HYUNG JUN YOU WRITES — Men and women of all ages, from high school students to retired grandmothers, took to the streets to demand democratic reforms. Calm streets turned violent. Stores and broadcasting stations that were friendly to the government were burnt down. The leaders at the top believed the pro-democracy protests would eventually dissipate, but eventually, too, they realized that the protestors’ grievances were so deep that they were determined to fight on. The uprising caught the attention of the world, and of course that of the US — since just about anyone who spoke against leaders or government policies was subject to jail or some kind of sanction. Many turned to the US, a symbol of democracy, to come to their aid either by levying sanctions or exercising other diplomatic means.
This is not Hong Kong. And this is not happening today. This was Gwangju, back in May of 1980, a small and insignificant city in South Korea. Back then, South Korea was far from the model democracy it is today. It was an authoritarian country that had been through two coups d’état.
Its leader, Chun Doo-hwan, governed with an iron fist. When college students in Gwangju started peaceful protests, the city sent in riot police. But the protests persisted. The government further sent in highly trained special forces— a division designed to fight the North Koreans— to the troublesome upstart city of Gwangju.
Would the US pressure the Korean government to stand down? Or at least publicly support its cause? Would the US risk arousing the ire of a strategic US ally in the effort to contain communist influences from both China and North Korea? No. It did not. America watched from the sidelines as government forces killed more than two hundred civilians in Gwangju.
Of course, there are differences between the current turmoil in Hong Kong and the 1980’s protests in Gwangju. Probably (we pray) the government of Beijing at the end of the continuing crisis will not have deployed its armed forces to smack down pro-democracy protestors. In addition, Hong Kong is garnering significant international media attention (recently Senator Ted Cruz visited Hong Kong, as have occasional other missionaries of democracy from the West). The citizens of Hong Kong enjoy a good measure of Western style freedom of speech and of the press, which are virtually nonexistent in mainland China. Today, with a plethora of internet avenues and social media networks, many thousands of Hong Kongers have been able to show the world their purpose and their intentions, prompting measures of inevitable brutality from riot police.
But the differences end there. Today as in 1980, the US government is officially turning a blind eye to pro-democracy protestors. Neither President Trump nor the State Department have issued a public statement of support. But why? China, although no strategic US ally, is an important trading partner. In 1980, the Korean government censored the Gwangju media. Now, the US government is positively disengaged from Hong Kong – in effect, it is censoring itself.
The final outcomes of both conflicts will also differ. The giants of Gwangju inspired a movement that led to the democratization of South Korea in 1988. The same will not happen in China. Hong Kongers don’t want to change the government in Beijing. Many want their own independent democracy, if under the light umbrella of one country/two systems.
So what’s America to do? First, the US must bring the Hong Kong issue to the United Nations. Although gone now from the Human Rights Council, the US can tap other nations to pressure the international community to support the protestors. Second, the US State Department can release, as a minimum, a public statement voicing concern for the safety of protestors, saying both sides need to compromise — without admonishing Beijing, of course. Finally, President Trump should make one of his signature — and hopefully one of his saner — phone calls to President Xi Jinping, reminding him that the trade talks and the Hong Kong crisis are separate issues. The point: to remind President Xi that if Chinese trade negotiators tell their US counterparts to rescind statements related to Hong Kong, the US will firmly reject them.
America has been afraid of playing that trump card from China for months. By telling President Xi directly, the Chinese will realize the US is serious about this issue and making it hostage to a trade deal will get to nowhere. The pro-democracy protestors are looking for a voice of support from democratic nations. The least the US can do is to amplify their message at the UN, an institution Adlai Stevenson (former UN ambassador under Kennedy) once described as, “the court of world opinion”.