A case for Individual Freedoms in Hong Kong
Over the last few months, Hong Kong citizens’ protests - from demonstrations with hundreds of thousands of people to barricades and battles with the police - have occupied great space in public debate, on all the media. In the vicissitude, the most urgent question is that of international politics: Hong Kong is a special administrative region of the People's Republic of China and all the latter's difficulty in managing its two souls - without obvious contradictions - is emerging. The two souls are, of course, the communist and statist one and the one open to the market with transnational horizons. This is the main issue, the one that causes the greatest concern on the global chessboard.
But the question does not end there, obviously. Who among us has not felt empathy and solidarity with Hong Kong citizens fighting for their rights against a state where they do not recognize themselves in? How many of us have been indignant when this or that multinational company was silent in the face of violent repression, not to damage its own interests in the metropolis? From the French and American revolutions onwards, our cultural background has always led us to this kind of identification and justification. However, critical thinking must always be at work to find the defects in these spontaneous reactions (if any) and - above all - to identify the points on which these reactions are based; in order to know where are the foundations to cling on when our vision of the world is questioned or shows cracks. Critical thinking must be the driving force making action conscious.
Therefore, in this case, it is useful to raise questions about the points we take most for granted. And so: Hong Kong citizens fight for their rights, but where do these rights come from and who gave them? They rebel against a State in which they do not recognize themselves, but what about the citizens who instead recognize themselves in that very same State and in what relation are their right in comparison with those of the others? And can the state be on someone's side? And how?
We were saying that we all, often with a lot of emotional impetus, looked with admiration at the protesting citizen, brandishing a sign (or throwing a stone) at the policeman who threatened his rights: we think we have rights by nature, as men. Rights that nothing and nobody, not even a State, can violate. Much of our world is built on this natural law: just think of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights or the United States of America’s Declaration of Independence. The latter, in fact, opens with words that every protester in Hong Kong - today - considers sacred:
"When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve political bands which connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal to the Laws of Nature and of Nature's Gods, a decent respect for the opinion of mankind requires that they should declare the cause which impels them to the separation."
Just in passing, let's note the reference to God: a concept that followed a parable opposite to that of the Law of Nature; this last animates the demonstrators in Hong Kong, while the idea of God is very far from their actions. This is just to show how intricate the skein of history is and how much it is useless to know a thought’s origin if you don’t know its purpose as well.
Law of Nature (natural law), i.e. rights existing before any authority (family, state, law) is established. It is a principle that - in its modern formulation - flourished in 17th century Europe and found its golden age during the following century with Enlightenment until the French revolution and, indeed, the American one; leaving its fruits until today. As one among the fathers of these ideas, the English philosopher John Locke, explained, men, before uniting and forming the State, already enjoy the rights to freedom, life and property (precisely because they are natural rights). They may not be aware of having them, but they do. And they decide to build a State to sublimate this condition: the State is created by an agreement (contract) between men to give these rights a further guarantee (for this they create the judiciary power and divide it from the executive and legislative, just like in all modern western constitutions). Thus, the state is almost a logical continuation of the state of nature; it is just a higher stage, where men do not give up any right but, on the contrary, protect them even more.
For these reasons, Locke argues, one has the right to rebel: if the sovereign or the people in government transform into tyrants (I.e. through laws or actions they begin to trample, ignore or violate the natural rights that men have created the State to protect), citizens are entitled to make a revolution. This logical sequence also explains why the American Constitution allows anyone to possess weapons: the original intention was precisely to have citizens always on the alert and who have the means to rebel if the President turned into a tyrant.
It is easy for one to recognize himself in this liberal and natural law version of political power’s genesis and purpose; they are very powerful and fruitful ideas, even today. The people fighting in Hong Kong are doing it for their rights in full compliance with this vision (knowingly or not, it does not matter). Since Locke's time, however, all this has raised several issues. For example: when there is a rebellion, it never happens that the rights of all citizens are threatened at the same time. In most cases, only a part of those citizens sees their properties endangered - for example. And if this part has the right to rebel, it inevitably does so by trampling the right to peace of the citizens’ remaining part. Furthermore, a government - on which the sword of Damocles of rebellion (or the simple withdrawal of power) constantly hangs - will obviously have one sole purpose: satisfying the citizens to maintain its power. And pleasing everyone means, almost always, doing nothing in order to avoid disappointing someone: it is one of the great impasses of every contemporary state. Citizens’ full freedom seems to lead to the government’s inaction.
What can be the alternative then? How can one have a state respectful of his full freedom, just and – at the same time - active? The question is very broad, but it is interesting to remember that John Locke developed his political philosophy in contrast to that - at the time very fortunate - of Thomas Hobbes, another English philosopher a couple of generations older.
