In Hong Kong, the US and Britain, the truth about ‘liberty’ will set you free

The concepts of “liberty” and “freedom” often get bandied about, especially in regard to Hong Kong, but in the Anglo-American tradition “liberty” can mean two very different things. Be careful which one you choose.
Most people think “liberty” means the protection of universal rights, such as the right to a fair trial, rights we enjoy whether we are rich or poor. This is the modern notion of liberty. Because the same word appears in England as early as the Magna Carta, people think the English already enjoyed liberties in the 13th century.
Historians know better. For most of British history, “liberty” meant special privileges, and a man’s privileges were determined by the social rank, religion, and race into which he was born.
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If you were from a rich or noble family, if you were English and Anglican and not Jewish or Muslim, then you enjoyed substantial “liberties”. If you were not so lucky, your privileges were easily trumped by those with heftier “liberties”.
It was all about groups, and that is why, for much of European history, government actions were driven by groupthink. That basically meant the value of a person or a policy was evaluated on the basis of group membership, not benefit to society. The relevant Wikipedia entry notes that groupthink often results in “an irrational or dysfunctional decision-making outcome”.
In Europe and England, groupthink left countless thousands dead from senseless religious wars, inquisitions, and national rivalries. One of the main accomplishments of the Enlightenment was replacing groupthink with reason and facts for the benefit of the community.
Arguably, the group-privilege notion of liberty survives in America today, where profit-maximising corporations enjoy privileges that common citizens lack.
Just recently, the pandemic revealed the degree to which these groups can foster irrational or dysfunctional policies. Pankaj Mishra, in the London Review of Books, noted that “profit-maximising individuals and businesses, it turns out, can’t be trusted to create a just and efficient health care system, or to extend social security to those who need it most. East Asian states have displayed far superior decision-making and policy implementation.”
If East Asian states developed more rational policies it is because they can utilise facts and expertise for the benefit of the population – which brings us to the history of liberty in Hong Kong.
When Hong Kong returned to China in 1997, the Western press mourned the loss of liberty there, but that same year Richard Klein published a heavily documented article in the Boston University International Law Journal detailing the suppression of dissent in Hong Kong throughout the previous century.
Under British rule, it was the old notion of liberty that guided policy. Those who were white and Christian enjoyed the privileges of citizenship, but Chinese people could not vote, and most criminal cases for Chinese were tried in the district courts – without jury, legal representation, or the necessary translation services.
Throughout the period of colonial rule, taxes on the wealthy were too low to support needed social services for the vulnerable, and the laws were business friendly, so Chinese workers might labour 60 hours a week in wretched conditions for low wages. Not surprisingly, strikes and protests erupted frequently during Hong Kong’s British century.
In times of protest – even peaceful displays of dissent – the colonial government passed draconian laws permitting mass arrests; random, warrantless searches; censorship of newspapers and schools; police surveillance; the use of military tactics, and arrest for any expression of discontent with the government. Charges of police brutality were dismissed in British courts.
Many of these actions violated the 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, yet no serious objections were raised by Western democracies.
From Klein’s research we can see that the colonial government interpreted even mild protests in groupthink terms. Under a 1960s ordinance…
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