Hong Kong and Birmingham
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s fight for justice brought him into direct collision with various local governments who characterized his brand of nonviolent direct action as “outsiders coming in.” He pushed back against this viewpoint most eloquently in his 1963 “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” saying:
I am cognizant of the interrelatedness of all communities and states. I cannot sit idly by in Atlanta and not be concerned about what happens in Birmingham. Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.
And yet, how far should we reasonably go to oppose injustice and oppression? Today our world is far more connected than it was 50 years ago when Dr. King confronted injustice in a city only hours away by car from his home in Atlanta, where I currently live.
Injustice in a shrinking world
I’ve spent the equivalent of several weeks in different parts of Asia throughout my professional career, and through that lens I find that Dr. King’s experience is not unique.
We hear of people saying the world is shrinking, which is a way of expressing that we can be far more connected with people all over the world than those of just one or two generations earlier could.
Many of us have become quite aware of our interconnectedness over the last few months, seeing how an action or conversation on the other side of the planet can become available to or impact our whole community. Technology has made these opportunities possible.
Technology can have a positive impact in building communities for the marginalized. The rise of a browser-based Internet greatly benefited many LBGTQI communities, bringing individuals together who thought they were alone.
This interconnectedness also widens our visibility of injustice throughout the world, widens the impact of that injustice, and provides the opportunity to potentially stand against this oppression.
“Sing Alleluia to the Lord”
Some may have seen videos from last year where thousands of individuals in Hong Kong gathered in the open air sing the Christian hymn, “Sing Alleluia to the Lord.” The simple words of this hymn are likely familiar to some:
Sing Alleluia to the Lord,
Sing Alleluia to the Lord,
Sing Alleluia, Sing Alleluia,
Sing Alleluia to the Lord
Isn’t it amazing that we can see images and video from anywhere in the world of events when they are happening, and we can recall them months and years later? One can enjoy this beautiful sight of individuals in Hong Kong singing a beautiful song together in English.
What might not be known is how these words are a song protesting Beijing’s campaign to roll back western-style freedoms in Hong Kong. At one point nearly a quarter of the entire city’s population peacefully gathered outside the city in opposition to the government. (I must wonder what it would take for a quarter of the greater Atlanta area’s population to gather in one place in opposition to anything.)
Hong Kong and China: One country, two systems
When the United Kingdom transferred its sovereignty over Hong Kong to China in 1997 under a principle of “one country, two systems,” the idea was that the city would remain politically and economically independent — thus ensuring that its tradition of western-style democracy, complete with British-style freedom of speech, could continue and that Hong Kong would remain politically and economically waterproofed against Beijing’s authoritarian rule.
Not content with this arrangement, Beijing continued to push for control of aspects of Hong Kong life — and then finally last summer, its proxies in the local government introduced an extradition law allowing individuals arrested there to be sent to mainland China for trial, fully subject to the central government’s laws.
This alarming departure from “one country, two systems” set off the protests that made headlines last summer. Many in Hong Kong knew their freedoms would disappear if this bill became law. I am amazed at those who stood up to this oppression, and to those who bravely got voice and video data out of China past all the layers of censorship.
Beijing’s boldest move yet
The bill was eventually shelved. And almost a year to the day later this June, the central government made an even bolder move: Beijing signed, and its proxies in Hong Kong formally adopted, a set of security laws for the city designed to limit opposition activity there by enabling Beijing to directly crack down on activities the central government considers subversive.
Effective at 11pm local time on June 30th, the came into effect an hour before the 23rd anniversary of the city’s handover to China. Its sweeping provisions allow Beijing to, among other things, establish its own security office in Hong Kong with its own law enforcement personnel, send some cases to trial on the mainland, and apply the law to non-permanent residents and people “from outside [Hong Kong]… who are not permanent residents of Hong Kong.”
I find that last provision especially chilling as I write this article. Injustice in China can directly affect individuals anywhere in the world; maybe even me.
China’s history of crackdowns
Beijing knows how to effectively put down any dissent. One only needs to look to the Tiananmen Square massacre on June 4, 1989, where the Chinese government brutally put down a peaceful, multi-day demonstration. One might remember the single individual standing in front of a line of tanks, tanks that eventually rolled on to crush the demonstration.
The People’s Republic of China (PROC) had already killed tens of millions prior to June 4, 1989. The non-violent civil rights demonstrations in China have also been about bringing the nation’s history of domestic terrorism out into the light of day for everyone to see.
The dissent in Hong Kong seems to be following a similar path. The Tiananmen Square protests, as well as the Hong Kong protests, were considered an internal matter by Beijing, which instructed outsiders were told to stay out of China’s internal affairs.
These words echo for me the same words used by the segregationists in Birmingham 60 years ago. These words echo the same words used by those who have oppressed LGBTQ+ people.
Impacts beyond Hong Kong
Today many are trying to find a way out of Hong Kong, some escaping to Taiwan. The very existence of the nation of Taiwan angers Beijing, as they cannot stand for the world to see a free, democratic, prosperous country of individuals of Chinese origin standing as a direct contrast to their authoritarian regime.
Beijing has for years seen itself as being on a path to “unify” the mainland and Taiwan (which it has regarded as a wayward province since the Communists took control of the mainland in 1948), by force if necessary — somewhat akin to the pre-WWII German dream of “unifying” Austria, Czechoslovakia and the like in the 1930s. China has been extensively practicing and preparing for a Taiwan military invasion for over a decade.
