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On the Morality of Rewriting History

aerial satellite 3d rendering of Hong Kong separated by water

China is pushing for the use of new textbooks, textbooks which will deny that Hong Kong was ever a British colony. The textbooks, which are in the process of being reviewed for approval by teachers, principles, and others affiliated with Hong Kong Bureau of education, would be implemented as curriculum this fall if approved.

These books contain a new narrative about British occupation of Hong Kong, a narrative that will rewrite the previous story that Hong Kong was “lawfully” occupied as a British colony until 1997. The new narrative maintains that Hong Kong was never a British colony and was instead always a part of China. The New York Times, which reviewed teachers’ editions of the new textbooks, quotes the following excerpt: “The British aggression violated the principles of international law so its occupation of Hong Kong region should not have been recognized as lawful.”

These revisions have been in the making for some time and have been roundly criticized by the Professional Teachers’ Union in Hong Kong as “political censorship.” The Bureau, however, rejoined that the changes will “help students develop positive values.”

This push for a new narrative generates a crucial moment for pro-democracy advocates inside and out of China.

One desired effect of this new narrative is that Hong Kong has never been apart from China, so there is no historical basis on which to claim that Hong Kong should continue to be independently and democratically run.

This isn’t the case, however, and would renege on an historic obligation. As Tiffany May writes for The New York Times, “Under the terms of the 1997 handover negotiated with Britain, China had agreed that the social and economic systems of the territory would remain unchanged for 50 years after resuming sovereignty.” Another desired effect of the narrative is that the future generation will be raised patriotic, loyal to China. Indeed, to enforce such “positive values,” students (potentially as young as kindergarteners) will be taught of a new law that permits authorities to deliver prison sentences to those who oppose Beijing.

There are several issues at stake with the question of whether China (that is, Beijing) should rewrite Hong Kong’s history.

In general, to discuss whether something morally should or ought to happen, there is a first question of whether something is morally permissible. If some action isn’t morally permissible, then we ought not to do it; however, even though an action is morally permissible, it does not follow that we ought to do the action. For example, if we conclude that limiting free speech is morally permissible in a certain circumstance, it doesn’t necessarily follow that we ought to limit free speech in that circumstance. Of course, if something ought to happen, this presupposes and requires that whatever ought to happen is morally permissible.

In asking particularly whether Beijing should re-write Hong Kong’s history, one relevant question is whether there are any permissible limitations of freedom of speech, and if so, whether this case is justified.

Part of the new laws permit severe punishment for criticism of or dissent from Beijing. Some in favor of the new laws and textbooks have argued that freedom comes with certain obligations and responsibilities, such as the primary obligation to one’s country. Those in opposition might argue that, while there are certain obligations to one country, these obligations are not relevant in this case. For the obligation to support one’s country is not exclusive of criticizing its present political/societal/economic structure. In fact, criticism might be a sign of an individual’s loyalty in that the individual may desire to change the present situation for the better. In terms of permissibility, then, a special obligation to a nation does not make it impermissible to critique that nation. Indeed, the opposite seems to be the case.

Closely related to the topic of free speech is the question of whether limiting freedom of thought is ever permissible. The issues of freedom of speech and thought certainly overlap: the latter necessarily affects the ability to speak on certain topics, and the former would inevitably affect the ability to think on certain topics. And the revision of textbooks, including the elimination of information and not solely the addition of a perspective, seems to classify at least as a limitation on thought.

As George Orwell’s novel 1984 has instructed us, the revision of history practically inhibits the future generations (and perhaps present generations) from discussing and knowing history. It is unclear whether this is ever permissible, though it clearly is impermissible in the case that it is factually inaccurate. In the case of Beijing denying Hong Kong’s former status as a colony, this certainly seems to be the case. Of course, it is another matter whether it was morally correct for Britain to have occupied Hong Kong.

