Lafayette Square in Washington DC, Statue Square in Hong Kong, or Tiananmen Square in Beijing? Images of police and military uniforms, firearms, tear gas, and people protesting while others destroy or steal property are distressing no matter where they occur. It would be easy for an observer of daily news bulletins this week to assume there is equivalence between the tragic events unfolding across many cities in the United States of America, Hong Kong in recent months, and those that transpired in China 31 years ago this week.
While the incidents may appear similar, the differences are fundamental.
Unlike mainland China, in the US over coming days, weeks and months, the legislature and judicial system—both separate from each other and from executive government—will hold perpetrators of criminal acts, from all sides, accountable for their actions. Most importantly, informed by a free press that broadcasts to their nation and the world, the American people will have the opportunity to dismiss or re-appoint their national leader in November this year.
In Hong Kong, the protests are an attempt by the population to hold on to these same basic freedoms; freedoms which have been part of their rights under the common law system inherited from the United Kingdom. These very freedoms—to voice their opinion, to assemble and to protest —are under threat due to a decision by the Chinese Communist Party to impose their own laws on Hong Kong in breach of the legally binding Sino-British Joint Declaration. While the majority of protestors have peacefully pressed their point, the violence and wanton destruction of property by some is illegal and should be condemned, as it should in the US or any other nation.
In China, 31 years after the Chinese Communist Party deployed combat troops to crush calls for freedom by its own civilians in what is now remembered as the Tiananmen Square massacre, nobody has been held to account. The subsequent investigations and mass arrests that did occur were not of officials or soldiers, but of student and worker protestors, many of whom were summarily tried and executed.
These fundamental differences are overlooked by the authoritarian regimes of Iran, Russia, North Korea and China, all of whom have issued opportunistic statements in recent days about the tragedy unfolding in America and the implied double standards of democratic nations.
There is no doubt that democratic governments and societies are not perfect. But as Sir Winston Churchill is often quoted as saying, ‘Many forms of Government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.…’
Such opportunistic attempts by these nations to create an equivalence in the mind of the public, however, are clumsy at best and disingenuous in their intent. When the spokesperson for China’s Foreign Ministry, Zhao Lijian, urges the U.S. to “safeguard and guarantee the legal rights of ethnic minorities” during a recent press conference, the world should remember the Uighurs.
The fault line of race relations in America has spanned generations and proved resistant to the efforts of reformers such as Dr Martin Luther King and America’s first African American President, Barack Obama. There are starkly different views about the performance of the current Administration in the US and the management of the latest flare up of inter-communal tensions. No matter how one views the response to the US crisis, it cannot be compared to Beijing’s calculated decision to systematically detain over one million Uighurs (a religious and ethnic minority) in re-education camps in an attempt to eradicate their faith, culture, and identify. Neither circumstance is good, but only one is planned and executed in an Orwellian manner that is intended to crush dissent and free thought.
This is what the people of Hong Kong fear in light of the National People’s Congress’ decision to impose new national security laws on the territory. They fear that the flickering candle of democracy represented by Article 27 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law which states that “Hong Kong residents shall have freedom of speech, of the press and of publication; freedom of association, of assembly, of procession and of demonstration; and the right and freedom to form and join trade unions, and to strike” will be extinguished.
This week, as America struggles, Hong Kong fears, and the Chinese Communist Party wants the world to forget, we need to act. Those of us who have the freedom to, should condemn brutality by authorities and destructive violence by protestors. Those of us who have the freedom to, should work to bridge divisions that run along racial or ethnic grounds. Those of us who have the freedom to, must speak up for democratic values at home and abroad.