The protests in Hong Kong that began two months ago have now shut down the city’s airport—one of the busiest in the world—amid violent clashes with riot police in recent days. Chinese troops, we’re told, are amassing along the border even as Chinese propaganda outlets warned Tuesday that protesters were “asking for self-destruction” and Chinese officials decried the demonstrations as “deranged acts” that marked “the first signs of terrorism.”
In other words, it appears the situation is about to get much worse. Why has the American response to all this been so muted? Hong Kong is the most important city in the world right now, and the cause of the pro-democracy protesters is one that all Americans should rally behind.
Yet, rhetorically, it’s not even clear what side the United States is on. President Trump has been content to offer platitudes and unhelpful observations like, “We’ll see what happens. But I’m sure it’ll work out. I hope it works out for everybody, including China, by the way.” On Tuesday, he tweeted, “Our Intelligence has informed us that the Chinese Government is moving troops to the Border with Hong Kong. Everyone should be calm and safe!”
Okay, thanks for that, president of United States and leader of the free world.
News and social media have largely focused on other stories, like Chris Cuomo flying off the handle at some random guy in New York calling him “Fredo,” or whether the Clintons had Jeffrey Epstein assassinated, or how stupid the 2020 Democratic candidates look eating corn dogs and pandering at the Iowa Sate Fair.
Meanwhile in Hong Kong, protesters are waving the American flag and singing the “Star-Spangled Banner.” They do this because they know that America is an idea and that the principles of our Founding are universal.
They also know that those universal principles—that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed—terrify their communist rulers.
Even so, what the protesters are really asking for is rather modest: a measure of relative autonomy, and specifically for the proposed Chinese extradition law to be taken off the table. As some have pointed out, this too hearkens back America’s rebellion against Great Britain, when in the Declaration of Independence the Founders decried the king and Parliament “for transporting us beyond Seas to be tried for pretended offences.”
Protestors in Hong Kong are using the American flag and anthem as a symbol of freedom to rally.pic.twitter.com/QNyJdQlG1Q
— Melissa_Strategic ⭐️⭐️⭐️ (@Melis_Strategic) August 11, 2019
American Indifference Is Dangerous
We have every reason, indeed every obligation, to stand in solidarity with Hong Kong. Our government arguably has every reason to do quite a bit more than that. So why aren’t we? Why hasn’t any of this stirred our collective imagination?
Earlier this week, Tyler Cowen posited the reason is that, “Americans and many others around the world simply do not care so much anymore about international struggles for liberty.” The internationalist bent of democratic revolutions in the 18th and 19th centuries has faded, as has the spirit of anti-Communist movements during the Cold War. Americans, suggests Cowen, are too busy fighting each other and waging culture war ahead of the 2020 election to pay attention to struggles for liberty abroad.
It might also be that Americans have seen too many such struggles end badly in recent years to invest much emotional energy or inspiration this time around. Whether it’s been a movement in which protesters were repressed by an authoritarian regime, like the 2009 Green Revolution in Iran, or a movement where the protesters ostensibly got what they wanted, like in Egypt’s Arab Spring, but things turned out badly anyway, maybe Americans are wary of another uprising gone wrong.
More likely, our apathy over Hong Kong stems from something worse than fatigue, cynicism, or even our own domestic fights. Maybe it’s because many of us don’t really believe in the great promise of America anymore. We don’t really believe we are the last, best hope for liberty on the earth, and we don’t really hate and fear totalitarianism or tyranny as we should because we’ve convinced ourselves that our system is no better than those enforced from Beijing or Moscow.
After all, if America is a white supremacist country with a racist president, if we can’t deliver universal health care and free college, if we can’t stop mass shootings and rising drug addiction and suicide rates, then who are we to judge? Confidence in our institutions has been eroding for decades, and now we’re beginning to see signs that young Americans’ confidence in the government and the basic trustworthiness of their fellow citizens is in serious decline.
This isolation and wariness is connected to our apathy, which isn’t just poisonous to our American experiment, it’s dangerous—and not only for us. The protesters in Hong Kong clearly still believe in the promise of America. The question is, do we?