While I only suggested some provisional answers to the above questions, it is imperative to answer these questions to understand some of the relevant moral landscape in rewriting history.

Let Hongkongers In

photograph of peaceful protest in Sheung Shui district arms raised

In 1997, Hong Kong, a former British colony, was returned to Chinese possession under the guidelines set forth in the Sino-British Joint Declaration. The Declaration established rules whereby Hong Kong which would eventually become part of China once more would retain their legal and administrative systems distinct from those in mainland China known as ‘one country, two systems’ for the next 50 years (from the signing of the treaty).

The one country, two system policy came to a premature and unfortunate end, however, with the recent passage of a new security law in the Chinese legislature that curtails political and civil freedoms — banning secession, subverting state power, terrorism, foreign intervention, and allowing mainland China’s security agencies to operate in the city — the case continues to grow stronger for letting Hongkongers migrate to the United States. This policy would be an economic boon for the United States, help the people of Hong Kong, and stick it to mainland China. Much as we would have a moral obligation to save a small child drowning in a shallow pond — given that we could intervene with little or no risk to ourselves — we have an obligation to offer Hong Kong a hand, contrary to what naysayers may claim. Allow me to make the case.

Many believe there are compelling reasons to favor low levels of immigration because, say, higher immigration would harm workers. But the reverse is true: economists estimate that if rich nations, like the United States and Canada, opened their borders to peaceful, law-abiding immigrants, the world would be trillions of dollars richer. The economic gains of open borders would be so substantial that many costs of such a policy would be minor compared to the gains, as economist Bryan Caplan cleverly argues in his graphic non-fiction book, Open Borders: The Science and Ethics of Immigration. Allowing immigrants, even those from poor nations with lackluster institutions, to emigrate to rich nations with robust institutions would magnify their productivity, and benefit host nations — e.g., just as the same worker would be more productive with a computer than a mere typewriter.

Many critics object that open borders will result in immigrants taking jobs from natives, or that they lack similar political values that would undercut essential institutions like democracy or the market, or even that they would bankrupt social welfare programs. But every objection, unconvincing as it is under ordinary conditions given the vast wealth liberalizing immigration would create, is even more underwhelming when applied to immigration from Hong Kong. We should review these objections to increased immigration generally, and with respect to Hongkongers specifically.

Many critics of relaxed immigration worry it harms workers, especially low-skilled workers — by, in part, increasing the supply of cheap labor. However, the empirical evidence shows that this isn’t true: according to recent U.S. Census Bureau (2011) data, most Americans aren’t low-skilled — many are at least high school graduates — and greater levels of immigration hurt low-skilled workers, but only slightly in the short term, and benefit everyone else. (Most Americans are customers of new immigrants, not competitors). Other critics worry immigrants will take advantage of social welfare programs, thereby straining their limited resources. As it happens though, the evidence doesn’t bear this out either: good evidence of widespread abuse is lacking, and even on the most pessimistic figures, higher immigration would cost American families but a few dollars a month in taxes to fund the welfare state. This number leaves off the sizeable economic gains from liberalized immigration we discussed earlier.

Finally, with respect to immigrants from Hong Kong, some may worry letting Hongkongers in would undercut our political institutions — they may, for instance, hold values that are antithetical to the liberalism undergirding our society. However, based on the available evidence, Hongkongers tend to be pro-democracy. And this trend has been increasing in recent years — presumably in part because of greater pressure Beijing has exerted over the region. In addition, many Hongkongers speak English, and they tend to be well-educated with a high college graduation rate. And finally, their legal system is based on English common law, and local laws codified in the Laws of Hong Kong — both the United States and Hong Kong have similar legal systems as former British colonies. Together, these factors cast doubt on the claim that Hong Kong immigration would be a bad idea, and instead put the onus on critics to explain why letting Hongkongers in would be sufficiently bad to justify keeping them out.

