When I was a graduate student, in the late 1980s, I once argued in class that America was a force for democracy and freedom in the world.
Of course, we had betrayed our principles on many occasions, most notably in Vietnam. But the United States remained the central embodiment of freedom around the globe, which was why the Chinese protesters in Tiananmen Square had erected a “Goddess of Democracy”—modelled after our Statue of Liberty—before the tanks rolled in.
That’s also why people in Hong Kong have been carrying American flags during their own fight for freedom. But most Americans have remained silent about that, which betrays our principles as well.
The struggle in Hong Kong took another violent turn last weekend, when 24 people were injured in clashes with police. Waving the Stars and Stripes, protesters demanded something Americans take for granted: the chance to elect their leaders. They also called for an inquiry into police brutality and the right to wear face masks, which Chinese authorities have banned.
And last month, at a rally outside the United States Consulate in Hong Kong, protesters sang the Star Spangled Banner, waved the American flag, and called on President Trump to help “liberate” the Chinese-ruled city. “Fight for freedom, stand with Hong Kong,” they shouted.
That’s precisely the phrase that Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey re-tweeted recently, earning harsh rebukes from Chinese officials as well as from NBA superstar LeBron James. “So many people have been harmed, not only financially but physically, emotionally, spiritually,” James said, condemning Morey’s tweet.
According to ESPN, James and other players have already lost lucrative endorsement deals because of the controversy.
But the people in Hong Kong don’t care whether LeBron James makes money. Nor do they care about the profit margins of Coach, the fashion retailer which cravenly destroyed its T-shirts reading “Hong Kong” instead of “Hong Kong, China” after Chinese authorities complained.
They care instead about freedom, which Americans profess to venerate as well. But when it comes to Hong Kong, we’re more about principal than principle. President Trump made his sentiments apparent months ago, when he pledged to stay quiet about Hong Kong in exchange for a better trade deal from China.
Yet my fellow Democrats have mostly ignored it, too. At last week’s presidential debate, Pete Buttigieg blasted Trump for not sounding a “peep” in support of protesters in Hong Kong. The same criticism could have applied to the other candidates, who did not mention the topic once in the entire three-hour event.
Instead, Democrats focused upon Trump’s threats to democracy and the rule of law here at home. That’s understandable, but it’s also a big mistake. If our vaunted belief in freedom means anything, it should apply to people in Hong Kong as much as it does to people in America.
How can we criticize Trump for his authoritarianism, then turn a blind eye to the vastly greater dangers posed by Chinese authorities in Hong Kong?
And the world is watching. “I’m not afraid of arrest, of jail, of getting beaten up or gashed,” one Hong Kong demonstrator said over the weekend. “What I fear most is everyone giving up on our principles.”
We should all be afraid about that. The protester’s comment took me back to graduate school, where my tribute to American principles was met with deep scepticism by almost everyone else in the room. The only principle that the United States followed was its self-interest, other students said.
Prefiguring Donald Trump, they insisted that America would do whatever it took to protect its wealth and security.
The sole person who came to my defence was a student from China, who pointed to the Goddess of Liberty in Tiananmen. Freedom is a human birthright, not an American one. But America has been the foremost symbol of freedom for more than two centuries, the Chinese student said, which gives us a special duty to protect it.
The people of Hong Kong are raising our flag. We must not let them down.
Jonathan Zimmerman teaches education and history at the University of Pennsylvania. He is the author of “The Amateur Hour: A History of College Teaching in America,” which will be published next year by Johns Hopkins University Press.