FAIRFAX, VIRGINIA – Since the protests in Hong Kong started two months ago, I have been struck by the coolness of the American response. I am referring not just to U.S. President Donald Trump, who has reiterated that the dispute is an internal Chinese matter. Both the social media I sample and the people I know have been fairly quiescent. I haven’t seen that much cheering and rooting for the protesters, nor have the major Democratic presidential candidates made a show of stressing their dissent from Trump on this issue.
Why the relative lack of interest? The Hong Kong protesters seem to have a worthy cause. They have varied goals, but many of them favor independence and democratization. In the meantime, they would like to keep relative autonomy, for instance by holding off the originally proposed Chinese extradition law. They also have been remarkably peaceful and orderly, with few reports of them initiating violence. Some of the younger protesters have even been photographed doing their homework in their moments of downtime. As political causes go, this one seems pretty close to ideal.
The relative indifference may be especially hard to explain when it comes to Americans. After all, the U.S. owes its existence to a rebellion against the British Empire, and against especially long odds. America probably would not have won independence without direct French assistance, while Spain and other nations helped to distract the British on the broader global stage.
Some protesters in Hong Kong today are adopting the British Union Jack flag, the American flag and the “Star-Spangled Banner” as symbols, yet that doesn’t seem to have stirred our collective imaginations. We outsiders are remaining fairly mute and stoic, even with about two million people — more than a quarter of Hong Kong’s population — out in the streets or in some way participating in the demonstrations.
One obvious possibility, of course, is fear of an official crackdown in Hong Kong, and the violence, possible loss of life, and further restrictions on daily life that such a crackdown would bring. Perhaps the smart money is already expecting such an outcome, and no one wants to be a party to such an ugly denouement.
But is that enough of a reason to withhold enthusiastic support? After all, the protesters surely have similar fears, but after internalizing the costs and benefits they have decided to risk their lives and liberties anyway. Surely it is strange if the protesters — who really do have something major to lose — are braver than we outsiders are.
In similar fashion, it is striking that the growing prodemocracy protests in Moscow are not a bigger story in the United States They are being covered, but they are far from dominating the news. It is not close to the national attention received by Soviet dissidents in the 1970s and 1980s, even though the latest demonstrations seem to have generated about 50,000 attendees and have withstood initial waves of opposition from the regime of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
You might think that today’s Russia is less fearsome than the former Soviet Union. If so, think again: Putin’s government is very anti-democratic, Russia has been much more aggressive internationally in the last several years, it interfered in America’s latest presidential election, and Russia shows many signs of new investments in advanced weaponry. The country may end up as a paper tiger, but it has not yet been properly defanged.
Sadly, the most likely hypothesis is that Americans and many others around the world simply do not care so much anymore about international struggles for liberty. It is no longer the 18th or 19th century, when one democratic revolution provided the impetus for another, and such struggles were self-consciously viewed in international terms (a tradition that was also adopted by communism). The 1960s, which saw the spread of left-wing movements around the world, embodied that spirit. So did the anti-Communist movements of the 1980s, such as Solidarity, which overcame apparently insuperable odds to help liberate Poland and indeed many other parts of Eastern Europe.
In contrast, I hear no talk today about how the Hong Kong protesters might inspire broader movements for liberty.
Instead, Americans are preoccupied with fighting each other over political correctness, gun violence, Trump and the Democratic candidates for president. To be sure, those issues deserve plenty of attention. But they are soaking up far too much emotional energy, distracting attention from the all-important struggles for liberty around the world.
It’s 2019, and the land of the American Revolution, a country whose presidents gave stirring speeches about liberty and freedom in Berlin during the Cold War, remains in a complacent slumber. It really is time to Make America Great Again — if only we could remember what that means.
Tyler Cowen is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is a professor of economics at George Mason University and writes for the blog Marginal Revolution. His books include “The Complacent Class: The Self-Defeating Quest for the American Dream.”
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