A man waves a US national flag at an anti-government rally in Hong Kong in 2019. Photo: AFP
Martin Powers
Martin Powers

In Hong Kong, the US and Britain, the truth about ‘liberty’ will set you free

  • Most people think liberty refers to the protection of universal rights but for most of British history it meant special privileges enjoyed by groups
  • Groupthink shaped policy in colonial Hong Kong and Western democracies did not raise serious objections even when human rights norms were violated
The concepts of “liberty” and “freedom” often get bandied about, especially in regard to Hong Kong, but in the Anglo-American tradition “liberty” can mean two very different things. Be careful which one you choose.

Most people think “liberty” means the protection of universal rights, such as the right to a fair trial, rights we enjoy whether we are rich or poor. This is the modern notion of liberty. Because the same word appears in England as early as the Magna Carta, people think the English already enjoyed liberties in the 13th century.

Historians know better. For most of British history, “liberty” meant special privileges, and a man’s privileges were determined by the social rank, religion, and race into which he was born.

If you were from a rich or noble family, if you were English and Anglican and not Jewish or Muslim, then you enjoyed substantial “liberties”. If you were not so lucky, your privileges were easily trumped by those with heftier “liberties”.

It was all about groups, and that is why, for much of European history, government actions were driven by groupthink. That basically meant the value of a person or a policy was evaluated on the basis of group membership, not benefit to society. The relevant Wikipedia entry notes that groupthink often results in “an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome”.


Hong Kong’s Carrie Lam leads flag-raising ceremony on 23rd anniversary of handover

Hong Kong’s Carrie Lam leads flag-raising ceremony on 23rd anniversary of handover
In Europe and England, groupthink left countless thousands dead from senseless religious wars, inquisitions, and national rivalries. One of the main accomplishments of the Enlightenment was replacing groupthink with reason and facts for the benefit of the community.

Arguably, the group-privilege notion of liberty survives in America today, where profit-maximising corporations enjoy privileges that common citizens lack.

Just recently, the pandemic revealed the degree to which these groups can foster irrational or dysfunctional policies. Pankaj Mishra, in the London Review of Books, noted that “profit-maximising individuals and businesses, it turns out, can’t be trusted to create a just and efficient health care system, or to extend social security to those who need it most. East Asian states have displayed far superior decision-making and policy implementation.”

Why China should remember its post-war push for personal freedoms

If East Asian states developed more rational policies it is because they can utilise facts and expertise for the benefit of the population – which brings us to the history of liberty in Hong Kong.

When Hong Kong returned to China in 1997, the Western press mourned the loss of liberty there, but that same year Richard Klein published a heavily documented article in the Boston University International Law Journal detailing the suppression of dissent in Hong Kong throughout the previous century.

Under British rule, it was the old notion of liberty that guided policy. Those who were white and Christian enjoyed the privileges of citizenship, but Chinese people could not vote, and most criminal cases for Chinese were tried in the district courts – without jury, legal representation, or the necessary translation services.

Throughout the period of colonial rule, taxes on the wealthy were too low to support needed social services for the vulnerable, and the laws were business friendly, so Chinese workers might labour 60 hours a week in wretched conditions for low wages. Not surprisingly, strikes and protests erupted frequently during Hong Kong’s British century.
In times of protest – even peaceful displays of dissent – the colonial government passed draconian laws permitting mass arrests; random, warrantless searches; censorship of newspapers and schools; police surveillance; the use of military tactics, and arrest for any expression of discontent with the government. Charges of police brutality were dismissed in British courts.

Many of these actions violated the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, yet no serious objections were raised by Western democracies.

From Klein’s research we can see that the colonial government interpreted even mild protests in groupthink terms. Under a 1960s ordinance preventing “inflammatory speeches”, someone could get 10 years in prison if they said anything “to promote feelings of ill will between different sections or races of the population of Hong Kong”.

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The term “sections” was a euphemism for class groupings, and the other category was race, so it would seem that protests by poor Chinese in Hong Kong were perceived as an upstart action on the part of lower-ranking groups against the privilege of higher ranks. The facts of the matter were irrelevant.

During the mid-1980s, the British negotiated with China to guarantee the people of Hong Kong rights that the British themselves had not guaranteed. As a result, public demonstrations and protest art became more common after the handover. Demands for liberty increased as well, but it isn’t always easy to determine which kind of liberty the activists had in mind.

No rational American would venture a simple judgment of the multi-faceted protest movement in Hong Kong, nor will I, but as a historian I worry when I see matters cast in groupthink terms, targeting random Mandarin speakers or any government officer; equating England with democracy; or the US with the rule of law.

Confederate battle flag supporters rally at the State Capitol in Columbia, South Carolina in 2000. Photo: AP
In America, this is the kind of thinking we get from the guys waving Confederate flags. I would not equate Hong Kong activists with white nationalists, but the rhetoric of groupthink is typical of the far-right, and not at all common among Black Lives Matter protesters seeking equality. Equality knows no group, and that is the point.

Liberty cannot be reduced to language, religion, or nationality. Can we associate the rule of law with America? The Guardian cited a Lowy Institute report describing the current US administration as “‘openly contemptuous’ of norms under the rules-based order”.

Do Americans have a right to protest? Fred Kaplan, writing in Slate, believes the world will have little interest “in following the moral dictates of an administration that puts migrant children in cages or fires tear gas at the mothers of peaceful protesters”.

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History shows that groupthink leads to dysfunctional decision-making because, while groupthink may rearrange the ranking, the ranking remains – and it’s the ranking that produces irrational outcomes. Genuine liberty demands equality, but that means adhering to set procedures according to the facts.

In the middle of a pandemic, rational procedures are needed to render decisions rooted in facts for community benefit. Lining up as groups based on linguistic or national markers might get you liberty, but not necessarily the kind you wanted.

Martin Powers has written three books on the history of social justice in China, two of which won the Levenson Prize for best book in pre-1900 Chinese Studies. Formerly Sally Michelson Davidson Professor and director of the Centre for Chinese Studies, he is currently professor emeritus at the University of Michigan.