Opinion: With the protests, Hong Kong is fighting for its political freedom; with Brexit doubts, Britain is giving it up

By Brett Fafata, Northwestern University

Free speech and democracy are two fundamental rights that Hongkongers seek, but the British are not concerned with their protection

By Brett Fafata, Northwestern University |

Latest Articles

Ele Fountain’s ‘Lost’: a powerful tale of survival

Restrictive laws governing speech and unelected representatives making laws are both threats to freedom, says Brett Fafata.

Civil liberties, a representative democracy, property rights – such ideas form the bedrock upon which modern Western civilisation rests. For those living in places built with these values, it can be easy to take these ideas for granted. One can become complacent and believe that their rights do not need to be protected or fought for, because they are simply there. They always have been and always will be – or at least that is the perception.

But they haven’t been there forever. Such ideas are relatively young in the history of humankind. They were born in England with the Magna Carta, further refined during the enlightenment period, and finally came to form as the ideology of “Classical liberalism” in Industrial Revolution in Britain. From there, these ideas were spread to every corner of globe through British, and later US, influence.

The people of Hong Kong have been deeply influenced by classic liberal ideas thanks to British rule, and they desire the individual liberties that their former colonial masters have enjoyed for centuries. However, observing the current state of Britain, you will see a society that increasingly squanders the rights that the Hongkongers risk everything to fight for. Indeed, the situation in Hong Kong can be seen as the opposite of that in Britain: Hongkongers, long deprived of their rights, are fighting for new legal reforms, while the British are in the process of undoing the liberal laws that they already have.

Opinion: There is an urgent need for mental health support after a summer of Hong Kong protests

First, let us look at the state of freedom of speech in both countries. Since the 1980s, Britain has passed increasingly restrictive laws regarding “hate speech” and online behaviour. Among these laws, what exactly can be classified as “hateful” or “abusive” is left undefined, which has led to a series of arrests for what would have previously been legal speech. In 2017, more than 3,300 people in Britain were detained and questioned over their social media posts. One particularly famous incident involved a Scottish man who was arrested in 2017 after publishing a joke video in which his dog does a Nazi salute.

As for Hong Kong, cases of suppression of speech are unfortunately not unusual. These situations stem from the Hong Kong-Beijing political conflict, and usually involve the press being silenced or intimidated through various proxies of the Chinese Communist Party. The disappearance of anti-Chinese booksellers was another major case of suppression. However, these violations do not come from any organic desire of the people to see this speech be suppressed, but instead is done directly against their will. Regarding hate speech laws, no such legislation exists in Hong Kong.

A true United Nations: Is an integrated world government really possible?

Next is the question of democracy. In 2016, the public of Britain voted in a referendum to leave the European Union, but whether “Brexit” will actually occur is still unclear. One of the arguments made by pro-Brexit Britons is that the EU is undemocratic. In the EU government, parliament members elected by the member nations have no right to propose laws. Laws can only be proposed by the European Commission, which is composed of unelected officials.

Despite the Brexit vote, a large contingent of the British parliament and public still support the European Union, and are actively campaigning to cancel Brexit. These recent events show that a significant portion of the British people are unconcerned with the undemocratic nature of the EU or the implications of ignoring the results of a public referendum.

In contrast to the British, Hongkongers are strongly united in their opposition against unelected officials. One of the primary demands of the Hong Kong protesters is the implementation of universal suffrage for the Legislative Council and Chief Executive elections. Hongkongers want to build a system where a system of unelected officials is no longer able to impose unpopular legislation on the people of their city.

Carrie Lam, stop saying HK’s freedom is the same as it ever was when it’s clearly not

From these two examples, it is clear that the British and Hongkongers have diverged in their way of thinking. After hundreds of years of having a liberal government, the British are no longer deeply concerned with the protection of their fundamental rights. The actions of the British government show the world that they are willing to chip away at these rights, and much of the British public condones it. Ironically, I would argue that Hongkongers believe in “British liberal values” now more than the British themselves.

Why is this? I think it is because, unlike the Hongkongers, the British never lived without these rights. The British people of today never lived under Communism. They don’t know how oppressive life is not having their freedom of speech, and that is why they are willing to “tinker” with these fundamental values. Hongkongers, on the other hand, have lived without these rights, and are actively fighting to earn them right now. When it comes to these values, we could all learn something from Hongkongers – the freedoms that we take for granted are not actually guaranteed, and they must be actively protected and fought for.