The conflict between the Chinese government and free nations isn’t merely about trade policy or shipping routes in the South China Sea. It includes how other nations, as onlookers, are influenced by China and the US in crafting their internal policies, supporting international law, and securing civil liberties – things like peaceful assembly, freedom of religion, and the right to criticize the government. We often take these things for granted, but events in Hong Kong are a stark reminder that we shouldn’t. Freedom isn’t free, but we can lend it a helping hand, by responding to China’s aggression with a positive-sum approach that would benefit both Hongkongers and the US.

American Social Media Support of the Hong Kong Protests

photograph of protest in NYC with many participants streaming on iphones

Since March of this year, there have been protests in Hong Kong which have gained mainstream media attention and regular coverage since they began. The protests began over a bill proposed by the Hong Kong government that would have allowed for the extradition of Hong Kong citizens to mainland China if China’s government found them guilty of some crime.

Hong Kong, a British colony until 1997, has a long history of more liberal and democratic governance than the mainland. When returned to China by the British in 1997, Hong Kongers were promised a policy of “two systems, one country.” However, many believed that this law would erode the independence of the Hong Kong government and the freedoms of its citizens. Mainland China is known for not being friendly to antagonistic voices, jailing those who dissent and censoring speech generally. While free speech is technically guaranteed by the Chinese Constitution, people can be arrested for endangering vaguely defined “state secrets” which allows for mass censorship. If a Hong Konger, used to the free speech protections afforded to a citizen of Hong Kong, dissented against the mainland government to such an extent that the Chinese government wished to arrest him for endangering state secrets, this proposed bill would allow him to be extradited to China. Essentially, the free speech of Hong Kong would become the “free speech” of China.

As these protests and confrontations between protestors and police grow more violent, Hong Kong is getting more attention from Western media and from Western social media. Many people on social media are calling for boycotts of the NBA and of Blizzard, a video game production company, for bowing to China in silencing employees supporting the Hong Kong protests. Far more are simply expressing support for the Hong Kong protests, a fact being taken advantage of by Hong Kong protestors. During the protestors’ occupation of the Hong Kong airport in August, signs like this one saying “Sorry for the inconvenience. We are fighting for the future of our home” made the rounds on social media. Importantly, the message on the sign was written in English, as are many of the signs used in the protests. While English was the official language until the 1970s, far more people know the local dialect of Chinese, Cantonese, than know English.

Clearly, the purpose of these signs being written on in English is for people to take photos of them and to spread them around on English-speaking social media rather than for other Hong Kongers or even mainland Chinese to read them. English-speaking nations and their people are typically very supportive of the sorts of liberal democratic values for which Hong Kongers are fighting. However, one has to wonder to what extent English-speakers, particularly Americans, should be spreading these Hong Kongers’ messages around.

The United States has a long history of intervention in the affairs of foreign nations. Some people believe that this period of intervention should end, that Americans and the American government should focus on domestic affairs instead of sticking their noses into the affairs of others. People point to the chaos in the Middle East, or the historic meddling of the US in Latin America to demonstrate the common proverb that “the road to hell is paved with good intentions.”

As China would have people see it, the Hong Kong protests are an internal affair (for discussion see Tucker Sechrest’s “The Hong Kong Protests and International Obligation”). Rather than fighting for freedom, mainland Chinese people and a portion of Hong Kongers see protestors as damaging social stability. Indeed, in response to the Houston Rockets’ general manager Daryl Morey’s tweet in support of the protests, the Chinese consulate in Houston said that “anybody with conscience would support the efforts made by the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region to safeguard Hong Kong’s social stability.” If Americans have anything to say about the protests, China says, it should be in support of normal governmental processes working to resolve the conflict and maintain stability. Supporting the protestors, no matter one’s personal beliefs on the issue, clearly is disrupting the social order. Roads are sparse and hotel rooms are cheap as tourists decline to visit. Fights between protestors and police are regular. Typically, when the US destabilizes another country’s governmental authority, collapse and chaos follow.

