If Hong Kong Can Have a Pro-Democracy Movement… Why Can't the United States?

On Wednesday, China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry in Washington, DC and made headlines for more or less telling the U.S. government not to interfere in matters concerning the pro-democracy movement that has engulfed the Chinese-administered territory of Hong Kong.

“The Chinese government has very firmly and clearly stated its position,” stated Wang Yi as he stood beside Kerry outside the State Department building. “I believe for any country, for any society, no one would allow those illegal acts that violate public order. That’s the situation in the United States and that’s the same situation in Hong Kong.”

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“In America, we have accepted [democracy corrupted by big money] as as American as apple pie.” —Lawrence LessigFor his part, Kerry offered the Obama administration’s message that it objects to aspects of China’s anti-democratic policies in Hong Kong, specifically their refusal for universal suffrage, and said he hopes “that the Hong Kong authorities will exercise restraint and respect the protestors’ right to express their views peacefully.”

And though it’s a well-worn talking point—articulated here by the Guardian— that the US has “always walked a delicate tightrope in its relations with China, eager to improve trade and economic ties with the world’s second largest economy while also pressing for greater human rights”—Harvard law professor Lawrence Lessig, in an op-ed on Wednesday, argues that what’s most striking dynamic about the situation in Hong Kong is not how leaders like Wang Yi and Kerry are delicatedly skirting the realities of their own self-interest, but why voters in the U.S. don’t recognize how much they have in common with the tens of thousands of Hong Kong residents who have recognized how corrupt and nonexistence their democratic has become.

In Lessig’s opinion, when it comes to calling for democratic reforms and amassing in large numbers in the streets, U.S. voters “should be protesting, too.”

Invoking the legacy of William “Boss” Tweedy, known for masterminding New York and national politics on behalf of  his fellow elites in 19th century America, Lessig writes that contemporary voters in the United States have become as disempowered by the role of big money in electoral politics (he calls it the “green primary”) as have Hong Kong citizens under mainland China’s one-party rule.


“I don’t care who does the electing, so long as I get to do the nominating,” Tweed famously said. And for Lessig, that is the mindset that draws a straight line between China’s Communist Party leaders and the corporate and wealthy elites in the United States who have so radically captured American democracy in recent decades.

Lessig writes:

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