David Brooks: The one united struggle for freedom

(Kin Cheung | AP) Demonstrators, some using laser pointers toward police lines, gather during a protest in Hong Kong, Sunday, Aug. 25, 2019. Hong Kong police rolled out water cannon trucks for the first time in this summer's pro-democracy protests. The two trucks moved forward with riot officers Sunday evening as they pushed protesters back along a street in the outlying Tsuen Wan district.

Hong Kong • Thirty years ago, I covered a lot of democracy rallies. They were held in the Soviet Union, Ukraine, Central Europe, South Africa and the Middle East. Last week, I covered some more, this time in Hong Kong.

In many ways the Hong Kong rallies felt exactly like the rallies I covered as a cub journalist. There was the same fervent faith in democracy, the same roiling conviction that human beings deserve to live at their full dignity — able to think what they want, read what they want, govern themselves and not simply exist half-strangled and suborned.

There was the same indignant desire not to live in a rigged economy run for the benefit of state-favored oligarchs.

There was the same turning to America that we see at democracy rallies everywhere, the same sense that America is a beacon in the struggle for freedom, the same expectation that of course America is going to step in and help.

There were even the same tactics. Decades ago, the Czechs built “Lennon Walls,” brightly covered walls where people post slogans and encouragement. Today, the Hong Kongers use those, too.

In 1989 democracy protesters across the Baltics formed a vast human chain called “The Baltic Way.” On Friday night, 135,000 Hong Kongers formed “The Hong Kong Way,” a chain that stretched 50 kilometers (31 miles) through the city. The protesters held hands, chanted slogans. When the lights were red, they stretched from sidewalks across the streets. When the lights were green, they politely withdrew to let traffic pass.

There was the same resolute pessimism that I remember from those democracy rallies decades ago. On the one hand these people are fervently committed. On the other hand, they don’t exactly see how a ragtag bunch can beat a powerful regime that has tanks. They don’t see the power of the powerless, that sometimes a shift in consciousness is stronger than military might.

I asked several Hong Kong protesters how they thought this thing would end up. They were not optimistic. “We’re 7 million,” one man told me. “They’re 1.4 billion.” And yet they were not going to stop protesting and putting their lives at risk.

The big difference between now and then is technology. Today’s protests feel like a frenetic, online media campaign. There is a constant flow of memes, symbols and videos to keep the clicks coming: anime art, Pepe the Frog, bloody eye patches that refer to a woman who was shot in the eye.

The protesters sample and quote from the great buzz of global culture, which is of course what they are fighting to stay part of. A quote from “Hunger Games” was popular, then some Pink Floyd lyrics. The anthem of this uprising is “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord,” a 1974 Christian song from America.

Technology allows the protesters to suddenly appear and suddenly disappear, ebb and flow — to “be water,” in Bruce Lee’s phrase.

The protesters have online votes about where to take their protest next. They use AirDrop to download subversive pamphlets into the phones of unsuspecting tourists from mainland China.

There’s an amazing diversity of strategies. The accountants listen to speeches. The Christians sing. The radicals storm the subways.

Of course, the technology helps the Chinese government too. Years ago, we lived under the illusion that the nimble and decentralized swarms of New Power geeks would be more technologically savvy than the clunky, Old Power hierarchies. That’s not true. China’s Communist government seems to be more technologically advanced than the protesters.

There’s a sense the government has the ability to surveil everything. Protesters spend enormous energy trying to go unseen. They don’t use their normal subway cards for fear the state will be able to track their movements. Some protesters have been doxxed, with their private information and photos of their children splashed online. There’s no pro-democracy graffiti in Hong Kong, no posters or T-shirts, no day-to-day sign that anything is happening. When they are not rallying, the protesters evaporate because even the light poles have eyes.

My guess is that if technology helps the protesters become 30% more effective, it helps the state become 70% more effective.

Many suspect that China will eventually crush these protests. They’ll round up leaders and force businesses to fire participants. Many suspect America will never step in to help. The American right no longer believes in spreading democracy to foreigners. The American left embraces a national narrative that emphasizes slavery and oppression, not that America is a beacon or an example. Neither party any longer sees America as a vanguard nation whose very mission is to advance universal democracy and human dignity.

But there’s something stubborn about the Hong Kongers and deceptively powerful about their cause. Other protesters dreamed of freedom. These people have already lived it. It’s part of their identity. They will prove more ferocious in defense of liberty than the skeptics imagine. Along the way they might rekindle the sense of democratic mission that used to burn so forcefully in American hearts.

David Brooks

David Brooks is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.

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