At the same time, while there are clear examples of US intervention going wrong, especially when it is militaristic and government-backed, it is not clear that a bunch of Americans tweeting in support of the protests will cause the same damage. For a long time, people’s social media posts in support of this or that social issue, especially with regards to protests, were labeled examples of “slacktivism” and “virtue-signalling.” The idea is that the posts people make on social media do not foment any real social change but are selfish attempts for people to make themselves look like good people. In essence, some claim that people posting about the protests do not care enough to actually support the protestors, but are simply “making it about themselves.”

Ultimately, however, this analysis falls apart when social networks are analyzed. Research out of NYU and University of Pennsylvania shows that “occasional contributors,” that is, people who are not political activists, posting about this sort of thing constantly, are vital for information about the protests to spread. Importantly, this pattern, dependent on occasional contributors, was not found in other large scale social media discussions, such as about the Oscars or the minimum wage. Hong Kong protestors recognize this fact as, again, demonstrated by their use of English in their protests. To get real change, even a ton of protestors on a small island off the coast of China cannot act alone. Rather, Hong Kong protestors, if they want their government to be pressured need to get the attention of the powerful English-speaking nations of the world. Social media posts bubble upward with even world leaders eventually taking heed of them. Donald Trump has even suggested talks with Chinese President Xi Jinping as a result of this social media attention, he himself tweeting about it.

Whether the United States, its government or its people, should be commenting on or intervening in the domestic affairs of other nations is an open question. However, it is undeniable that the Hong Kong protestors, if they are to maintain their liberal democratic society, need the support of other nations. And, that support is greatly influenced, in nations with free speech, by the most common avenue of political speech today, social media. As is often said “the revolution will not be televised,” but, as we see today, it might be tweeted.

The Hong Kong Protests and International Obligation

photograph of protest at night in Hong Kong

It’s tempting to regard the Hong Kong protests as a family dispute; an unsettling scene to be sure, but a private matter to be handled in-house. This has been the position of the White House, for example, with President Trump saying, “We’ll see what happens but I’m sure it’ll work out. I hope it works out for everybody — including China, by the way.” He’s also suggested that if China’s leader, Xi Jinping, “sat down with the protesters […] he’d work it out in 15 minutes.” 

The trouble with this response is that the Hong Kong protests are not a simple standoff with local government. Embedded in the three months of protest is a plea to see the Joint Declaration between the British Empire and the People’s Republic of China enforced and the “one country, two systems” principle protected. The protests are a response to the perceived infringement on the autonomy promised Hong Kong until 2047 when the region is set to be subsumed by China. Protesters see the rights, liberties, and freedoms unique to Hong Kong eroding; the judicial, legislative, and executive powers meant to be separate from the People’s Republic of China being undermined; and the vague lines meant to establish autonomy becoming increasingly blurred. And all this twenty years into a fifty-year arrangement.

Much of this current round of protests, just as those that came before, is about representation. Hong Kong is not a democracy; its inhabitants have never possessed the power to directly elect officials, either now as part of China or before as part of the British Empire. Hong Kong Basic Law established in the joint declaration gestures at political participation through local elections, but not any concrete framework for what that system might require. Beijing has translated this commitment as the choice between party-approved candidates, whereas protesters assert the right to genuine universal suffrage. Negotiations have been stalled for some time, and neither side has incentive to compromise.

As stalemate has continued, the nature of the Hong Kong protests has grown increasingly international. Protesters sing the US national anthem and rallies have been organized in Taiwan, Japan, the UK, Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Germany, France, New Zealand, Australia, Canada, and the US. This is no accident; international support is Hong Kong’s only remaining method of exerting pressure on China to respect the terms of the treaty.

Even the disinformation campaign by China has expanded beyond feints and posturing on state-run media to include coordinated efforts on Facebook, Twitter, and YouTube. This isn’t merely about the PRC’s image; it’s an attempt to shut down Hong Kong’s Hail Mary and discourage outside meddling.

