If you spend any time right now in this great city that is yearning and protesting for freedom and democracy, there is a song you will hear almost everywhere. Introduced just a few weeks ago, it is the work of an anonymous Hong Kong composer, with crowd-sourced lyrics: a solemn but uplifting anthem, titled "Glory to Hong Kong."
Hong Kongers have been singing this anthem in stadiums, in shopping malls, at protest marches and at rallies. Shortly before I sat down to write this, protesters forming a human chain were singing it along the Kowloon waterfront. One of the most polished versions, sung in Hong Kong's native Cantonese, with English subtitles, can be found on Youtube performed by an orchestra and chorus wearing an assortment of masks, goggles and helmets — part of the standard kit that many protesters have adopted to protect themselves against tear gas, rubber bullets and arrest. For some background on how this song came together, the South China Morning Post has a good short clip on "Who wrote 'Glory to Hong Kong.' "
The song works so well, and has caught on so widely, for the simple reason that it sums up an important truth — one that people instantly recognize. Out of a British colonial past and in defiance of the encroaching tyranny of China, Hong Kong has emerged as home to a culture steeped in the principles of liberty and law; arguably the world's fiercest champion today of freedom. It is inspiring to listen to the protesters here, with their ubiquitous Cantonese phrase, ga yau (meaning "add oil"; the rough equivalent in spirit of the English phrase, "more steam") and their rallying cries of "Fight for freedom! Stand with Hong Kong!" When they sing "Glory to Hong Kong," it can be haunting, exhilarating, beautiful.
It can also feel heartbreaking. Because Hong Kongers are up against terrible odds in defying Beijing. China has 1.4 billion people, a huge military, a massive domestic security apparatus and a communist party that has preserved its monopoly rule for 70 years by persecuting, imprisoning or killing those who dissent (remember Tiananmen, 1989). Hong Kong has 7.5 million people, no army of its own, a chief executive handpicked by Beijing, and a police force evidently enjoined by that chief executive, Carrie Lam, or her bosses in mainland China, to enforce not the interests of Hong Kongers, but the desires of Beijing.
Despite all that, Hong Kongers — young, old and in between — have carried on, taking great risks to demand the rights and freedoms that China promised them for 50 years after the 1997 British handover. It's now more than 17 weeks since these protests began — triggered by Lam's efforts to pass a bill that would have allowed extradition from Hong Kong to China. After enormous protests, and many showdowns between protesters and police, Lam finally promised to withdraw the bill. But Hong Kongers want more than a hard-won dispensation from a satrap of Beijing. They want the ability to elect their own chief executive. They want the universal suffrage Beijing promised and reneged on.
As the protests have rolled on, Beijing and its minions in charge of Hong Kong have delivered quite a beating to the brave people of this territory. China has threatened Hong Kong with fire and the abyss, put Hong Kongers on notice that China's army might intervene, and pressured Hong Kong's flagship airline, Cathay Pacific, into firing staff who supported the protesters. Hong Kong's police force has arrested more than 1,500 people in connection with the protests, and been caught repeatedly using excessive force with strange zeal, including beating people bloody.
Which brings me to the question of what comes next. In Hong Kong, which is 12 hours ahead of New York, the date has already ticked over to October 1, 2019 — the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China. China's president, dictator Xi Jinping, wants a perfect party, complete with a giant military parade and lavish praise of his own tyranny. The betting has been that once the shindig is over, he will turn more seriously to the project of crushing Hong Kong's demands for freedom and democracy, either by subverting the territory behind the scenes, or by way of a modern replay of the 1989 Tiananmen bloodbath.
It is thought-provoking, though not reassuring, to read a superbly reported piece published Monday by Reuters, breaking the story that "China quietly doubles troop levels in Hong Kong." It's also a good bet that Xi will not look happily on Hong Kong people exercising their promised right of free speech by papering the ground with pictures of his face, so people can stomp on it. China's communist party prefers a system in which they, and they alone, do all the stomping — though usually that means destroying not only pictures, but human beings.
How, exactly, this showdown in Hong Kong will play out, I can only guess, and the many people I've asked here are guessing too. But one thing I can tell you for sure. For decades, while operating as a free-trade port and world hub of banking, Hong Kong has been cooking up an identity and domestic culture that deserves respecting and defending as one of the great treasures of the Free World. During these months of protest, Hong Kong's people have led the world in defending, demanding and explaining the importance of freedom. They have been sacrificing plenty for it, and will almost certainly sacrifice a lot more. They stand tall among the heroes of our time, and we of the Free World should do everything in our power to stand with them. Glory to Hong Kong.