“Hong Kong has a strong tradition of free speech.” That's how Edward Snowden, the 29-year-old leaker who slammed National Security Agency surveillance as an "existential threat to democracy," described his decision to flee to China.
That remark has led to understandable bewilderment. Yes, Hong Kong and China are technically “one country, two systems.” But the reality, reminded James Fallows in the Atlantic, is that Hong Kong is part of China, “a country that by the libertarian standards Edward Snowden says he cares about is worse, not better, than the United States.” In the New Yorker, Evan Osnos compared going to Hong Kong out of devotion to free speech to going to Tibet out of a devotion to Buddhism: “The people love it, though they live under authorities who intervene when they choose.”
It’s true that if you want to feel secure that your freedom of speech will be protected by the government, then Hong Kong is not the place for you. But if you measure democratic liberties by the willingness of the population to fight for them, than at least for now, Hong Kong remains a rare and inspiring model.
To be clear, I am not here to defend or explain Snowden’s methods. Nor would I argue that Hong Kong was a smart destination, at least practically speaking, given its extradition treaty with the U.S. Hong Kong’s Regina Ip, a current legislator and former security secretary, described Snowden’s choice as “really being based on unfortunate ignorance.” But Hong Kong, for all its constraints, still illustrates what it means to be a democratic society. In other words, governments alone do not protect basic freedoms. People do. As Minky Worden of Human Rights Watch, a longtime Hong Kong aficionado, put it to me on Monday: “Hong Kong people took this ‘one country, two system’s’ model and animated it themselves. And they defend it on a daily basis.”
One of the most remarkable examples of this took place on July 1, 2003, when half a million of Hong Kong’s people took to the streets to protest Article 23, an internal security law that would establish long prison sentences for offenses like sedition or even the handling of documents seen as seditious by the government. The protests were also a criticism of then-Chief Executive Tung Chee Hwa, who many viewed as a mainland puppet. One poster had an image of Tung with a pie in his face.
That protest was not long after my arrival in Hong Kong, where I lived as a journalist for three years. On July 1, I watched in amazement as enormous crowds of Hong Kongers came out in the sticky heat to demand their rights. Of course, I had known that Hong Kong had broader freedoms than the mainland. But the term “one country, two systems” does not do nearly enough justice to the fierce democratic spirit that I witnessed that day. Maybe this doesn’t seem like a big deal. It’s worth noting, though, that despite the recent explosion of indignation on Twitter and in the media over NSA surveillance, half a million Americans did not take to the streets—perhaps because Americans feel they have other avenues and generally do not feel that their liberties are constantly under threat. Hong Kong, by comparison, lives in a state of alarm. Even after Article 23 was shelved indefinitely, Hong Kongers did not rest on their laurels. In 2004 there was a record turnout for elections. "We have one vote, we can express our opinion," Ma Kin On, 44 years old and unemployed, told me at the time. "If you don't come out, who is going to represent your opinion?"
The Hong Kong pro-democracy crowd will consistently tell you that their liberties are being threatened like never before. Last year, the Hong Kong Journalists Association found that 87 percent of respondents believe that Hong Kong enjoys less freedom than in 2005. Mak Yinting, chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, told me on Monday that over the years Chinese government officials stationed in Hong Kong have been making more calls to Hong Kong newsrooms. Hong Kong’s current Chief Executive CY Leung, Mak added, is not a “media-friendly leader.” Jin Zhong, chief editor of the pro-democracy Open Magazine, mentioned repeated attempts at greater media controls and interference. But he also told me, “Hong Kong’s freedom of expression is more than adequate for those who wish to exercise it, and is limited only by the will to exercise it."
Indeed, some of the most creeping erosions of freedom of speech come in the shadowy form of self-censorship, where people are afraid of offending the mainland either for political or business reasons. Even while covering the elections 10 years ago, I heard fears of the economic costs of conflict with China and concern about disrupting “stability.” Businesses, for example, will not always be so eager to advertise in Hong Kong’s pro-democracy media outlets. Mak notes that the influx of mainlanders and China’s huge market are variables that may affect Hong Kong’s safeguards of freedom of expression.
But as of now, the Hong Kong people continue to fight. Last year, tens of thousands protested the introduction of Chinese patriotic education in Hong Kong schools, with critics citing fears of brainwashing. And on June 4 of this year, thousands came out to remember the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. On July 1, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s 1997 handover to China, we can expect to see thousands more.
Martin Lee, a founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party and a drafter of Hong Kong’s basic law, told me on Monday that there has always been a fear that once Hong Kong became part of China, things would drastically change. “The fire of democracy was ignited in the dying days of Hong Kong as a colony,” Lee said. “That fire, once ignited, can not be quenched by an iron fist.” Thus, when the moment calls for it, Hong Kong’s people can be counted on to “turn up in large numbers.”
Herein lies the lesson from Hong Kong, which in this sense truly does have the "strong tradition of free speech" that Snowden cited. As Lee put it, “they know they cannot leave it to other people to protect these freedoms.”
Emily Parker is senior fellow and digital diplomacy advisor at The New America Foundation, where she is writing a book about the Internet and democracy.