IRVINE, CALIFORNIA – We live in an era fascinated with David-versus-Goliath tales. The Biblical confrontation is invoked to describe everything from sporting contests to popular uprisings against dictators. Malcolm Gladwell’s forthcoming book David and Goliath: Underdogs, Misfits, and the Art of Battling Giants promises to give the story the ultimate pop-culture treatment. And the parallel between the classic tale and the unfolding story of the former intelligence contractor Edward Snowden’s solitary battle against America’s massive security establishment is inescapable.
But Snowden received help from an unexpected source, Hong Kong’s government, which disregarded a US request to hold him to face espionage charges and allowed him to leave for Moscow. In fact, Hong Kong’s siding with a “David” should not surprise us, given that its relationship with mainland China is the quintessential David-versus-Goliath story – and it is still in progress.
Mainland China was not always Goliath; the modern People’s Republic was once David. Indeed, every year on October 1, the country celebrates National Day, commemorating the unlikely victory of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in 1949 over Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalists, who had nearly exterminated them in the 1930’s.
But the CCP has long since switched roles – a reversal exemplified in one of history’s most iconic images: “Tank Man,” the lone, anonymous figure confronting an approaching column of government tanks on June 5, 1989, the day after the People’s Liberation Army crushed pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.
Soon after, Hong Kong’s current struggle with the mainland behemoth began. On National Day in 1996, just a year before Hong Kong was transferred from British to Chinese control, I attended a screening at Hong Kong City University of “The Gate of Heavenly Peace,” a documentary film about the Tiananmen Square protests, on which I worked as a consultant.
After the film, the students first asked the expected questions about the protests and the making of the film. But it quickly became apparent that some students wanted something more personal: reassurance about their future. Visibly nervous, they sought confirmation that Hong Kong’s strong tradition of respect for the rule of law would endure, and that their experience after the handover would differ fundamentally from that of the “Davids” of Tiananmen Square. But, given that the sincerity of China’s “one country, two systems” rhetoric remained dubious, I could offer only the affirmation that all would be well if China’s government kept its promises.
It was difficult to be optimistic. In fact, the screening’s organizers had warned that the turnout might be small, because representatives from the mainland had been pressuring students to attend a National Day celebration instead. Although the film ultimately drew a large crowd, some prominent students chose to hedge their bets on the future by attending the competing event.
The experience raised questions about what subsequent National Days would hold for the students of Hong Kong. Would they still be able to choose between attending a film about the massacre in Beijing and celebrating – or pretending to celebrate – the CCP’s rise?
Despite China’s efforts to try to chip away at Hong Kong’s independence, the city’s students have retained that choice – at least so far. Now, the largest annual rallies tend to be held on July 1, the anniversary of the transfer of control of Hong Kong from Britain to China, when locals renew their commitment to the rule of law and freedom of speech.
The people of Hong Kong continue to confront bravely the Goliath that threatens their values, even holding June vigils to honor the victims of the Beijing massacre – something that no mainland group would be permitted to do. Last summer, local protests halted plans to bring mainland-style “patriotic education” to Hong Kong schools. And, when the news broke that Snowden was revealing his vast trove of documents from Hong Kong, the city’s residents took to the streets to demonstrate their determination to uphold the tradition of free speech that he says drew him there.
According to conventional wisdom, Hong Kong’s residents are apolitical – interested only in money, food, and entertainment. But their readiness to defend their ideals tells a very different – and much older – story.