Surreality of Revolution
A little bit ago my boss sent me an email with the following attached picture, taken from the streets of Hong Kong.
Its quality appears to be nothing more than simple graffiti, but its message rings with an elevated sense of purpose. It lays out the supreme ultimatum Patrick Henry first asserted in 1775. For Americans, this is a common phrase we learn growing up in history class. In a rousing speech to the Second Virginia Convention, Henry outlined both a logical and impassioned argument for why revolution against Great Britain was not only justified but morally necessary. I'd like to explain the current protests in Hong Kong through the very words of Patrick Henry, reminding us that the remarks he delivered were nothing short of a battle cry.
Recall from your American history class that for nearly 150 years the American colonies enjoyed relative independence from Great Britain. Being thousands of miles away across open waters, Parliament engaged in the policy of salutary neglect: be peaceful, pay taxes, and you can govern yourselves. After the Seven Years War, Parliament began exerting more control over the colonies to pay for the war. Over the course of a decade, multiple protests broke out, leading up to the Boston Tea Party. In response, Parliament and King George III enacted the Intolerable Acts. One of those laws enabled royal governors to ship arrested suspects across the Atlantic all the way to Great Britain to face trial, instead of the territory they supposedly committed the crime. Such policies infuriated the colonials, and they formed the First Continental Congress to send an olive branch to the king to find peace and repeal the laws.
At the time of Henry's speech, there had been no official response from the king, but warships carrying soldiers were on their way to the colonies. Many wanted to wait for peace; Henry was not so optimistic and proposed Virginia raise a militia for self-defense. Here's an excerpt:
It is natural to man to indulge in the illusions of hope. We are apt to shut our eyes against a painful truth, and listen to the song of that siren till she transforms us into beasts. Is this the part of wise men, engaged in a great and arduous struggle for liberty? ... Are fleets and armies necessary to a work of love and reconciliation? Have we shown ourselves so unwilling to be reconciled that force must be called in to win back our love? Let us not deceive ourselves, sir. These are the implements of war and subjugation; the last arguments to which kings resort. I ask gentlemen, sir, what means this martial array, if its purpose be not to force us to submission?
He argued that the calls for hope were "illusions," much like the "song of that siren" that smashed men against the rocks out at sea. He stipulated that this amassing of military power could mean only one thing -- war.
The actions Parliament and the king took (such as extraditing colonials from their homes to face trials in foreign, unknown districts) threatened the prosperity and freedom those in the colonies had enjoyed for so long. Rightly, the Americans were enraged and were prepared to not only protest but to defend themselves.
Cosmic Déjà Vu
Hong Kong today faces a remarkably similar situation. For the vast majority of the 20th century, Hong Kong was owned by the United Kingdom, and under that time the city enjoyed economic opportunity and political freedom their cousins in the communist People's Republic of China (PRC) could only dream of. Control of Hong Kong was eventually given to the PRC, but even then, the city (and the area that was connected to Hong Kong's independent status) still lived in relative independence in terms of free enterprise and judicial rights. Under the reign of President Xi Jinping, however, Beijing has attempted to exert more control over the area by implementing puppet governments and slowly deteriorating the independent judiciary.
Over the past year, Beijing attempted to force Hong Kong to adopt a law that would extradite Hong Kong citizens to the PRC and face their trials there, where protections of civil liberties and rights are non-existent. As if taken from the first chapters of an American history textbook, we see once again a tyrant attempt to project power and control over a population that has never known control by removing them from their homes and imprisoning them under a false court. The seedlings of the American Revolution are crystal clear in Hong Kong.
During a high point in his speech, Patrick Henry asked the Virginia delegation (which, by the way, were meeting in less-than-legal circumstances) rhetorically if the attempts of the colonials for peace had been met with good-will and love? If their petitions, remonstrances, and supplications had been received in a friendly manner, or if they had been met with violence, slight, and insult. The only conclusion the colonials could reasonably come to was that, despite every attempt for peace, George III would have it no other way than his: complete dominion over the colonies. No doubt, the protestors of Hong Kong must feel the same way. Every attempt for a peaceful end has been met with the blunt end of a riot-bat and tear gas. The police are not marching to maintain public order, but to implement unjust dominion.
Fighting is All That is Left
Towards the end, Henry condemns those who view the colonials as too weak to face such a formidable adversary. He rebukes them with a simple question: but when shall we be stronger? Will it be the next week, or will it be the next year? The American colonials had never been stronger, even though Great Britain was the greatest empire in history. Hong Kong has never been in a better position for true political change, even if Beijing is a monstrous dragon. The cause of liberty is a righteous one, with millions united and backed by Divine Providence.
There is no retreat but in submission and slavery! Our chains are forged! Their clanking may be heard on the plains of Boston! The war is inevitable--and let it come! I repeat it, sir, let it come.
There is no alternative now for Hong Kong as there was none for the colonials: any act of retreat is an act of submission to slavery. Even if the protestors surrender, Beijing will use these protests to crack down harder on Hong Kong. The only viable choice for a better future is a fight for the city's general or even complete independence.
The final words of Patrick Henry's speech are well-known by many good American school boys and girls. They have a certain echo of history that excites us for being so musical and old. For us who have lived in freedom our whole lives, though, the speech is just that: an article of history. But we forget that those words were spoken by a real man to real countrymen in real and dangerous times. They did not echo in history then, but were absorbed by the hearts of rebels -- of revolutionaries!
Seeing the picture above in Hong Kong is surreal to me: for once again, those words are alive in the hearts of new revolutionaries, who embrace them not just as a punchline, but as the backbone of a movement for justice and freedom. The people of Hong Kong must now either fight or risk slavery for generations. The final line of Patrick Henry's address evokes a sense of destiny: either we will live in freedom, or we will die. During these protests, some, perhaps many, will die. But should these revolutionaries prove true to these words, their cause will also be true, and their deaths will refresh the tree of liberty for countless future Hong Kong citizens to come.
The war is actually begun! The next gale that sweeps from the north will bring to our ears the clash of resounding arms! Our brethren are already in the field! Why stand we here idle? What is it that gentlemen wish? What would they have? Is life so dear, or peace so sweet, as to be purchased at the price of chains and slavery? Forbid it, Almighty God! I know not what course others may take; but as for me, give me liberty or give me death!