Even Hobbes started from natural law presuppositions: every man has right to everything, by nature. But he drew conclusions very different from Locke’s: precisely because everyone has the right to everything, if there is no sovereign authority, men are in a state of permanent war against each other. They fight violently for the things on which everyone is entitled. It is clearly an anthropological premise opposed to that of Locke, although the Law of Nature is always present. Vexed by this state of terror, tired of the absolute freedom’s weight, men decide to put an end to this miserable condition with a single act: they surrender all rights (except the one to life) to a sovereign en bloc and ask him in return only to guarantee peace. Thus, the Leviathan is born: a State that can do anything to prevent citizens/subjects from falling back into the realm of violence. A State that therefore has a free field in dictating the laws and that is above everyone. What about the right to rebel? It does not exist: like all other rights it has been irrevocably given to the sovereign (person or assembly). The State is no longer the continuation of the state of nature; but, on the contrary, it marks a definitive break with it.
The Hobbesian vision, very distant from our most common modern positions, can be ruthless and disrespectful to the individual. To a certain extent, it surely is. But it is important to emphasize that the Hobbesian state has the only and sole purpose of guaranteeing a peaceful coexistence and that it has total freedom in pursuing this end. Clearly, though, despite not having to deal with the problems raised by Locke's, the Hobbesian State raises others.
Is the People's Republic of China the Lockean state that has turned into tyranny? In this case, Hong Kong citizens certainly have a duty to rebel against their rights. Or is it the Hobbesian state, the Leviathan that must impose peace because this is its purpose: to protect every Chinese citizen from the condition of permanent war in which he would live if he were abandoned to freedom?
It is not possible to give an exhaustive answer to these questions. An interesting starting point for reflection, however, could be this: perhaps speaking of rights, in an abstract and almost ideal way, is misleading. Perhaps it is more correct to speak pragmatically of interest: he who rebels against a power does not do it in the name of an abstract ideal. He does so because he has, more concretely, interests to defend. This interest often coincides with one's material and physical well-being: one's home, the possibility of travelling, earning money, etc. It is clear that all this can be part of the metaphysical concept of "right to life" or "property right". But there is a non-trivial difference between rebelling in the name of a 'property right' and making the revolution because I am afraid of losing my house. It is not a simple matter of words. It is the world’s completely different interpretation. And, in the case of interests, we come to the basic question: can one's interest be imposed? In our case, this takes different declinations: can the State, as Hobbes believed, act to impose its interest (Chinese national peace) on the citizens of Hong Kong? Are the multinationals justified in their sloth by the fact of having great economic interests in the city (just as citizens are justified in their action by their own interest)? Can citizens, as Locke believed, impose their interests on all other Chinese citizens and endanger the peace and security of the State?
The State’s genesis, for Hobbes and Locke, albeit in different ways, is a contract (between men and/or between men and the sovereign). But this contract has a crucial point that has rarely been dealt with: why should it also apply to the following generations? I can decide to put an additional seal to guarantee my natural rights (with Locke) or I can decide to totally give them up (with Hobbes), but can I impose my contingent interest - linked to my individual life - to all the generations that will follow? Another famous contractualist philosopher, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, around the same time, faced this problem head-on: according to the French philosopher, in the perfect state, whoever decides not to submit to the 'general will', will be forced to do so by the whole community: he will be forced to be free. The generations following the founder one, therefore, will be forced to freedom. We see how Rousseau actually faced the problem, but he gave an unconvincing solution.
We certainly don't want to solve these dilemmas. But, as we said, reflecting on these issues can help us be more aware; and, therefore, to act and interpret in a shrewder way. The questions about a State’s genesis and usefulness, as has you certainly know, have been filling pages and pages for centuries (indeed, millennia!). Today we have firm convictions that the State was born from some version of a contract. And we have tried here to highlight some weaknesses in these contracts. But what hope can there be for the rebellions in Hong Kong and any other group of people, though, if the State weren’t not born from an agreement? This is what a large group of thinkers has denounced, in more or less famous pages: from Rousseau himself to Lysander Spooner, passing through Nietzsche:
"Any herd of prey animals, a race of conquerors and masters that, guerrescently organized and with the strength of organizing, plants without hesitation its terrible claws on a population perhaps vastly superior in number, but still shapeless, still wandering. In this way the "State" begins on earth."
- (F. Nietzsche, On the Genealogy of Morality - Guilt,' Bad Conscience ', and Related Matters)
In this case, would the fire of revolutions be softer or more ardent?
Views expressed are solely those of the author.
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About the Author
Francesco Ziveri holds a Bachelor's Degree in Philosophy from Università Statale in Milan, Italy; he also attained a first level Master's Degree in Strategic Management for Global Business from Università Cattolica del Sacro Cuore. Holding a long experience in public debates, local politics and newspapers, he strongly believes in the tools of dialectic and methodological skepticism. His unconditional love for western philosophy, perpetrated by reading books, by dialoguing and by writing, brings him in a tireless journey in search of new and alternative points of view on the world. He aspires to grow a mustache as thick as Nietzsche's.