Just days after mass protests for racial equality began in the United States, Hong Kong marked the one-year anniversary of its million-person march for democratic equality. On June 9, hundreds of people used the anniversary to again rally against attempts by China to impinge on the freedoms still existing in the semi-autonomous city.
Tuesday’s protest was smaller than past ones in large part because pro-democracy leaders have realized the limits of street demonstrations. Trying to shame the Communist Party in Beijing has only played to its fears of losing power, forcing it into more brutal crackdowns and mass arrests. In late May, the party decided to impose new laws on Hong Kong that would allow its security agencies to directly suppress critics.
A far better tactic to keep Hong Kong’s liberties, say protest organizers, might be to openly exercise the kind of equality they wish to preserve.
They have only begun to look for examples. Yet the idea is to treat the Communist Party as an equal, even if its leaders treat Chinese citizens as unequal by ruling without open and democratic elections. In other words, equality means not acting with self-righteous superiority but treating others as you would like to be treated.
Last November, pro-democracy voters won most of the seats in local elections for district councils – one of the few examples of democracy left in Hong Kong. This not only shocked Beijing but also showed the city’s voters that equality has power. Now student groups and 23 unions have joined forces to hold a referendum on June 14. It calls for a boycott of classes and workplaces as a “collective dissent” against Beijing’s proposed new law.
If at least 60,000 people vote at informal polling stations or online, and 60% of them endorse the action, workers and students will leave their work or classrooms over three days. Not only the vote itself but also the organized strike will be an exercise in equality.
The universal ideal of equality is not an empty value. Nor is it given by others. As Tocqueville wrote in “Democracy in America,” “One has to understand that equality [first developed in society] ends up by infiltrating the world of politics as it does everywhere else. It would be impossible to imagine men forever unequal in one respect, yet equal in others; they must, in the end, come to be equal in all.”
The protests in the U.S. and Hong Kong differ in many aspects. Yet they both focus on improving people’s understanding of equality – whether in the voting booth, in a courtroom, or in a confrontation with police. After a year of street protests, Hong Kongers may be venturing to act boldly with equality, not merely demanding it.