To the rest of the world, and to many in America, the bravery of the people of Hong Kong comes with a message: Is this what you should be doing?
Hong Kong, Russia and Sudan are only three places where calls for democracy have roiled the status quo, challenging powerful autocrats. But does that mean Americans, concerned about the authoritarian tendencies of a President who behaves dismissively toward democratic institutions, should emulate those tactics?
To be sure, Trump’s attacks on the media, his dismissiveness of Russia’s interference in US elections, his jokes about staying in power indefinitely, his politicization of the judiciary, his relentless lying, all constitute a threat to democracy.
But there are enormous differences between what is happening in the United States and in Hong Kong, Russia and elsewhere.
One of the crucial differences is that the United States is still a functioning democracy with a viable path, through existing institutions, to bring about change. If Trump loses reelection, we expect that he will leave office under a system that guarantees that transfer of power.
Mass protests have an important role to play in functioning democracies. That’s why it was so significant that on the day after Trump took office, people across the United States staged one of the biggest demonstrations in the country’s history, the Women’s March. Protests on that scale, or the scale of those in Hong Kong, help no matter what country they’re in to galvanize activists and spread their message, energize the population and send a powerful message that the public is paying attention. It is a warning to the government, and a reminder to the population of its own power. The strength is there, coiled, ready to be released with great force if needed.
In Hong Kong, as in Russia and Sudan, the people felt they had no recourse. That’s what happens when democratic freedoms vanish.
For now, concerned Americans can channel their energy into helping turn out the vote, supporting candidates, working for change. Massive marches can help, but real change is still possible through democratic means. If that changes, if Russian interference or voter suppression undercut the legitimacy of the vote, people will think back to Hong Kong’s oceans of persistent protesters.