary of Western cultural influence. The new national-security law, which bans “terrorist activities” and “collusion” with foreign actors, effectively terminates Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” of governance guaranteed by international law.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam claims that “the life and property” and “legitimate basic rights and freedoms” of citizens will be protected. But the thousands who have taken to the streets in the days after the new law went into effect do not believe her. Their agnosticism is rooted in their understanding of the nature of the Communist regime and in the dreary facts on the ground. China will now openly embed its security forces in Hong Kong to identify and silence opposition, including public criticism and peaceful demonstrations against the party’s rule. Beijing also has new powers to intervene in Hong Kong’s legal system: The city’s independent judiciary, one of the legacies of British colonial rule, is effectively over. China’s goal is to emphatically crush all dissent and any hint of free speech in Hong Kong. It even seeks to muzzle companies in the West that do business with China and Hong Kong. In other words, Hong Kong’s Western-style freedoms and institutions are coming to an end.
“From now on,” writes 23-year-old Joshua Wong, the best-known face of the pro-democracy movement, “Hong Kong enters a new era of reign of terror ... with arbitrary prosecutions, black jails, secret trials, forced confessions, media clampdowns and political censorship.” Benedict Rogers, co-founder of the U.K.-based Hong Kong Watch, agrees. “This new security law is the absolute death knell of Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy—both in its substance and effect, and in the way in which it was imposed on Hong Kong, without even going through the pretence of a process of consultation locally,” he says. “This is the arrival of Orwellian repression on the very frontline of freedom, and must be met with a robust, united and coordinated response by the free world, or the Chinese Communist Party will not stop at Hong Kong.”
Hence the dark irony. The purveyors of false and hateful narratives about the United States and Great Britain—from Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States to the New York Times’ 1619 Project to the upper echelons of the taxpayer-funded British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)—are too obtuse and jaded to grasp it. Twenty-somethings in Hong Kong stand up to tear gas, bullets, batons, arrest, and imprisonment to defend their right to speak their minds. But the editorial mandarins at the Times and other elite journals cannot stand up to the infantile cancel culture in their ranks. Students, writers, artists, and blue-collar workers regularly defy the Chinese security apparatus. But corporate moguls at Apple, Disney, ESPN, Google, and Nike, for example, kowtow like frightened children to the Communist thugs in Beijing. The collective cowardice of leftist elites—in politics, academia, business, entertainment, and journalism—beggars belief.
Thankfully, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson has vowed to stand with the people of Hong Kong, offering safe haven to roughly 3 million Hong Kongers (U.K.-passport holders as well as holders of a British National Overseas Passport), who will also have the right to apply to become British citizens after five years if they choose to settle in the United Kingdom. The response from Beijing has been furious and menacing, but Brexit Britain is standing its ground. Johnson, a devotee of Winston Churchill and Margaret Thatcher, has adopted a bulldog-style determination in the face of China’s threats, and his outstanding leadership on the Hong Kong issue should be emulated across Europe.
And here in the United States, the Senate has just unanimously passed measures to hold to account Chinese officials and companies complicit in Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong. The bipartisan Hong Kong Autonomy Act sends a clear message to China’s ruling Communist Party that there are consequences for its violation of the rights and freedoms of the people of Hong Kong. Nikki Haley, former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, put it bluntly in a recent tweet: “China’s goal: Force companies that do business in Hong Kong & individuals who travel to Hong Kong into silence. It’s an assault on free speech in America. American businesses need to stand up to Communist China & lawmakers must take stronger steps to hold China accountable.”
The U.S.–U.K. special relationship continues to be the strongest bulwark in the world against Chinese repression, and it is significant that it is London and Washington that are taking the lead in standing up to the Chinese dragon.
In his farewell address to the American people, Ronald Reagan called for “an informed patriotism”—that is, an understanding of our history that is honest, yet inspiring. He asked, “Are we doing a good enough job teaching our children what America is and what she represents in the long history of the world?” He worried about the answer—about the cultural consequences of neglecting or perverting our history. The same question, of course, is being asked today in the United States and Great Britain. The answer coming from the radical Left, however, is an account of history engulfed in resentment and hatred: a visceral, quasi-religious assault against the achievements of these two great experiments in democratic self-government.
Reagan implored his audience to recover and transmit America’s legacy of justice, liberty, and prosperity to the next generation. His description of the United States applies equally to Great Britain, whose influence over America’s political ideals was profound and enduring: “We’ve got to do a better job of getting across that America is freedom—freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of enterprise—and freedom is special and rare. It’s fragile; it needs protection.”
Liberty is not self-sustaining: It must be defended. No one understands that truth today better than the citizens of Hong Kong.
This piece originally appeared in the National Review