As a volunteer neighborhood leader and a democratic activist in the United States, I want to express my strong support for your efforts to maintain and strengthen democracy in Hong Kong. Your work is inspiring me and democratic activists around the world. I feel personally connected to your struggle since many years ago, my young children, my wife and I had an opportunity to live and work in China. Through this experience, we got to know many remarkable people, made lasting friendships, and developed a deep respect for the history and culture of China. We always entered and exited China through Hong Kong and we grew to love, and still love, your city and its great vitality.
My experience of life in China also helped me appreciate the freedom and democracy in my home. This experience contributed significantly to my subsequent life-long commitment to rebuilding democracy here in the United States. I came to understand and now share with you the understanding that democracy is essential both to individual freedom and to the prosperity and health of our cities and nations.
I am certainly not qualified and would never attempt to give you any advice on how to conduct your struggle. But, what I can do that you might find useful is help you understand the state of democracy in the United States, counter some of the propaganda about us spread by the CPC, and clear up some of the confusion and doubts you must have about our commitment to democracy given the obvious authoritarian tendencies of our current President. Hopefully you can learn a little from our current experiences, as we are learning from yours.
Speaking as an American democratic activist, I can assure you that we still do have a democracy in the United States. As my ability to write this to you without any fear of reprisal demonstrates, we do still have freedom of speech. And, we do still have the rule of law, the right to vote, a free press, and strong democratic institutions and norms. Most of us are deeply aware that our democracy is a gift given to us by the sacrifices and even lives of countless individuals from the founding of our nation to today. We are proud that we now have, as a result of our recent and ongoing struggles against all forms of racism and discrimination, the ability to include many of our citizens previously excluded from fully participating in our democracy. And, we know, now more than ever, that it is ours, only if we can keep it. The propaganda of the CPC that our democracy is just a false cover for capitalist domination has never accurately described us. While business interests have sometimes been too powerful, their influence has always been met successfully with opposition from other parts of our nation in our ongoing struggle to create a free and just nation.
But it is also true, beyond question, that our democracy is now in a weakened state. It is threatened and under attack by our own authoritarian President and his Party and by foreign powers working to undermine democracy. I won’t try to list all of the facts that prove that our democracy is weak and threatened, but only point out the most telling fact that up to 40% of our citizens now seem to have lost faith in the fairness of our democratic institutions and are currently supporting our own President’s efforts to undermine our democracy. You must find it very strange that the citizens of the nation that first developed a democratic constitution and still has a functioning democracy, would willingly consider abandoning their democracy. You, in contrast, have the support of most of your citizens but lack the democratic laws and institutions that you need to protect your freedom. Perhaps this is because we, unlike you, no longer have the direct experience of living without democracy to remind us of the gift we were given. We don’t envy your position, but we are envious of the clarity that your experience affords you. We are looking to you to help us regain this clarity.
And, maybe, if I could help you understand how we ended up with our democracy under threat, it might help you avoid this same fate in the future. The story of how we allowed our democracy to be weakened is, of course, long and complex. But, the essence of the story will seem very familiar to you since you are well acquainted through your history with the concept of meritocracy. Here, from the perspective of a democratic activist, is our story. Early in the 20th Century, in a rapidly changing world of industrialization, urbanization, and immigration, we began to rely more and more on experts, our new university-trained professionals, to manage our modern complex world. We began to view democracy as an outdated idea suited only to a smaller and less complex world. The participation of citizens in public life was reduced to voting in periodic elections to choose professionals to make decisions for them. We abandoned, and not without struggle, the belief in our founders’ declaration “that all are created equal.” We abandoned the belief that each individual has a unique and valuable experience and a unique contribution to offer to public life that only a democracy has the ability to include. We, gradually, developed into a meritocracy of equal opportunity instead of a democracy that respects and gives a voice and role to all. This led inevitably to growing inequality as our professionals rewarded themselves and to alienated citizens left without the experience in governance they needed to protect democracy. It left citizens divided from each other and ripe for manipulation by a leader promising to solve problems for them.
Now, democratic activists here in the U.S. are faced with the daunting task of rebuilding our democracy and restoring our democratic values. We are applying the hard lesson of history that democracy requires and thrives only with engaged citizens and are now working to develop ways to reengage citizens and create a more democratic politics at the local level in our towns and cities. We are rebuilding and empowering neighborhood and community organizations so that we all have the opportunity to get to know each other and learn how to find common ground and work together. We are developing new practices that can engage citizens to make decisions and be part of public work, new forms of government that support citizen engagement, and a new role for experts as valued advisors of citizens and not as decision makers. It will take a long time for us to rebuild our democracy and relearn the skills we need to resist those who want to undermine our work, but we will persist and we will live up to our democratic heritage.
We hope that our work will convince you that our commitment to democracy is still strong. And we might very humbly suggest that you consider our experience and find a way to develop the organizations and practices that can not only engage citizens in opposing attacks on democratic rights, but also engage them in the work of governance so that they can develop the skills they need to maintain the gains they make and so that they can add their experience and effort to public work. If you and we can do that, we will succeed in unleashing the power and energy of engaged citizens that is only possible in a democracy. As we work here to rebuild our democracy, we will be watching you and we will continue to be inspired by your efforts.