Warning for democracies

Beijing has banned Joshua Wong’s books but they show us the shape of the terrible struggle ahead and can teach us what we urgently need to know

The first response we should always make to the banning of authors by an authoritarian system is to read their works. As it happened, I was reading the latest book by the young Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong titled, Unfree Speech: The Threat to Global Democracy and Why We Must Act, Now, when news emerged that his previous works were being seized from booksellers under the new security law imposed by Beijing.

If we want to understand the worldwide collision of ideas, which seems increasingly inevitable, events in Hong Kong are a good place to start. It is here that Western values of free speech, openness to ideas and belief in the rule of law have come into direct conflict with a fundamentally opposing idea: That unity and success of a major civilisation is incompatible with such dangerous notions. If that conflict requires the Chinese security officials to rummage around in bookshops, gathering up all the books by writers such as Horace Chin, Tanya Chan, Wong and Jason Y Ng, it is not a bad idea to start reading them. We will find the world’s future battlegrounds illuminated in their pages.

What do we learn from Wong’s new book that helps us understand why an immensely powerful State wants to suppress the thoughts of a 23-year-old activist and has previously held him in prison? Why is he such a threat that his every word has to be hunted down, pulped or burned? The answer is partly that we gain inspiration from the determination with which Wong has pursued ideals we know and hold dear, with an integrity that would shame many people in the West, unwilling to make his sacrifices.

Also, we can find in his pages a clarity of perception that explains what has happened in Hong Kong and cuts through the baffling confusion of world affairs. He recounts the warming feelings towards China among his generation at the time of the 2008 Olympics, accompanied by the hope that “one country, two systems” might actually work. But then he explains how this went sour as the commitment to universal suffrage in Hong Kong was abandoned and Xi Jinping, “a wolf in panda’s clothing”, came to power. A new political identity of “unbelonging towards the motherland” was thus forged.

My main reflection on Wong’s book, however, is that the central weaknesses of both Western democracy and Chinese totalitarianism are exposed. In the case of the West, that weakness is our complacency, our indifference to growing dangers and our easy assumption that we are too smart to be undermined from outside. It takes a young activist from the other side of the world to point out to European and American readers that autocratic regimes, including Russia, are mounting a serious threat to free societies.

There has been extensive reporting of the huge and systematic effort by the Russian State under Russian President Vladimir Putin to sow discord in Western countries and corrode their unity. That effort appears to have included the financing of nationalistic political parties, the use of media outlets to spread false information and, in particular, the exploitation of social media to foster distrust. In Britain, for instance, Cardiff University researchers found in 2017 that fake social media accounts linked to Russia set out to exacerbate hatred after terrorist attacks.

China’s undermining of democracy is more subtle and almost a by-product of becoming the world’s first or second economy with centralised control of huge enterprises and cutting-edge technology. As China’s stake in Western economies increases, their political leaders become less willing to confront an aggressive foreign policy or human rights abuses. As China becomes an indispensable market for Western corporations, they feel ever more bound to refrain from criticism. And now, if a student from Hong Kong wishes to speak freely at a British university, he/she will be under the watchful eye of China and will be liable to arrest when back home. Slowly, inexorably, the freedom to think or speak differently globally is being eroded.

Democracies are slow to perceive when they are threatened as the 20th century showed. Now some of them are stirring. In the UK, the Government is rightly working on a new legislation to block foreign takeovers affecting key technologies and national security. It promises a consultation on closing loopholes on foreign spending in elections and the establishment of a new Counter Disinformation Cell.

It has taken the commendable decision to open borders to many residents of Hong Kong. Far more will need to be done  — by many more countries and in coordination with each other — for these efforts to be successful. American leadership, paralysed by the White House’s refusal to accept the scale of Russian involvement in the last presidential election, will be vital. The idea of a G7 working with Asian democracies such as Japan, South Korea and India is a right step. But at the moment, most people in advanced democracies do not realise what is happening and those hurling abuse at each other on social media are oblivious as to how they are manipulated from afar.

Wong says he is “sending out a distress signal to the world so that counter-measures can be taken before it is too late.” We should listen to him, for in focussing on our tardiness in protecting ourselves, he is spot on. Yet his diagnosis of the ultimate flaw in autocratic regimes is also correct: That they continually have to double down on repression at home and showing strength abroad. He argues that such a two-front strategy is the only way to retain power, “however invincible and invulnerable they appear to the outside world.” This is indeed China’s problem. The price of pushing forward the border with India on land, clashing with Vietnam at sea, bullying Australia on trade and suppressing dissent in Hong Kong with arbitrary law is mounting alarm around the world.

So from even one book of a banned author, much can be learned. A Chinese diplomat once tried to persuade me that Chinese people were not suited to democracy as the West knows it — “they would elect a peasant as President and declare war on Japan.” But in the books that have emerged from Hong Kong, we can see they are just as suited to it as the rest of us and can teach us what we urgently need to know.

(Courtesy: Daily Telegraph)

Source: The Pioneer