November 13, 2019

Freedom Lives in Hong Kong

“Thirty years ago, defying Mao Zedong’s invasive gaze, pro-democracy demonstrators armed with foam and paper-mâché cobbled together an icon. Combining the aesthetics of Soviet statuary with Western classicism, the 33-foot Goddess of Democracy was not intended to evoke the Statue of Liberty. Indeed, the student protesters who designed it were self-conscious about the comparison between their idol and the colossus in New York’s harbor, but the ideals and emotions the two sculptures invoke are so universal that their distinguishing cosmetic features were inconsequential. It could not be allowed to stand, and it was destroyed after just five days, along with China’s student-led democracy movement, by the People’s Liberation Army.

The Goddess of Democracy was born again in Hong Kong by a new generation of democratic activists who are far less concerned with offending the sensibilities of Beijing’s elite. Replicas of the famous statue have become objects of renewed veneration and antipathy as anti-government protests enter their 10th week. But the citizens who have taken to the streets to protest Beijing’s encroachment into China’s bastion of political liberalism are far less shy about conveying pro-American sentiments. Demonstrators have been seen flying U.S. flags, singing the American national anthem, and demanding civil liberties akin to those enshrined in the Bill of Rights. Sadly, the affection the people of Hong Kong have shown Americans is not entirely reciprocal.

The Trump administration’s State Department has unequivocally condemned Beijing’s efforts to undermine Hong Kong’s unique political autonomy. American diplomats have even met with student demonstrators. When one of those diplomats was targeted for harassment, department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus called it the work of a “thuggish regime.” But the administration’s approach to the crisis in Hong Kong contrasts sharply with Donald Trump’s. The president insisted that “President Xi of China has acted responsibly, very responsibly” when asked about one of the many nights of violence between pro-democracy protesters and police. He called the protests “riots”—an immeasurable gift to Beijing, whose state media widely publicize the remarks—and insisted that the matter was a purely domestic one “between Hong Kong and China” alone.”

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