I want to speak freely.
I want to express myself freely but must clarify that everything I write on this blog, I am writing as a private individual. My views do not necessarily reflect those of Carnegie Mellon University, where I have worked nearly fifteen years, or the Mellon College of Science, where I serve as assistant dean for diversity, or the Chemistry Department, where I am an associate teaching professor, or the Science and Humanities Scholars Program, which I direct, or the Pre-College Summer Session, which I also direct.
The university is a risk-averse institution, as my colleagues Jason England and Rich Purcell described last month. Their article “Higher Ed’s Toothless Response to the Killing of George Floyd” continues to resonate powerfully for me. It is now behind the Chronicle‘s paywall but there are excerpts here. In addition, the main point of the article remains visible in the pull quote
Statements by college leaders reflect an unholy alchemy of risk management, legal liability, and trustee anxiety
which is abstracted from the sentence
Instead, many of the statements released by college leaders about the killing of George Floyd reflect an unholy alchemy of risk management, legal liability, brand management, and trustee anxiety.
I often express myself, here as well as elsewhere, independently of the university. For example, when I signed a petition written by Rich Purcell, “Concerned CMU Faculty & Staff – It’s Time To Stand Up!” I now understand that I did so as a private individual, having provided my home zip code. Furthermore, I myself pay for the domain name and hosting for this website; the university provides no financial or technical support for this writing.
So much for my legal disclaimer.
I will be writing in another post to criticize my government, which is my right as a United States citizen — indeed, this is a fundamental tradition, custom, and duty for US citizens. But in this post I am writing to criticize the Chinese government.
When I visited Hong Kong last year, I was taken by the citizens’ vigilant defense of their freedoms. The city is part of China and yet the Hong Kong Basic Law guarantees the region a high level of autonomy (“One Country, Two Systems”). Hong Kong has its own executive, legislative, and judicial branches, which in turn correspond to entities such as an police force independent of Mainland China, laws built on freedom of speech and other rights not upheld in Mainland China, and courts that run entirely separate from Mainland China.
The Basic Law is in force until 2047. However, the central Chinese government increasingly intrudes on Hong Kong’s internal affairs. In 2014, China proposed to reform the Hong Kong electoral system, and the people there responded with the Umbrella Movement. In 2015, five staff members mysteriously disappeared from Causeway Bay Books, a store that sold books critical of China. Early in 2019, after the Hong Kong Legislative Council (LegCo) proposed a bill to allow fugitives to be extradited to the notoriously opaque justice system in Mainland China, the Hong Kong people rose up again.
I unabashedly admire a city where millions march to defend their rights.
Yet I often wonder what it would have been like for me to live in Hong Kong over the past twelve months. (I also wonder the same about Spain, which we visited as a family last winter.) The disruptions to the MTR, the subway network that unites the city; the frequent smell of tear gas hanging in the air; the closure of retail shops and the universities — all of these daily reminders would have been unnerving. And then, with the rise of COVID-19 in China last winter, I would likely have become even more concerned — as I am now, living in the US — for my personal health and safety.
The vast majority of Hong Kong people conducted their protests peacefully, and the government withdrew the extradition bill. The Hong Kong people, with their first-hand experience with SARS, isolated their borders and closely tracked any COVID-19 infections.
Thus, despite continuing unease around Hong Kong politics and public health, two months ago I had been in awe of how the citizens there had demonstrate resilience in the face of severe threats to their freedom and their health.
But now, China has begun to tighten the screws. Now, starting this month, Hong Kong has become a place where merely humming the melody of a protest song, or failing to stand during the Chinese national anthem, or noting Xi Jinping’s physical resemblance to Winnie the Pooh, or speaking the words “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times” could lead to immediate arrest.
People should be able to sing the songs of their hearts. Citizens should not be forced to stand during a national anthem. They should be able to make jokes at the expense of their leaders, or express differing political views.
Let me be clear: I don’t agree with every statement made by every Hong Kong dissident. Hong Kong is politically part of China, the Basic Law will end in 2047, and Hong Kong’s water and energy depend upon China. Therefore, it’s simply impractical to advocate complete liberation from China. In addition, I am aware that Hong Kong is an imperfect place: people of Filipino heritage generally are treated as lower class in Hong Kong, in a way that is even more open than in the US.
Nevertheless, I mourn for what is happening right now in Hong Kong, this illegal abrogation of their rights in the name of “security” and “stability”. Having observed the Lion Rock Spirit of the Hong Kong people over the past year and recognizing that they are, in fact, standing on moral high ground, I wouldn’t bet against them. But China is large and powerful, perhaps the world’s next empire. If I myself were living in Hong Kong right now, subject to this new law, I would, perhaps for the first time, at least seriously contemplate exit strategies.
Everyone has the right to freedom of opinion and expression; this right includes freedom to hold opinions without interference and to seek, receive and impart information and ideas through any media and regardless of frontiers.
Update (2020-07-11): The day after I wrote this, Times Higher Education published an article on how Hong Kong scholars may decide to stay away because of the new security law.