If that effort were successful, how long would it be until the mainland Chinese government wanted to “unify” other sovereign nations with a substantial ethnic Chinese population? We already see what Beijing has done to oppress, repress and practically erase the people of Tibet, and the millions of Muslim Uighur who today are in re-education centers, modern day concentration camps aimed at “assimilating” this ethnic minority into the mainstream Chinese community.
The state of LGBTQ+ equality in Asia
Did I mention that Taiwan is the only major Asian nation to legalize marriage equality? In fact, no laws against same-sex sexual activity have ever existed in that nation’s history. Taiwan also allows LGB people to serve openly in the military, constitutionally bans all anti-gay discrimination, and legally recognizes transgender people’s actual genders. Israel, Thailand (Bangkok), and Singapore all are positive lights in Asia on LGBTQ+ rights. India gets mixed reviews partially because it is a large, English-speaking democracy, and yet there are some positive developments over the last decade.
Otherwise, things are fairly depressing for the LGBTQ+ community in Asia. I have had the opportunity to travel significantly for professional opportunities, and yet as a married transgender person, I cannot safely travel to a number of regions in Asia.
In mainland China, “conversion therapy” is openly practiced and only gets into trouble when results that are promised are not achieved. Mainland China’s official policy, which is more open than their day-to-day practice, is the Three No’s Policy: No approval, No disapproval, No promotion.
Hong Kong had some limited rights, although we can expect those rights to disappear fairly soon. What happens to the gay individual in Hong Kong who cannot leave the city and go somewhere safe? Because of government surveillance, most families are afraid to support their LGBTQ+ members.
The role of technnology
We can tell ourselves these are local government issues in faraway lands while we have virtual meetings with individuals from these places. The interconnected nature of our technology means that a call between two individuals in the U.S. might be routed through a server in mainland China, and therefore everything discussed could be recorded and used to advantage by Beijing.
In our highly connected global village, it’s even more apparent that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere. Hong Kong today is nearly as connected to Atlanta as Birmingham was connected to Atlanta in 1960.
Individual privacy and liberty are central to the history and progress of the LGBTQ+ community.
Large American companies like Google and Facebook are collaborating with Beijing, and therefore its military, to develop facial recognition software and other security measures to identify, track, and automatically score one’s conformity to ideal citizenship. These measures are used to keep the Tibetan and the Muslim populations under control, as well as being widely implemented throughout mainland China.
What is to keep these technologies from being implemented in Western Europe, where a similar surveillance infrastructure already exists? It just hasn’t been weaponized against the populace yet. What is to keep these technologies from being used in cities in the U.S.? What happens if your family is informed, or your employer is informed, about your daily activities? Where do things stop? At what point is injustice finally close enough?
Impacts in the United States
We must not have one policy for local issues and other policy for issues apparently far away. Last October, Daryl Morey of the NBA’s Houston Rockets tweeted, “Fight for Freedom, Stand with Hong Kong.” A firestorm of protests from Beijing ensued that resulted in significant pressure on the U.S., powered by the fear of losing considerable business opportunities.
Many NBA players usually vocal about standing up against oppression in certain U.S. contexts were silent. Some in this group defended the mainland Chinese government and directly attacked Morey: “I believe he wasn’t educated about the situation at hand and he spoke… so many people could have been harmed, not only financially, but physically, emotionally, spiritually… just be careful what we tweet.” (The L.A. Lakers’ LeBron James, that same month). If anything, Morey was more educated than most on the Hong Kong situation. The influence of Chinese money and power was evident.
I wonder what Dr. King would say of LeBron’s comments? Supporting injustice anywhere is enabling injustice everywhere.
It’s time to take a stand for Hong Kong
It is time to stand against oppression in whatever forms it presents itself.
Freedom in Hong Kong is nearly gone. In mainland China, we have a modern-day genocide in the rounding up of millions of Uighur Muslims into concentration camps and the high-tech surveillance of the remaining Muslims. The situation parallels the 20th century European Jewish experience.
Mainland Chinese Christians are routinely persecuted, particularly if they do not belong to the state church, a state church that publishes its own official version of the bible that eliminates many passages viewed as hostile to the central government. I see serious threats of force being made against Taiwan, a thriving Chinese democracy in the region with a tradition of human rights and religious tolerance, to invade their island and “reunify” the people in a horrific purge. I see a technological police state using the very best of American electronic technology to create a police state far beyond that imagined in George Orwell’s 1984.
The LGBTQ+ populations in these communities have to live in further fear and oppression. It seems like 1930s Europe all over again, but with modern technology.
“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
In our interconnected world, injustice anywhere has an impact on our daily lives. The image of God is within every individual, providing motivation to oppose injustice and oppression where one can. Let us stand against that injustice wherever we can, in whatever forms it presents itself.
A professor in the School of Electrical and Computer Engineering at Georgia Institute of Technology since 1997, Jennifer Hasler earned an M.S. and B.S.E. in Electrical Engineering from Arizona State University in 1991, a Ph.D. in Computation and Neural Systems from California Institute of Technology in 1997, and an M.Div. from Emory University’s Candler School of Theology in 2020. She has been awarded multiple technical and professional awards, including Georgia Tech’s outstanding adviser award in 2011, and Georgia Tech’s LGBTQIA outstanding faculty award in 2017. Her professional interests span many areas of electrical engineering, computing, neuroscience and theology. She has been married to her spouse since the mid-1990’s and they have two children, Emily and Julie.