The US and Hong Kong: a chance to contrast freedom with repression

The protests across America flowing from the killing of George Floyd by police in Minneapolis have exposed continuing deep rifts over race and equality of treatment by the police. The anger, frustration and grief are intense, exacerbated by the suffering and anxiety Covid-19 has brought to communities across the US.

At a time when authoritarian China is characterising millions of protesters in Hong Kong as violent terrorists and using police brutality to arrest them, the US must seize the chance to not create a mirror image of repression in how it handles these events in its cities.

This is a strange opportunity to show why living in a democracy matters.

How America responds will chart a course that affects the world. The US’s status as a strategic leader and example of the power of democracy and equality before the law is under challenge from the systemic rival of authoritarian China. And it’s now under challenge because of events and actions in America itself.

Individual incidents like the police brutality that killed Floyd by suffocating him, in front of other citizens who were pleading with officers to stop, are horrific in themselves, but they can also catalyse larger movements and change. This seems to be happening now.

Protests, violence and rioting are continuing in dozens of US cities. Peaceful demonstrations against systemic police violence disproportionately directed at African Americans are occurring alongside looting and physical violence. Critical, longstanding issues of justice, equality and personal freedom are being raised for America’s leaders and institutions to address. At the same time, though, disorder, property destruction and violence need to be stopped.

At this point, it looks very much like President Donald Trump is focusing on the second bit—repressing the violence—and is doing much less to focus on the immediate cause of the mass protests. Calling for states and governors to ‘dominate’ and, if they don’t, threatening to deploy the US military on America’s streets is using violence to stop violence. If that’s the totality of the strategy, in the ensuing civil conflict the divisions within America are likely to be widened, not bridged or healed.

Other voices, including governors, mayors, members of Congress and some police leaders, are calling for a different, two-track strategy. Yes, the looting and physical violence need to be controlled and those responsible prosecuted. But these voices are also emphasising the need to recognise the underlying fact that African Americans continue to experience disproportionate rates of incarceration and death at the hands of police, despite the progress of the civil rights movement.

This path involves deep reform of the law enforcement institutions—including the more than 17,000 separate police forces in the country. Even administratively, it’s a huge task, given the number of different processes, methods, rules, training programs and cultures that exist across this sprawling apparatus.

How America responds and goes about change is a test for it as a democracy and polity. Other democracies, like ours here in Australia, also face tests in how we respond to our own continuing challenges and divisions. We are part of this clash of systems of governance, together with all the other democracies of the world. As with the US, how we each act matters not just for us but for others.

There’s an eerie parallel between events in Hong Kong and in America. The Hong Kong protest movement began in response to Beijing trying to shrink Hongkongers’ freedoms and, when authorities met the protests with violence, included calls for an independent inquiry into police misconduct as a core demand. Beijing refused to conduct an inquiry, and instead escalated violence—whether the protesters were peaceful or not.

Beijing is now passing laws to further empower state security organs to use violence, arrests and incarceration, all based on the stated need to re-establish order. Hongkongers’ calls for their freedom and equality before the law are being met with stonewalling—along with further violence, arrests, and now threats of jail on charges of sedition, terrorism or acting on behalf of foreign powers.

So, America must show it’s different here and now. Citizens’ legitimate calls for change must be heard and acted upon, not ignored and repressed. Right now that looks hard, but America has dealt with division and civil violence throughout its history. It uses its state and federal institutions and democratic processes to navigate its internal pressures.

This time, of course, there’s the particularly volatile environment of a US presidential election campaign being conducted in the middle of a tragic and destructive pandemic and an economic crisis, both of which are affecting the poor disproportionately. And now there’s a newly reopened wound of police violence against African Americans.

Managing multiple crises and divided citizens is what democracy and the rule of law are designed for. And navigating huge internal pressures is not novel for the US—its internal contradictions are probably the reasons for its greatest strengths and achievements as well as its deepest flaws.

Leadership matters at such a time in a democracy, and Trump and his use of presidential power in the form of federal law enforcement—and even military—personnel will play a defining role.

Trump’s words will also be key either as catalysts for further violence or, if he chooses to change the direction of his rhetoric, calm and unity. Such a turn would put him back into the company of almost all of his predecessors.

But Trump’s voice is not the only one that matters in the US system, though; in contrast to authoritarian systems, there are more leadership voices than just that of the peak leader. Division of power is a fundamental design principle of democracy. These divisions are even more evident in the case of America, whose founding fathers designed the US system to disperse power between states and the federal government, and between federal institutions themselves.

In coming days and weeks, it will be key to look and listen beyond the White House, and to assess the extent to which the underlying demands of US citizens are being heard and acted upon.

This is where the mirror imaging with Beijing and Hong Kong can end, and where the US can show the world the value of living in freedom with independent courts and political leaders who listen and respond with positive change, not repression and violence.

Positive change in the US would be the defining result of this particular test of rival systems. The outcome will be important, but this is just one event in what will be a series of tests over coming months and years.