Where do the Hong Kong Chinese get these notions: such as that the right to a fair trial is rock-bottom basic to every democratic concept of justice? And the notion that freedom of speech underpins the whole, so to speak, democratic shooting match? Where’d that come from?
From us, that’s where — from the British and their American legatees, in whose minds and historical experience originated the understanding that you can’t let government have its own way, no questions asked; because when and where you do, it’s all over for freedom.
You have to have rules. You need procedures and guarantees: constitutions, written (as in the U.S.) or unwritten (Great Britain). According to the rules, you do things in certain and particular ways: the selection of leaders, the writing of legislation, the review of disputes by impartial courts.
Which isn’t — not totally — how they do things in today’s Hong Kong, where hundreds of thousands march in defense of the rules under which the former British colony prospered for a century and a half. It is inspiring to see these people march. It is urgent to remember why they march. They march for human fulfillment: with the same spirit in which present-day Americans might march should they stop screaming insults at each other and call to mind how much they agree on, when it gets down to brass tacks.
Even in a culture riven by strife — guess whose culture? — the principle of liberty under law makes possible human fulfillment in its broadest terms. I did not say it guaranteed anything of the kind. I said it made fulfillment achievable, with generosity and toleration: human attributes of which dictators like Xi Jinping make short work.
The defects of human nature, which political figures are always trying to cure, foil the finest schemes of Ultimate Improvement. Ultimate Improvement is what we have always relied on heaven to furnish; but, then, as we know, political figures get no credit for acknowledging as much. With their quest for instant rewards, conferred through elections and polls, we’re all too familiar. At least where the rule-of-law principle prevails, they can’t go completely overboard, as in Communist China, where the only obstacle to the party bosses’ total domination is the bosses’ private sense of what they can get away with. I mean, look. An American Republican would rightly prefer Nancy Pelosi to Xi. An American Democrat, swallowing hard, would rightly give Xi the go-by in favor of Him Who Must Not be Named.
Proving what? That democracy isn’t easy? Of course it’s not easy. Consider Hong Kong, whose turmoil stems from a communist initiative, only half-thwarted, to merge that semi-independent territory’s justice system into the dark and inexplicable system under which the rest of China squirms.
Not a few American and British, shall we say, Thought Leaders mop brows in mortification over wrongs, fancied or actual, committed by their countrymen in pursuit of national greatness. We need to mark well what those quests for greatness produced in addition to the acquisition of territory. They spread respect for the rule of law. As in Hong Kong.
Among history’s indisputable facts is that British dominance over a quarter of the globe in the Victorian age and afterwards spread a human rights-concept of justice to regions and peoples who had no concept of such a concept. The late British Empire, for such reasons, was one of civilization’s great success stories. A corollary narrative concerns the spread, under American patronage, of the same British-derived principles of government to allies and clients in the years after World War II.
Sometimes we blew it: supposing, wrongly, that everyone in the world hungers for what Britain and America have, grand as it might be. It’s an imperfect world, as theologians properly remind us. Humanity never gets things exactly right. But when, under the terrible burden of insufficiency you get things righter than others get them, a deep bow still is in order. Like this minute.
Hong Kong’s peril remains unresolved. But what a mighty example these people set for other peoples who hunger for freedom and fulfillment; who may yet find it, the way having been shown, ironically, by those given to questioning the value and integrity of their own glorious achievement.
Meaning us? Meaning us, precisely.
William Murchison is writing a book on moral restoration in the 21st century.
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