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Why Is The Western Left So Quiet About Hong Kong?

Hong Kong protests

The ongoing pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong have won the support of broad swathes of American society, with the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act passing the House and Senate with nearly unanimous support.

This bill requires the president to identify human rights violators in Hong Kong and sanction them, and to annually certify that Hong Kong’s democratic system, guaranteed under China’s “One Country, Two Systems” framework, remains a reality. If it isn’t (i.e., if Beijing intervenes too much in Hong Kong), Hong Kong could lose its special access to U.S. trade and finance.

Thus far, the protestors have won several significant contests: the extradition bill was withdrawn, the police have once again begun to allow peaceful assemblies, and the opposition parties dominated the recent local elections.

Why Is Rubio Doing More than Democrats?

Sen. Marco Rubio has led the legislative efforts to defend Hong Kong’s democracy, prompting the leftist magazine The Nation to ask, “Why is Marco Rubio doing more than the Democratic Party for the people of Hong Kong?” The Federalist’s own Ben Domenech came to Hong Kong and attended several protests.

GOP Sen. Josh Hawley visited Hong Kong during the protests, while the socialists at Jacobin magazine just got around to explaining why the left should support Hong Kong a week ago, after more than 25 continuous weeks of protest. Their earlier coverage was mixed with tsk-tsk-ing about the lack of labor activism in the Hong Kong protests, and the presence of “Hong Kong localists.”

Even before the protests, Hong Kong opinionmakers recognized that American conservatives have close ties to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. This is not to diminish the sincere support of many Democrats and progressives, but the enthusiasm gap is real.

Meanwhile, in the kulturkampf that seems to accompany all politics nowadays, progressive cultural figures have come off poorly. During the Houston Rockets/Daryl Morey blowup, the NBA institutionally defended the right to free speech, but dozens of players, and in particular many players with outspoken domestic political opinions like Lebron James, condemned the tweet.

Corporate titans of woke capital, including Apple, Blizzard, and others, were either silent or actively opposed the Hong Kong protests. When Pope Francis was asked about Hong Kong during his visit to Japan, his response was, “I would like to go to Beijing; I love China.” The pope has not hesitated to critique Western Catholic leaders on many issues, yet held his progressive fire on Hong Kong.

Where Have All the Lefty Westerners Gone?

Meanwhile, within Hong Kong, leftists have grown increasingly frustrated, and are publicly wondering why they have been spurned by the international left. Many U.S. conservatives, like Solomon Yue, a minor Republican Party official, have been very outspoken on behalf of Hong Kong. As a result, they get widely shared on Hong Kong social media.

In fact, many conservative news outlets, including The Federalist, have been widely shared among Hong Kongers. Whereas in 2014 Hong Kong’s “Umbrella Revolution” protestors felt kinship with the leftist Black Lives Matter movement, today’s Hong Kongers are burning Lebron James jerseys.

This hard pivot has given many Western-connected leftist observers whiplash. Particularly among non-Chinese leftists who live in Hong Kong, or American-educated Hong Kongers, there’s been a scramble to try to police which Western media Hong Kongers read.

Whether circulating “do not reshare” lists trying to tell Hong Kongers not to retweet American conservatives (even if those conservatives are actively support Hong Kong), or alleging that U.S. conservative support is phony, or mocking American conservative patriotism, the progressives who dominate the English-language media environment in Hong Kong have been driven into fits explaining why Republicans are the bad guys, even though Republicans are working overtime to support Hong Kong. Some Western-connected leftists simply cannot decide whether they want to support Hong Kong, and if they do support Hong Kong, they definitely don’t want to accidentally agree with Rubio.

Mostly, Hong Kongers have ignored this effort to rewrite their movement along Western progressive lines. Hong Kongers who decided to work with America, and especially with American conservatives, got actual legislation passed. China’s government noticed this success, and banned activist Joshua Wong from going to Italy to testify before Italy’s Senate. But that just irritated the Italians even more, and now populist-led Italy has passed legislation supporting Hong Kong too.

What’s Really Going On

It would be all too easy to take gratuitous potshots at this confusion on the left, but it’s vital not to overstate the case: the vast majority of people on the political left do support Hong Kong, as evinced by bipartisan backing for legislation supporting Hong Kong.

The reason Western minders have to keep policing what articles Hong Kong protestors share is not because Western leftists don’t support Hong Kong, but because of a more general American and Western tendency: imposing our political beliefs on foreign countries. They’re annoyed that Hong Kongers aren’t turning out to be the left-revolutionaries that Western observers want them to be.

Yes, somewhere between 10 percent and a third of the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement is made up of “localists” who want to restrict immigration, privilege the Cantonese language, and encourage a “Hong Kong for Hong Kong people” mentality. While Western conservatives and progressives may see something like Western nationalism in this, the localist movement also generally supports generous social services, is supported by local community groups in poor neighborhoods, and advocates for more progressive social values.

Caveating support for Hong Kong because Hong Kong localists believe the same things anti-colonialists have believed in every country is really strange, but it’s a symptom of the left’s increasingly deep commitment to multiculturalism. The rhetoric of communal liberation and peoplehood is increasingly hard for some (especially white) activists on the left to grasp.

Yes, Hong Kong protestors wave American flags at rallies. While Western progressives may like to burn American flags as a protest symbol, for many people around the world, the American promise still means something. In a country where burning the flag gets you a jail sentence, waving the flag of a place where flag-burning (and speech generally) is uncensored is a politically sophisticated testament to faith in limited, constitutional, and representative government. There’s no need to tut-tut the stars and stripes.

Yes, Hong Kong protestors share memes of an over-muscled Trump. So what? The Swedes gave President Obama a Nobel Peace Prize right before he started bombing Yemenis and one to Aung San Suu Kyi right before she initiated a genocidal campaign against the Rohingya, and Kosovars still see Bill Clinton as a great figure of national liberation and progress.

Foreigners always have oversimplified views of any country’s politics. If a group of protestors whose specific demand is for the right to vote for their chief executive want to wave some silly pictures of the most powerful elected leader in the world, who are Western progressives to gainsay them?

Stop Imposing Your Ideas on Other Countries

It’s worth noting here that the impulse to impose American political conflicts onto other countries at the expense of truly national interests or values is not unique to the left. I’ve criticized Steve King on similar grounds. But left or right, the tendency to try to force foreign politics to fit American molds is bad, and today in Hong Kong, leftists are guiltier of this ideological imposition.

This behavior isn’t just bad, it’s dangerous. I worried about writing this article because there’s nothing Hong Kong’s opponents would love so much as to see foreigners treat Hong Kong as a partisan issue. But it isn’t. While conservatives have indeed led the way on the issue, the vast majority of people on the political left have done their part too.

The noisy, woke, and Very Online voices of those who would set up an opposition between American values or conservative values and the advance of democracy should be ignored. For all our divisions, Americans across the political spectrum remain deeply committed to liberty and self-government.

Yes, we will rip each other apart arguing about how to apply these principles to bathrooms or healthcare or ID cards or any number of other issues. And yes, there are a few people on the left whose reticence to support Hong Kong should be a quite literal red flag to even their fellow activists on the left. But on the most fundamental questions of the human right to self-government, every reasonable voice in America has spoken up to say: 香港人, 加油 (Hong Kong people, add oil).