A quiet, peaceful evening is usually occasion for admiration, or a leisurely walk or bike ride. It can be a sight for sore eyes in the bustling world of 24/7 commerce and social outings. The silence and peace in Hong Kong on the evening of June 4th, 2021, was indeed quiet — but it was this very peace and quiet that should scare all Americans, and all freedom-loving people.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the ascension of the United States as the dominant global superpower, feelings of euphoria took root in academic lounges and the halls of Congress. Francis Fukuyama, the famed political scientist, infamously declared that liberalism and international democracy were inevitable: “What we may be witnessing is not just the end of the Cold War, or the passing of a particular period of postwar history, but the end of history as such: that is, the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution and the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”
President George H.W. Bush’s Administration, and every Administration afterwards, championed the rhetoric of a truly new international order which put the “rule of law” before the “rules of the jungle” in the realm of global relations; of war and peace; of the pen and dagger.
In the spirit of this ascendant internationalized Western-style liberalism, the United States and her allies finished the massive shift towards incorporating former enemies into the global order. There is no better example of this transition than the invitation of the Chinese government to international organizations, with the hope that engagement with the world would liberalize their economic markets and their political system.
In the late 1990s, the United Kingdom ceded its claims to Hong Kong as a colony, obliging China to promise that the newly-classified autonomous territory would retain its special status for at least fifty years. Such an act required enormous trust, but it was a reasonable progression for those who believed that introduction to the world would transform China into a freer, and more prosperous society. The nature of the international liberal order is that it requires the equal and free participation of all states, even those that might have a proclivity towards breaking or stretching some of the rules. Its aspiration, properly defined, is not to bring about paradise, but to make the world much safer than it would be otherwise. No one can deny that this goal is admirable.
Throughout the 1980s, Chinese students and activists began to mobilize for the cause of political and economic reform. The Party had tolerated some of this sentiment, especially considering Deng Xiaoping’s openness to economic liberalization and certain reforms, but the Party began to grow weary of such toleration as some advocated changes to the system which were viewed as too radical; an outgrowth of “bourgeois liberalism”. Xiaoping served as the leader of the Party, and of the nation, throughout the decade.
This burgeoning conflict between reformers and Party officials culminated in the Tiananmen Square protests in the summer of 1989. While the protests extended far beyond Tiananmen Square, the famous photo of “Tank Man” — an unidentified protestor — came to symbolize the struggle between activists and the government. Ultimately, tens of thousands of Chinese students and activists flooded the square. Tens of thousands turned into more than one million. And then came the tanks, and the soldiers, and the bloodshed.
While the Chinese government contends that only 241 were killed, and that many were soldiers, external sources place the number much higher. Thousands of students were arrested and placed in jail; some were even executed.
Today, the Chinese Communist Party suppresses most references to the incident within their own borders. While their external media will occasionally reference the event as some mix of Western propaganda and the global media’s creation of a “false” narrative, they largely ignore Tiananmen Square. Nonetheless, the memory of these protests is undoubtedly still alive in the minds of many Chinese.
Here’s where Hong Kong comes in.
An autonomous territory, Hong Kong has been afforded certain freedoms and governmental independence. For the last several years, however, the Chinese government has heavily cracked down on Hong Kong’s autonomy.
This year, on June 4th, 2021, the city was quiet at night. The city’s tradition of holding a vigil for those who died at the hands of the Chinese Communists on June 4th, 1989, has now faded from practice.
The experience of Hong Kongers, and of Chinese citizens, illustrates that the rise of freedom is not inevitable. It shows that there are, perhaps, cracks in the international liberal order that have never been considered. It should open all freedom-loving people’s minds to the prospect that not only must freedom be continually upheld and defended; but that in the 21st century, we might need to think and act in new ways in order to maintain it. The moment requires innovation and forward-thinking. It also requires those with the strength to reflect on the past and practice discipline in the face of decadence.
Samuel Huntington, Fukuyama’s teacher — and a renowned historian — contended that not only was liberalism not the inevitable “end of history”, but that it was no model for universal culture. In fact, he saw no possibility of the creation or maintenance of any global culture. What, then, should we conclude about the modern liberal order and our desire to maintain the freedom that we enjoy?
Rational people will come to drastically different conclusions. The point here, however, is to illustrate that the euphoric post-Cold War vision of international liberalism, and the nihilistic projections of freedom’s demise and the return of pure international anarchy, are not the only two choices states and leaders have to choose from in this moment. Now is the time for innovation and new thinking, should free people desire to nurture the fire of liberty and justice which has been snuffed out in Hong Kong.
History is back
While Fukuyama is often dismissed as being fundamentally wrong about his theorization in the late 1980s, he was not entirely naive. Yes, his theory illustrates the hubris of the modern intelligentsia and political class. Yes, he was likely wrong. But no, he should not be dismissed. In his famous 1989 essay, Fukuyama ends by saying, “Perhaps this very prospect of centuries of boredom at the end of history will serve to get history started once again.”
In Hong Kong, and throughout the world, history has reawakened after decades of rest.
In this century, free nations must recognize the return of history (as if it ever really disappeared), and act within its bounds to nurture the freedom and justice which we all rightly cherish.