On January 4, our discussion topic was “Democracy’s Dilemma.” We didn’t know, of course, about the events a couple of day later in DC that would punctuate that theme.
We started with a discussion of the book Unfree Speech, by Joshua Wong, a 25-year-old Hong Kong activist who has been imprisoned three times under the incrementally more oppressive pressure from China. Since our meeting, 50 additional democracy activists were arrested in a sweep. The “handover” between Britain and China for the administration of Hong Kong occurred in 1997, with assurances from China that Hong Kong would be allowed to continue functioning democratically. Anyone familiar with China’s record of systematic oppression would not have believed that, but it did take about 20 years for China to begin systematically removing democratic guarantees. As the book recounts, China’s “Great Leap Forward” resulted in the death of 30 million peasants from mass starvation, similar to Stalin’s program that imposed great hardship and mass death in the Soviet Union. We also can expect a gradually more aggressive stance from China toward its neighbors. The grand plan of Xi Jinping, who recently declared himself president for life, is to divide the world into two realms of influence, with him at the head of one hemisphere. Here is the headline from South China News on January 5:
In his first order of the new year to the country’s armed forces, Chinese President Xi Jinping stressed the need for “full-time combat readiness” and said the People’s Liberation Army must use frontline frictions to polish troop capabilities.
Michael Wong, and many others who still dare press for democratic freedoms in Hong Kong, like Jimmy Lai, who recently was seen in US newspapers being led to prison in shackles, have developed a courage and commitment to freedom. That comes from an understanding of what is required to keep one’s mind free despite having one’s future and life being at stake for not submitting to oppressive authority. It is similar to the commitment of a Gandhi, Nelson Mandela, and Martin Luther King to decide that maintaining human dignity is worth sacrificing one’s freedom. Most of us take our freedoms for granted as we go about our everyday lives, bothered only by our rather minor inconveniences. Imagine having every major aspect of your life determined by the loyalty you show to a government that you have no role in choosing.
Joe Biden has committed to “No More Coddling Dictators,” according to a December 7 New York Times article. Numerous countries have regressed from an original commitment to democracy over the last twenty years. These includes Russia, Poland, Hungary, the Philippines, Egypt, India, Saudi Arabia, and Nigeria, for only a partial list. Over the last four years, the US has lost its position as the main advocate for democracy by ignoring abuses in these and many other countries. We have chosen to leave alliances with other democratic countries which put pressure on dictators and would-be dictators who have, for the most part, been given free reign. In Egypt, human rights advocates recently were arrested while US aid in the billions continues. China, Saudi Arabia, and many other countries now know that they can engage in human rights abuses because of the US hands off policy. Finding the right type of pressure to apply is a challenge, but using economic sanctions, isolation, and other measures has been shown to work. We can hope that the Biden/Harris administration will return to working with our allies to pressure nations that violate human rights to begin respecting the rights of their own people.
Recently the Western members of the European Union have been withholding aid from Hungary and Poland due to reversals in their democratic direction. A compromise was reached to restore aid depending on the level of democratic reforms, but the current leaders of those countries are resistant to human rights initiatives, so the outcome still is to be seen. If a coalition is newly formed between the US and its allies it will be a signal to the leaders of countries that have been backtracking on democracy — and perhaps more importantly to their citizens — that the democratic nations of the world are on their side.
Reflections on a week like no other
We might look at those who invaded the US Capitol on January 6 as true believers who follow the directions of their leader without question. Lemmings will march in any direction they are told to go. But there’s a difference between protesting to express your concerns and rioting to oppress the views of others. Some of the rioters carried the “Don’t Tread on Me” flag of the American Revolution. But that revolution ultimately led to the right of people to choose their own leaders through elections; the recent riots aimed to subvert that right. This incident requires the strongest and quickest response possible to make clear that insurrection is no more acceptable now than it was during the American Civil War.
But we might also ask ourselves about our own roles in standing up for democracy. Do we give over our ideas about right and wrong to leaders we have decided to trust and therefore no longer question, or do we subject them to scrutiny? Do we let our politicians do our thinking for us, or work to come up with our own views about what makes democracy work? Do we believe what we are told by one source, or do we seek out multiple perspectives? Are we open to reexamining our views in light of new evidence? Democracy is endangered when independent thinking falls by the wayside.
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Steve Zolno is the author of the book The Future of Democracy and several related titles. He graduated from Shimer College with a Bachelor’s Degree in Social Sciences and holds a Master’s in Educational Psychology from Sonoma State University. He is a Management and Educational Consultant in the San Francisco Bay Area and has been conducting seminars on democracy since 2006.