Given the power discrepancy, this dispute over autonomy is not a matter to be settled by Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China privately; they can’t simply work it out for themselves. Hong Kong lacks the standing to protect or even assert its interests, and its government is not accountable to its people. That makes the international community the only backstop to possibly ensure the freedoms and protections laid forth in the joint declaration. 

Britain, in particular, has a moral responsibility to its former subjects, the people of Hong Kong, to see the terms of that treaty upheld. Chris Patten, the last British governor of Hong Kong, has argued, “As the former sovereign power, Britain has a debt of honour to Hong Kong.” Having signed and acted as both author and guarantor of Hong Kong’s future, Britain is duty-bound to see the terms of that handover respected and observed. 

This begins with challenging China’s shifting position. The PRC has previously claimed that “Now that Hong Kong has returned to the motherland for 20 years the Sino-British Joint Declaration, as a historical document, no longer has any realistic meaning,” and that “Britain has no sovereignty, no governing power and no supervising power over Hong Kong.” 

But the international obligation runs deeper than merely Britain’s role in negotiations as co-signator. While the international community has no clear mandate to ensure a right to democracy — understood as genuine universal sufferage — in Hong Kong, it does have reason (legal and moral) to see that China’s criminal justice system does not swallow up the autonomous territory and continue to disappear activists and other opposition forces. At the very least, our moral responsibility extends to intervening in human rights abuses. (A spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights said last week that there was “credible evidence” that in responding to protests law enforcement had used measures “prohibited by international norms and standards.”)

The threat of violence is escalating. The PRC has moved quickly from branding protesters as “rioters” (a designation the carries significant jail time) and intimidating and harassing journalists to tear gas, water cannons, and drawn weapons. Relying on economic considerations or a loss of national credibility to stay China’s hand is no substitute for holding China accountable for flouting human rights, international norms, and the rule of law.

Game of Thrones, Avengers: Endgame, and the Ethics of Spoilers

photograph of "all men must die" billboard for Game of Thrones

Early on the morning of April 27th, an early-evening moviegoer in Hong Kong was beaten in the cinema parking lot as he walked to his car; though his injuries were not life-threatening, his story nevertheless went viral thanks to how the attack was provoked – reportedly, the man had been spoiling the just-released Avengers: Endgame by loudly sharing plot details for the crowd (who had not yet seen the movie) to hear. As the culmination of nearly two dozen intertwined movies released over the course of more than a decade, as well as the resolution to the heart-wrenching cliffhanger at the end of 2018’s Avengers: Infinity War, Endgame was one of the most greatly-anticipated cinematic events in history and shattered most every financial record kept at the box office (including bringing in over $1 billion worldwide on its opening weekend). According to some fan reactions online, the spoiling victim actually deserved the attack for ruining the fun of the other people in line.

Contrast this reaction to the events of April 28th, when the third episode of Game of Thrones’ final season aired on HBO: within minutes, fans were actively spoiling each scene as they live-tweeted their ways through the show together, sending over 8 million tweets out into cyberspace and setting the top nineteen worldwide-trending topics on Twitter. By the time the Battle of Winterfell was over, the internet was swimming with jokes and memes about the story to a degree that even Time Magazine reported on the phenomenon. And this is not an unusual occurrence: each episode of the show’s eighth season has captured the Internet’s attention on the Sunday nights when they air. While HBO has taken great pains to keep the details of the season under wraps, there has been no #DontSpoilTheEndgame-type campaign for Game of Thrones as there has been from Marvel for Avengers: Endgame – what should we make of this?

