Hayward: Give Thanks for Your Freedom as Everyone from Hong Kong to Iraq Fights for Theirs

Students hold the US flag and sing the Star-Spangled Banner at the Hong Kong University (HKU) campus on September 20, 2019, as they rally for the US Congress to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. (Photo by Anthony WALLACE / AFP) (Photo credit should read ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP …
ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images

Protest movements are sweeping the world, from Hong Kong to Iraq. Protesters in each country are aware of the other movements and frequently give them shout-outs or adopt their tactics.

The fate of all these movements is uncertain, but they share a more unambiguous commitment to sovereignty than most global protest stories of the past few decades, and perhaps an understanding that national and cultural identity are vital weapons against authoritarian hegemonic powers. Smaller governments may not guarantee freedom and human rights, but big ones almost guarantee their absence.

Doubtless Hong Kong’s courageous and improbably successful stand against China, the world’s rising hegemonic tyranny, has inspired many of the other movements making headlines today. It is remarkable to believe the protest movement in Hong Kong is barely eight months old because the world before China attempted to force a draconian extradition bill on its restless island possession seems like an entirely different place. Much that was once unthinkable or unimaginable has become possible since Hong Kongers rose up against Beijing.

The Hong Kong crisis illustrates the difference between independence and freedom. The Chinese Communist Party likes to accuse Hong Kong protesters of harboring separatist ambitions, but the boldest of their “five demands” is merely for a democratically-elected administration instead of stooges appointed by Beijing. The extradition bill that touched off the protest movement in March was an assault on Hong Kong’s autonomy, a way for China to override the island city’s legal system and drag its people into the politicized totalitarian hell that passes for a court of law in China.

The people of Hong Kong want a government responsive to their interests, preserving their autonomy – their freedom – without demanding full independence from China. This is also true of 2019’s other big protest movements in places like Iraq, Iran, and Latin America. The corrupt regimes they are rising up against love to portray them as separatists or puppets of hostile foreign powers, but even in Iran, the impoverished frontier ethnic enclaves protesting against Tehran’s gasoline price increases weren’t trying to break away from the central government.

On the contrary, Iraqi protesters consider themselves deeply patriotic. In addition to denouncing the corruption and inefficiency of their government, they are demanding an end to political meddling by a hostile foreign power, namely Iran. The Iraq protests have included remarkable scenes of devout Iraqi Shiite Muslims rising up against the aspiring Shiite hegemony across their border. Iraqis living in Shiite holy cities like Karbala are risking their livelihoods by standing up to Iran, which sends a constant stream of pilgrims through their hotels, restaurants, and shops.

The Iranians responded to the Iraq protests by sending terrorist masterminds like Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps star quarterback Gen. Qassem Soleimani over to Baghdad to murder people in the streets. It didn’t work. The protests have continued even as the body count increases.

Iran is also losing influence in Lebanon, where protests began with relatively upbeat street theater but are now teetering on the brink of civil war. The people have lost confidence in a ruling class that took shape after the last civil war, promising to balance Lebanon’s religious and political tensions but delivering a combination of corruption, ineptitude, terrorism, and authoritarianism. Many Lebanese deeply resent Iran and Saudi Arabia using their country as a proxy battlefield, with the animus shifting decidedly against Iran and its terrorist proxies in Hezbollah as they use violence to protect their power.

Algeria has also been the scene of ongoing protests, for even longer than Hong Kong. The protesters managed to force President Abdelaziz Bouteflika out of office in April and keep him off the December ballot, but they are still marching in the streets because they view most of their ballot options as corrupt members of the old guard. As with the Iraqis and Lebanese, as with the people of Hong Kong, Algerians want an entirely new political system and seek to dethrone the elites that have ruled them for decades.

2019 saw protest movements appear across Latin America, with demonstrators calling for revolutionary change in Bolivia, Chile, Ecuador, Venezuela, Nicaragua, and most recently Colombia. Demonstrations are frequent in some of these countries and the demands of their various protest movements vary widely, with anger over corruption the strongest common thread, but it is unusual to see so many nations in the region descend into chaos at the same time. The success of the Hong Kong protest is frequently cited as an inspiration for unhappy citizens across Latin America to hit the streets.

In the Caribbean, protests in Haiti, Dominica, and Puerto Rico have been severe enough to keep cruise ships away, further damaging fragile economies. As with the protesters in Hong Kong, angry citizens in these embattled nations say they are willing to take the economic hit, even though poverty and joblessness are among their top complaints because they believe their futures will only improve once their corrupt and stagnant political systems are swept away.

The Western world has seen its share of protest movements as well, usually with a bit less chaos in the streets, although the “yellow jackets” of France have done their part to provide some fireworks, and there are American cities where street theater is now a common occurrence. 

Perhaps the worldwide protests against corrupt and despotic regimes, including the astounding saga of Hong Kong, originated in a decade of growing unrest with the political class and wealthy elites of the West.

Clearly the Trump administration’s trade war with China weakened Beijing enough to make sustained resistance possible in Hong Kong, but even before that, growing disillusionment with Western elites had produced justifiably cynical electorates that expressed their anger through Trump’s election in 2016 and Brexit in the United Kingdom.

Hong Kong is surely the inspiration engine driving the worldwide protest movements of 2019, and leading Hong Kong activists have demonstrated keen knowledge of Western political crises throughout the new century. Among other signs of this, Hong Kong protesters are fond of the same V for Vendetta masks everyone in the West dons when they demand a comeuppance for the rich and powerful.

The common refrain across all of the current protest movements is that they do not believe their political systems can resolve the problems of their nations. They want complete overhauls, no matter the cost, and most of the protests are making it clear that nobody from the old political order need apply for a job in the new system. They do not believe one more vote under the old rules, or one more round of programs from the old administrators, will make a difference. 

Some of these protest movements are not sure what will make a difference, but they are united by their conviction that incompetence and corruption – from old-fashioned graft to Hong Kong’s administrators serving Beijing’s interests instead of their own people – has erased the legitimacy of their elite.

Those complaints should sound very familiar to American ears. Be thankful that we have allowed our crisis of confidence in the elite to fill our streets with corpses and our hospitals with maimed civilians. Let us hope we can keep it that way.

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