If there seems to be less hope now, perhaps that is because citizens of democracies around the world view the idea of an international community that stands effectively for universal ideals with cynicism. It is harder to claim that extradition to a judicial system administered by the Chinese Communist Party is wrong when the Australian government has also contemplated such a move; it is hard to look at the years of carnage across the Middle East and North Africa and tell ourselves that the Chinese Defence Minister’s recent bullish defence of the Tiananmen crackdown as a victory for “stability” is misguided.
“When the students poured into Tiananmen Square, the Chinese government almost blew it. Then they were vicious, they were horrible, but they put it down with strength. That shows you the power of strength.”
The person who uttered these words in 1990 is now the President of the United States. Donald Trump’s emergence is just one manifestation of a global trend that puts “strength” and sovereignty above questions of human rights and global co-operation. It is not enough for us to repudiate such sentiments – the challenge is to set out a compelling alternative.
For Hong Kong, the crisis is here and now. But the question of our own confidence in democracy and the quest for liberty will play out for years to come. Those who insist that this is a matter of different cultures and civilisations must reckon with Beijing’s anxious censorship of everything from a song from Les Miserables to the memory of Tiananmen itself. But it is also crucial to reconnect such symbols as Ronald Reagan’s candle and Tiananmen’s Goddess of Democracy to the substance of changes sought by voices from within China such as Liu Xiaobo, Ilham Tohti, Pu Zhiqiang, Chan Kin-man and Joshua Wong.