While ‘the ethics of spoilers’ is far from the most existentially threatening moral question to consider in 2019, it is an issue with a strange pedigree. Spoiler Alert!, Richard Greene’s recent book on the philosophy of spoilers, argues that the notion began with Agatha Christie’s 1952 play The Mousetrap, which ended with an exhortation to the audience to keep the ending a secret. The term itself was coined in a 1971 National Lampoon article where Doug Kenney jokingly ‘saved readers time and money’ by telling them the twist endings to famous stories; according to Greene, it was the moderator of a sci-fi mailing list that first implemented a ‘spoiler warning’ policy in 1979 regarding emails that discussed the plot of the first Star Trek movie (the actual phrase ‘spoiler warning’ wouldn’t be applied until discussions concerning the release of Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan three years later). Skip ahead to 2018 and you’ll find serious reporting about a stabbing in Antarctica being precipitated by the victim habitually ruining the ends of the novels his attacker read; although the story turned out to be groundless, it seemed plausible to enough people to make headlines several continents away.

Why do we care about spoilers? Especially considering that psychologists studying the phenomenon have determined so-called ‘spoiled’ surprises to be consistently more satisfying than ones that remain intact for the audience? And, even more curiously, why don’t we care about spoilers consistently? What gives Game of Thrones spoilers a pass while Endgame spoilers ‘deserve’ a punch?

Some have argued that it’s largely a feature of the medium itself: despite the ubiquity of contemporary streaming services, we still assume that stories released in a TV format are culturally locked to their particular airtimes – much like the Super Bowl, if someone misses the spectacle, then that’s their loss. However, movies – especially ones at the theater – are designed to explicitly disengage us from our normal experience of time, transporting us to the world of the film for however long it lasts. Similarly, TV shows are crafted to be watched in your living room where your cell phone is near at hand, while movie theaters still remind you to avoid disrupting the cinematic-experience for your fellow patrons by illuminating your screen in the middle of the film. Perhaps the question of format is key, but I think there’s a deeper element at play.

Aristotle tells us that humans are, by nature, “political animals” – by this, he does not mean that we’re biologically required to vote (or something). Rather, Aristotle – and, typically, the rest of the virtue-ethics tradition – sees the good life as something that is only really possible when pursued in community with others. In Book One of the Politics (1253a), Aristotle says that people who can stand to live in isolation “must be either a beast or a god” and in the Nicomachean Ethics, the Philosopher explains at length the importance of friendship for achieving eudaimonia. In short, we need each other, both to care for our practical, physical needs, but also to create a shared experience wherein we all can not only survive, but flourish – and this good community requires both aesthetic and ethical components.

We need each other, and stories are a key part of holding our cultures together; this is true both mythologically (in the sense that stories can define us as sociological groups), but also experientially – think of the phenomenon of an inside joke (and the awkward pain of knowingly being ignorant of one told in front of you). At their worst, spoilers turn stories into essentially the same thing: a reminder that a cultural event has taken place without you. Spoilers exclude you (or underline your exclusion) from the audience – and that exclusion can feel deeply wrong.

Think of why we host watching parties, attend conventions dressed as our favorite characters, and share endless theories about where a story’s direction will go next: it’s not enough for us to simply absorb something from a screen, passively waiting as our minds and muscles atrophy – no, we crave participation in the creation of the event, if not of the narrative itself, then at least of the communal response to it. The nature of online communities (and the relatively-synchronous nature of television broadcasting) facilitate this impulse beyond our physical location; we can share our ideas, our reactions, and our guesses with others, even when we are far apart. The etiquette of the movie theater limits this, but not entirely – even in our silence, we still like to go to movies together (and, quite often, the experience can be anything but quiet!).

So, while Game of Thrones’s finale aired this past weekend, the community it has engendered will live on (and not only because George R.R. Martin still has two more books to write). The experience of a film like Avengers: Endgame may be over in a snap, but the ties we build with each other can withstand the tests of time. Spoilers threaten to undermine these sorts of connections, which may be why we react so strongly to them – when we don’t get to participate. After all, we can’t forget: the night is dark and full of terrors – one more reason to face it together.