Beijing's authoritarian government and the Umbrella Movement protesters know something that legions of China experts around the world do not: This political force has the potential to effect change not only in Hong Kong, but across the world's most populous country. In so doing, it would make the region and world safer for the United States and its allies.
One visiting Chinese student protester summed up the potential awakening that haunts the minds of Beijing's tyrants. He wrote of the process of choosing China's leaders
, "It is not even in our mindset to consider the legitimacy and integrity of that process. We don't know that it's possible to ask, 'What do we want?'"
But he does now. Celebrating the spark of freedom that opened his eyes, he admonished his compatriots: "You have no idea how people in the dark corners of the world, me included, covet it."
Protesters have taken to the streets in the city before, but never like they did last fall. Historians may look back on 2014 as a meridian in time, when the fight for democracy in Hong Kong evolved from parliamentary jousting and isolated voices in the wilderness into a broader mass movement. Figures like Martin Lee, who founded the Democratic Party in Hong Kong, and Cardinal Joseph Zen, who spoke unhesitatingly about Chinese human rights, have passed the torch to a new, broader, younger set of actors. What in the past was linked to a few personalities is today a movement with wide generational appeal -- a nightmare for Beijing.
No historical analogy is perfect, but what is happening in Hong Kong may be as significant for China as the emergence of Solidarity in 1980 was to Poland. Poles had risen up in each decade since communism was imposed on them, only to be crushed by still-confident and powerful Communist authorities, crucially backed by the force of the imperial center. Solidarity marked the turning point, and in 1989 it finally succeeded in starting the wave of liberty that freed Central Europe. In Poland then, and perhaps today in Hong Kong, a political current that previously had been spontaneous and easily dispersed gained a degree of organization and durability. Like Solidarity, this new movement will make mistakes, suffer setbacks and face seemingly impossible odds. But it will also carry with it a spark that one day, without much warning, might trigger a revolution that sweeps more than just Hong Kong.
This year, the movement will very likely force officials in Hong Kong and Beijing to stumble and act rashly. For example, Beijing is signaling
that it expects Hong Kong finally to adopt a National Security Law that would deal with "sedition, treason, and subversion" -- areas of law rife with the risk for abuse by tyrants. Such a provision was envisioned by Hong Kong's Basic Law, which stemmed from the handover agreement with the British. But then again, so was a transition to democracy by genuine universal suffrage -- which Beijing has all but abrogated.
Some expect the authorities to revisit the National Security Law after the Chinese New Year in February. If so, that will likely be the next flash point in Hong Kong.
What should the United States and other free nations do? Hillary Clinton set the tone
for the Obama administration on her inaugural trip to Beijing as secretary of state, when she announced that pressing on human rights could not be allowed to interfere with "the economic crisis, the global climate change crisis and the security crisis."
This approach is misguided. Effectively ignoring governance and treating the Chinese government as a partner will not make it one -- something that should be obvious upon examining Beijing's recent conduct toward its neighbors. The best long-term hope for peace and security in Asia is a Chinese government that doesn't have to manufacture legitimacy through jingoism.
In 2015, the White House should rediscover America's bipartisan heritage of supporting freedom movements abroad. Poland's Solidarity, for example, got help from the Catholic Church, AFL-CIO, and Western politicians, including a bipartisan U.S. congressional coalition spearheaded by Jack Kemp
. This stands in contrast with isolationist politicians like Sen. Rand Paul who bemoan American interference abroad and appear to ignore instances like these, times when we helped make the world dramatically freer and safer.
Recreating this mixture of internal and external pressure today is crucial. Politicians should not travel to Beijing without insisting upon visiting Hong Kong and meeting with protest leaders and freely elected democratic legislators. Foreign consulates in Hong Kong should also be a resource or sanctuary to these dissidents if they decide they need them.
Most of all, foreign leaders should commit themselves in 2015 to speak clearly about freedom in Hong Kong and the rest of China. Even if we can offer nothing else, expressing unabashed moral sympathy for freedom reflects our values and bucks up dissidents who face daunting risks.
The mainland student writer I quoted concluded to his fellow protesters, "I stand by you tonight, till the dawn of democracy." We should too -- for their sake and ours.