I arrived in Hong Kong for the second time, after a year there as a student, in the spring of 1989. I got there about a week before the death of Hu Yaobang, the event that—thirty years ago next Monday—sparked what was later to become known as “Beijing Spring.”
It was an exciting time, a time when hope seemed to float in the air, and when the notoriously apolitical, “practical” Hong-Kongers marched in the streets in support of their mainland brethren. And even though everyone will say now that they “knew it was coming”, it crushed our hearts when we saw the tanks rolling in to Tiananmen Square and we knew it was over. We knew that the dreams of those young Chinese people had been smashed.
It’s how I feel today, watching the video of Julian Assange being dragged from the Ecuadorian Embassy in London. We all “knew it was coming”, and the people for whom these things don’t matter that much will smirk and tell us so. As if that’s what matters.
And I feel now that I owe those young Chinese people some kind of apology. Because I was a little arrogant in how I saw them. I came from a culture where so many of the freedoms they hungered for—to be able to speak and read and write what you choose, to travel as you please, choose your own job, choose where you lived, etc.—were freedoms that I took for granted. I felt that Chinese culture was only just entering its infancy in terms of human liberty, and I felt a certain (completely unearned) superiority because of that.
But sitting here today, watching a man be thrown into a police van for helping to reveal a government’s crimes; watching many of my fellow Americans cheer as government agents in New York City hunt down the unvaccinated; wondering aloud with friends as to when various modes of our communication will be shut down because of what we say, or how best to store for ourselves information before it is erased from the Internet, disappeared from history… it is getting much harder to feel arrogant.
I think back to those Chinese kids in Tiananmen Square, and how young and naive—and yes, probably manipulated too—they were. But as much as I thought their demands didn’t get to the point, as much as I despaired their belief that “democracy” would make things better, at least there was some clarity to what they were asking for, and at least they had an understanding that it was the government that was the problem. They were on the right track, and I do believe they were honestly trying to find a way to live freer lives.
Contrast that with young American demonstrators in 2019, who demand censorship, and who stage protests, not when the state violates their freedom, but when speakers say things that upset them. It is as if, in the space of a few decades, they have completely obliterated an entire tradition that sought to uphold human freedom and the value of the individual. So if I’m going to take credit for my own culture’s accomplishments, I’m thinking I might just want to lie low for a while.
Here’s something I learned traveling in China, both before and after those demonstrations:
First, cultural differences are real. Chinese culture doesn’t have a tradition of respect for individual rights (or even individuals, in many ways) that Western culture has. There are values and behaviors that are rooted in our culture, much of it rooted in the Judeo-Christian part of our culture, that just aren’t rooted in Chinese culture. And those things really do make a difference.
That said, there were many many times when I met people from this culture that was palpably different from my own, and we soon came to realize that we did share some values. These people seemed to be very much in the minority, and it seemed that some of them really struggled with the rest of Chinese society. They may not have had the cultural grounding in the traditions of upholding liberty that I had, but they knew, somehow they knew that how they were living wasn’t right. They knew that people shouldn’t be treated the way they were under communism, and they believed that things could be better.
So tonight, this is the one thing that gives me hope: That despite thousands of years of culture telling them otherwise, despite years of sometimes violent indoctrination, there are people who know better. They just know that people should be free, that the rights of individuals should be respected, and that human beings themselves are precious and deserving of respect, not collectives or ideologies or “causes.” And they know this no matter what they’ve been told to believe. I’ve seen first hand that there are people who “just know” these things, as if there is something inside them telling them, something that is not dependent upon culture or race or even indoctrination or teaching. It’s the one thing that gives me a little bit of peace tonight.