Hong Kong's dangerous miracle

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The democracy movement in Hong Kong, with its ideal of political freedom and its embodiment of it in spontaneous and decentralised organisation, is one of many such revolutions, most of them short lived. It is inspiring because of its idealism, and poignant because its historical precedents demonstrate the power of the forces arrayed against it.

Protesters retreat after they to break the windows of Mahjong house in Tsuen Wan on 25 August 2019 in Hong Kong. (Photo by Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images)The archetype of the democratic ideal is ancient Athens where a rich literary, artistic and philosophical culture flourished, and where all citizens were involved in the decisions of government. It represented a freedom in which people could express themselves creatively and argue for and participate in personal and public projects before their fellow citizens.

More recent scholars have drawn attention to how the freedom of Athenian citizens to spend their days debating and deciding matters of public concern (not to mention dallying in the baths) depended on the institution of slavery and the subordination of women. The price of the freedom of the wealthy few was the subjugation of the impoverished many.

This paradox had consequences. In order to continue to enjoy cultural and political freedom and growth Athens sought to increase its wealth through colonial expansion. This yielded tribute and more slaves from weaker states. Over time wealth became entrenched in the hands of relatively few Athenians and fear grew of the 'mob': those excluded from citizenship both at home and abroad. The freedom and shared responsibility characteristic of Athenian democracy yielded to oligarchy whose main aim was to enshrine privilege at the expense of freedom.

In Rome the same dynamic bred the security state where political culture was built on the deification of the Emperor and the power of a formidable army and engineering corps. This ensured that streams of wealth flowed from the conquered peoples in the Empire to the powerful few and then to citizens more generally. Political freedom was an oxymoron. Free association of people to discuss the affairs of state was limited to a small elite out of fear of the mob of slaves, mercenaries and local patriots. Ordinary people traded political freedom for security from famine and war.

When seen against this background, the behaviour of the protesters in Hong Kong can only seem extraordinary and provocative. The protests against the likely loss of political freedom appear to have the support of the majority of the population, and vast numbers of people from different sectors of society have participated in them. They have privileged freedom over security and have faced down the wealthy oligarchs in Hong Kong who stand to benefit from the erosion of political freedom.

The protests are also extraordinary because they enact the creative and collaborative contribution to public life which is the rationale of political freedom. In doing so they show up the lack of respect, intelligence, strategy and effectiveness of those who have tried to shut them down.

 

"When confronted by such an exercise of political freedom, all of China's instincts will be to crush it. Not because its political tradition differs from that of the west in this respect but because it is similar."

 

The informal organisation, lack of hierarchy and of shared ideology, the inclusiveness, the ability to adapt strategies to circumstance, the invitation to contribute creatively to the demonstrations and the willingness of people to set aside their own projects and desires for the common good have continually left the Hong Kong administration flailing for a response. The qualities of the protest are those on which an energetic and prosperous state could be built.

Precisely because this demand for and exercise of freedom has been so creative, effective, attractive and inclusive, however, they are also provocative. They play David to China's Goliath, making a powerful State look cumbersome and lead footed.

When confronted by such an exercise of political freedom, all of China's instincts will be to crush it. Not because its political tradition differs from that of the West in this respect but because it is similar. China shares many features with the Roman Empire. It is an oligarchy of privileged citizens that gives high priority to security and surveillance out of a historically justifiable fear of mob unrest.

It also has an implicit contract with its citizens to increase the living standards of its people at the expense of political freedoms and any pretension to an equal society. To that end it has built a large army, an all-pervasive security system, and wishes to expand trade and political influence in order to secure growth and higher living standards. To see political freedom exercised so attractively and effectively in a way that makes the local oligarchs seem irrelevant must bring to the Chinese leaders intimations of mortality. Many will think that, like Carthage, it must be destroyed.

That is why it is impossible not to feel apprehensive, as well as full of admiration, when watching from afar the demonstrations in Hong Kong. Whatever happens, however, this miracle of political freedom cannot be erased. It will remain a vision of possibility and a judgment of oligarchy for citizens in China and elsewhere.

 

 

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.

