Francis Scott Key probably would have loved the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong — the blinding red and green lasers bisecting the neon night, the (Pennsylvania-made) tear-gas canisters bursting in air ... and yet through the electric grey fog of dawn’s early light, the flag was still there.
Our flag. The Star-Spangled Banner.
It was almost jarring to flip on CNN midday Tuesday — when the Hong Kong airport was in a state of total anarchy, seemingly on the brink of an even bigger meltdown — and to see a giant Old Glory waving from the center of the crowded, chaotic main terminal. The former British colony now bonded to a dictatorial China is, after all, more than 8,000 miles away from Philadelphia, where a new nation dedicated to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness was conceived, and where a woman named Betsy Ross sewed a flag to celebrate this more perfect union.
Exactly 243 years later, the young citizens of this densely packed island by the South China Sea are fighting for democracy and self-rule against the dictates of a despot thousands of miles away, with China’s Xi Jinping playing the role of King George III. And despite Hong Kong’s roots as a longtime British colony before a controversial 1997 handoff, it is the American flag — and the founding values of the republic for which it stands — that these revolutionaries have pledged a certain allegiance to. You see the Stars and Stripes at every major demonstration, where the uprisers have also been known to burst into Key’s “Star Spangled Banner” (when they’re not opting for the much more melodic and equally radical “Do You Hear the People Sing” from Les Misérables).
It’s a little odd (and maybe reflective of the global cutbacks in journalism) but I haven’t been able to find many really good quotes from the Hong Kong protesters about why the American imagery. One 24-year-old activist — only identified as “David” — told the Asia Times that the flag is meant to spur the U.S. Congress to pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, a pro-demonstrator piece of legislation that (like pretty much all legislation in Mitch McConnell’s America) seems hopelessly stalled. To Beijing’s autocrats, the mysterious flags are proof that the “black hands” of the United States government and its spy agencies have been fomenting three months of protest.
But look, you don’t need to be a rocket-red-glare scientist to see what’s going here. China’s totalitarian government says that Hong Kong has cashed in on a lucrative Asian economy and its citizens should shut up and count their money (which, in a rich irony, is the Hong Kong dollar). But there are thousands of people in that faraway corner of the globe who think that a truly representative government, the right to assemble and to air their grievances, and a free press aren’t just worth marching for but worth risking physical harm, maybe even their lives. The kind of fight that the likes of Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Thomas Paine and Betsy Ross surely would have relished.
Carolyn Marvin, a professor of communication at the University of Pennsylvania’s Annenberg School, and author of Blood Sacrifice and the Nation: Totem Rituals and the American Flag, reminded me that the Chinese freedom protesters whose 1989 occupation of Tiananmen Square met an untimely demise had also invoked American symbolism, erecting a 33-foot high “Goddess of Democracy” that looked a lot like a certain Lady Liberty in the New York Harbor.
Marvin said there’s a direct parallel between what America accomplished in 1776 — freedom and autonomy from far-away colonial rule — and what Hong Kong activists seek today, but there’s also a more emotional tie. The flag, she noted “represents democracy and — on a good day — it represents human rights.”
On a good day ... While people half a world away are again paying tribute to America’s democracy goddess, Americans have somehow elected a government that seems hellbent on toppling the Statue of Liberty in 2003-Baghdad fashion. We saw Trump’s hideous new point man on immigration matters, Ken Cuccinelli, going on TV to insist that America’s lamp of liberty only shines on new arrivals rich enough “to stand on their own two feet,” that the poetic words of Emma Lazarus were only aimed at “Europeans.”
Clearly, America is going through one of our more-than-occasional identity crises, of who the hell are we and what the hell do we really stand for? Is that vision of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness really for everyone? Seems like a no-brainer, yet for all our positive idealism we didn’t get it right in 1776 — not for black or indigenous peoples, or even for women — and then we botched the do-over in 1865, and now there are far too many on our soil — from the blood-stained Twitter fingers in the Oval Office to young men with a manifesto and an AK-47 — who yet again want to steal the American dream for whites only. And so here comes Hong Kong, of all places, to jolt us with a reminder of the joy and wonder of the true meaning of America...if we can keep it.
But the freedom fighters of Hong Kong may not have much time left. It hardly comes as a surprise that these protesters waving an American flag are getting virtually no support — not even lip service — from Donald Trump or his government. At a fraught moment when true moral courage and global leadership from the world’s largest (barely) functioning democracy could be the thing that prevents a Tiananmen Square-style bloodbath in the streets of Hong Kong, Trump has not only avoided intervention but according to some reports may have promised Xi in a June phone call that the United States will stay out of it. That’s disgusting and yet par for the course of our golfing president.
Yet here’s the thing: Whatever their intentions, I don’t think the Hong Kong protesters and their American flags are really sending a message to Trump or even to Congress, even if some of them believe that. No, they are sending a giant bat-signal to us, the American people. The flag is telling us that maybe the best way to fix this giant mess is to start with a renewed focus on what America was supposed to be, and what a truly revolutionary idea that still is, not just in 1776 but right now. The things that the people of Hong Kong want — elections that aren’t rigged but truly mean something, a justice system that treats people equally, a functioning media whose freedom is respected by government — are all things that Americans have imperfectly had...and yet watched slip away.
The people of Hong Kong are in the streets fighting for these things. We should be, too. The protesters in Hong Kong are making a conscious statement that the pursuit of happiness involves more than just money, that all the dollars in the world don’t amount to a hill of beans if you’re not free to say what’s on your mind. How many Americans are willing to take those same risks? How many everyday citizens have had enough of the senseless violence, the institutionalized racism now funneled through our own White House, the concentration camps, the exploitative business practices and the insane inequality that it creates, and a government that doesn’t give a damn because it’s feeling confident that the voters don’t give a damn, either? Who would like to surprise the heck out of them in the coming weeks and months? I know I would. Wear comfortable shoes — and bring your American flag.