Footage went viral this week of a woman, apparently from the United States, telling off some Hong Kong protesters for desecrating their city with protest posters and graffiti.
“Is this OK? Is this respectful?” she asks, pointedly gesturing to a defaced nearby wall, before trailing off with a tone-deaf trump card, “If my mother saw me write this…”
Do you really feel safe living under a police state.
— EdwinLau (@EdwinLa81362329) September 23, 2019
The woman then questions Hongkongers about the aims of their protests, which are now in their 16th week. The protests started over an extradition bill that would have allowed suspected criminals to be sent to mainland China, but they have expanded to embrace broader demands for more liberty and self-government.
Hong Kong is technically part of China, but the city’s citizens are allowed far more freedom—including freedom of the press and the right to elect some of their legislators—under the “one country, two systems” policy, which will be sunsetted in 2047. Many Hongkongers fear being placed under authoritarian Chinese rule, knowing that on the mainland censorship is the norm, the Communist Party must be appeased at every twist and turn, and political opponents get disappeared (often before showing up on state-run TV with a tearful coerced confession or histrionic display of remorse).
“Find me one case where violence led to a solution,” the woman in the video challenges the Hongkongers. “What a waste of time for everybody,” she says of the demonstrations. In fact, the protests have had at least one significant, if tentative, success: Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, conceded one of the movement’s five demands three weeks ago by withdrawing the bill that set off the protests.
“You guys value freedom more than safety. Do you agree? I think safety is more important than freedom,” the American says. “If you have a safe environment, you can communicate.”
But it’s freedom of speech that lets people be free of legal retribution for the words they say. It’s freedom of speech that allows people wide latitude in how they express themselves, and where, and to whom. A “safety” enforced and ensured by an authoritarian police force is a fickle promise if you piss off the people in charge, and it doesn’t necessarily mean safety for everyone. Sometimes one person’s feeling of safety comes at the expense of other people’s freedoms. Hongkongers, attempting to keep Beijing’s influence at bay, are keenly aware of this.
“China’s thinking is safety is more important than freedom,” the woman claims, before beginning to chip away at posters with her nail. “We shouldn’t do this! This is my city, too!”
At one point she speaks something that sounds like Cantonese. So she could be an expat living in Hong Kong, concerned about the degree to which the city’s been torn apart by civil unrest. But her safetysplaining makes it clear that she either doesn’t understand or just doesn’t care about how high the stakes are. One gets the impression that she hasn’t had her freedom seized for the sake of someone else’s safety.
Under full Chinese rule, Hongkongers will get neither freedom nor safety. An authoritarian regime that forces subservience to the party cannot be trusted to provide either one.