Periods of expansive tyranny have a tendency to bring out
the worst elements of societies, but also the best: heroic personages whose
struggle against authoritarianism nourishes the fight for freedom around the world,
and for future generations. History is replete with personalities whose bravery
in the face of brutal oppression provided the resolve and moral clarity needed for
others to resist and ultimately defeat tyrants.
As China enters the world stage as a communist superpower,
absorbing free societies into its authoritarianism and threatening others,
there can be no doubt that we are entering a new era of resurgent tyranny. With
China’s influence and thuggish tactics spreading, the free world would do well
to heed the wisdom of those who have suffered under autocracy for the hope of
Last week saw a remarkable meeting of minds between two such heroic resisters: Natan Sharansky, the famous refusenik who spent nine years in Soviet prisons, shared thoughts with Jimmy Lai, a pro-democracy activist in Hong Kong who was arrested in August for his resistance to China’s draconian national security law. Both men could have escaped their plights: Sharansky was given numerous opportunities to gain a “humanitarian release” in exchange for recanting, while Lai, one of Hong Kong’s wealthiest residents, could have easily fled Hong Kong or insulated himself from the unrest. Both stood their ground on principle, refusing to accept a life of a conscience in bondage, despite grave threats to their physical freedom and wellbeing. And while Lai’s fight is only just beginning, like Sharansky 43 years ago, he too faces the prospect of years of suffering in the prisons of a totalitarian party-state.
Their conversation was rich and wide-ranging: from the story of how the KGB’s attempts to use the example of Galileo’s recantation before the Inquisition only strengthened Sharansky’s will to resist, to the crucial dynamics of faith, personal resilience, and family bonds that sustain them both in times of trial. They spoke of the value of freedom as they have seen it more clearly through the prism of their plights, including the indispensable necessity of freedom for technological innovation, in contrast to China’s parasitic model of foreign technology theft and mimicry.
To those of us who are not on the front lines of fighting
against tyranny, their conversation is an inspiration. But it is also a
“I was in prison for nine years. And they were saying to me ‘the world forgot about you. You know how this world works…What is popular today will not be popular tomorrow. They already forgot about you.’ And I knew—I knew that they were lying. I was sure that the free world doesn’t forget.”
According to Sharansky, the sustained efforts and concern of the free world — even if he was isolated from knowledge of it — kept him going. As more and more Hong Kong democracy activists are arrested in the pursuit of liberty, the free world must continuously call attention to the despotic actions of the PRC — not just with concern, but with targeted actions that hold perpetrators to account.
Whether or not it is true, as alleged, that Stalin once suggested that “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic,” the PRC has certainly adopted a strategy of overwhelming the world with abuses of such magnitude that the world starts to become numb. As the PRC picks off increasing numbers of democracy’s heroes, we must decide if we will let them become mere statistics, or take to heart their sacrifices and support them in their fight for a better future.