Main image: Protesters retreat after they to break the windows of Mahjong house in Tsuen Wan on 25 August 2019 in Hong Kong. (Photo by Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Hong Kong, China, Democracy

 

 

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Existing comments

Certainly, admiration yet apprehension for the protesters, particularly when the Chinese Defence Minister, Wei Fenghe, recently stated that China’s actions in Tiananmen Square 30 years ago were “correct”, and the first shot was fired by a police officer last Sunday. Ironically, while the Hong Kong protesters fly the American flag and demand the freedoms we take for granted, in Portland, Oregon, Antifa protesters fly the communist hammer and sickle flag and demand socialism.
Ross Howard | 26 August 2019


It has been breathtaking to witness the Hong Kong protests. Very recently, I watched on TV as a reporter asked a protester "would you die for this cause?" to which this reply was forthcoming "I hope not but if I do it is destiny". That is passion with a very large capital letter. Of course, China can and probably will crush this rebellion. However, as W H Auden noted: And what dictators do,/The elderly rubbish they talk/to an apathetic grave.
Pam | 27 August 2019


Thugs, bullies and primitive barbarians who pose a far greater threat to Humanity, Christianity and the children of the future that the worst that Western society can dish up. And the West, epitomised by this country's dealings with China in our educational institutions, pastoral industries, property ownership and "democratic" system of government rushes headlong towards its own demise! But then a few of our oligarchs are making plenty of money out of China -so who care's?
john frawley | 27 August 2019


Fr Andrew, I like the analogy between David and Goliath. But the 7 million citizens of HongKong may need some modern hardware to back their struggle - just as David required some stones, a slingshot and a sword. The barbarian Goliath at the gate, Xi Jingpig, has no regard for human rights or the freedoms that we consider make life worth living. He is on a mission to seize whatever undefended territory he can. Currently "Religion in Hong Kong is characterized by a multi-faith diversity of beliefs and practices. Most of the Hong Kong people of Chinese descent practice Chinese folk religion—which may include Confucian and Taoist doctrines and ritual traditions—or Buddhism, mostly of the Chinese variety." Source Wikipedia. There are also approximately 390,000 catholics and 480,000 Anglicans. These religions and their churches and temples are doomed once the tanks roll in. History tells us if the civilians do nothing then the mainland Barbarians will surely prevail and China's fourth Reich will roll over their dreams. The citizens of HK need some equality with the Barbarians. But will any nation be game to step into the breach? Violence, intimidation, shrieking vitriol, lies and murder were the hallmarks of Tibet's annexation.
Francis Armstrong | 28 August 2019


Hong Kong was British up until very recently. For all the critique of 'colonialism' - sometimes kneejerk and formulaic - and paternalism - sometimes justified, I think the average citizen of Hong Kong had much more political freedom then he/she has now. Certainly Chris Paton was an excellent Governor; an astute former politician and a genuine Christian with real ethics. He foresaw the dark night that is now descending. There was a shallow and racist stereotype that all Hong Kongers were just interested in making money and nothing else. This was and is unmitigated codswallop. Many Hong Kongers were educated in the UK or at the excellent (British) international schools in HK itself. HK was always much more multicultural and integrated as such than mainland China. You only have to look at the authenticated treatment of the ethnic Uighur minority in China or the way China forces Chinese firms to work as her agents abroad to see its totalitarian nature. Meanwhile, back in Australia, Chinese students are marshalled as public supporters of her ends. I fear for the collective and individual future of the recent HK protesters. I also fear our government and large China oriented business will do nothing to shake the boat because of short term economic considerations.
Edward Fido | 28 August 2019


Brilliant. Thank you. "Ordinary people traded political freedom for security from famine and war.". Exactly the situation in China and much of Asia where to be a modern consumer is more important (understandably) than to be political.
ANDREW LUKAS | 30 August 2019


Thank you for such a well written and informative article.
Iain Gow | 30 August 2019


The sheer numbers alone in China create an inevitability of that country's aspirations to dominate the world. And in the power game of dominoes Australia is a reasonably close next target, following Hong Kong's demise. For once I am glad that death may claim me before our country is totally run by the inhumane and ruthless PRC. But I fear for the succeeding generations. I empathise mightily with John's view.
Henri | 30 August 2019


Most important article to help understand HK situation: https://news.rthk.hk/rthk/en/component/k2/1477764-20190830.htm
John Wotherspoon | 30 August 2019


I have nothing but full admiration for the Hong Kong people/students and their demands for their democratic demands. United they Stand and we all can learn that there is Power to the People if united in peaceful ways when possible.
Mary Adams | 31 August 2019


Its strong emotional support well expressed, I'd have agreed till a couple of weeks ago when a Chinese friend spoke about the number of American flags being waved, and British too. I was sceptical then but not now. The flags are prominently waved around the US embassy, and there's a direct demand for the US to come and save them. If an influential contingent of Hong Kongers are lining up to be used as a new American cats paw in Asia we should all be worried.
Jillian | 09 September 2019


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