Episode 72: Putting Our Understanding of ‘Tyranny’ into Perspective

Michael Schaus

Free to Offend Episode 72 | Guest: Eric Kohn, Action Institute

When we look at areas of the world where tyranny and oppression are tormenting people who wish to live free, it’s a stark reminder of just how precious the freedoms we enjoy truly are to our way of life.

Eric Kohn, director of marketing and communications at the Acton Institute, joined the program to talk about his work on a powerful new movie: The Hong Konger – a moving documentary about China’s unprecedented assault on human freedoms in Hong Kong and the inspirational tale of one man who decided to stand up to Beijing’s tyranny.

Read the Transcript

Eric Kohn: Even Barack Obama, right? Even Barack Obama said that, you know, if you had to pick a place in time to be born, you would pick right now in the United States of America.

Michael Schaus: This is Free to Offend. I’m your host, Michael Schaus. Perspective matters, right? I mean, we talk a lot about individual liberty, the way it is constantly under attack, whether you’re talking about here in Nevada or United States or just worldwide. But every once in a while, there’s a story that catches our attention, that really lends perspective to the entire concept of freedom or tyranny or really just kind of the state of human existence in the world today.

So here to help lend us a little bit of perspective, I certainly hope, is Eric Kohn, the Director of Marketing and Communications at the Acton Institute. And we’re going to be talking about this, this movie that’s coming out soon called The Hong Konger.

And I’ve seen the preview. It looks like an incredibly powerful story about what’s going on in Hong Kong and really kind of shedding light. We all remember the images of people protesting in the streets and the Chinese government trying to take every more control over their lives out there. But this really puts kind of a personal story to that and really sheds light on what’s going on in Hong Kong.

So, Eric, first of all, thank you for joining the program. We really appreciate it.

Eric Kohn: My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Michael Schaus: So, tell me a little bit about the movie for somebody who has not heard it or not seen the trailer, which obviously will have the trailer in the description of this podcast. But you know, what’s kind of the quick elevator pitch of what this story’s actually about?

Eric Kohn: This is a story of a man named Jimmy Lai, who is an entrepreneur, a businessman, a newspaper publisher, a pro-democracy activist in Hong Kong. He’s a man who immigrated to Hong Kong from Chinawith basically nothing. He created a multimillion-dollar clothing business called Giordano. Then he launched a media empire, Next Publications, Next Magazine, and a newspaper called Apple Daily, which is the only pro-democracy Chinese language newspaper in Hong Kong. It’s one of the best-selling newspapers in Hong Kong.

And then starting really in 1997 when the handover of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to China takes place, we start to see the erosion of the freedoms of the people of Hong Kong.

Jimmy and his newspaper are one of the largest critics of Beijing, of what is going on in the city. He was an integral part of a lot of the protests that you alluded to, the Umbrella Movement, the protests in in 2019 in opposition to an extradition law that was proposed that would’ve allowed the Chinese to take people accused of crimes in Hong Kong over the border to be tried in mainland China. And then eventually, at least the implementation of this national security law that is currently governing the city of Hong Kong.

And to give you an idea of just how crazy this national security law is, I will tell you a little bit about it. It is incredibly broad. Almost anything could be considered sedition under that law. It applies extra nationally and extra territorially. In the film, we interview a gentleman by the name of Benedict Rogers, who runs Hong Kong Watch in London. And as he points out every day sitting there in London criticizing what is going on in Hong Kong, he is in daily violation of the national security law.

And I don’t know at what point last year in promoting this film that this occurred to me, but, you know, I’m the producer of this film about the story about Jimmy Lai, who’s currently imprisoned by the Chinese convicted on a very trumped up fraud charge and imprisoned for that awaiting trial under the national security law, and I too am in daily violation of Hong Kong’s national security law. So, I guess I can cross Beijing and Hong Kong off of my potential travel destinations in the next few years.

Michael Schaus: I was going to say, you’re not planning on going to China anytime soon, right?

Eric Kohn: That is not my upcoming vacation, no. But it gives you an idea of just how much in contradiction to the rule of law, any normal concept of the rule of law, this national security law is in Hong Kong. So, that’s where Jimmy is right now. He’s awaiting trial under the national security law.

It’s supposed to have happened a couple of times now. The most recent scheduled date that we had to start, it was in early December. Now, there’s now been a bit of a kerfuffle over whether or not he can be represented by a UK barrister in his defense. It looks like he will not be allowed that privilege to be represented by Tim Owen, who’s a human rights attorney out of the UK. And the trial itself has been delayed until September of 2023.

So even if you know a lot of lawyers, which I do for better or for worse, they’ll always tell you that the joke about the American legal system, you know, you hear everybody gets their day in court? And the reality is everybody gets their decade in court. In that sense, there’s some similarity here in what Jimmy is going through in that he’s been held for quite a while now without bail before the conviction on the fraud charge, and now is awaiting trial on this national security law charges.

We just really do not have any idea of when that is actually going to take place, if it’s going to take place.

Michael Schaus: You know, when you look at obviously that whole broader story, but when you look at what China is doing and it’s really scary on multiple levels.

But it’s also really interesting to me because it, it, I’m kind of a student of history. I like looking back and seeing where, you know, freedom and tyranny kind of overlap throughout history. And something I notice is, it’s strange what’s happening in Hong Kong because this isn’t a case of relatively free people kind of over the decades giving up more of their freedom organically or through a democratic process. This really is the Chinese communist government saying, “Hey, we are, we are taking control. We are turning Hong Kong into something that it’s not ever really been since, you know, the days that the British had it.”

And, and what you’re seeing, I mean, obviously what the movie is the real personal individual impact that that has on folks who just want to hold onto freedom. But it’s kind of terrifying because that seems to be a really big step that the Chinese are taking that, you know, is kind of unique in history, I think.

Eric Kohn: Yeah, as we point out in the film that we haven’t had a territory this large of people who have lived and breathed that kind of human freedom, having that actively taken away from them.

It really, to the best of my knowledge of history, is the only situation like it. Mary Kissel, who is an advisor to former Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, who we interviewed for the film called the handover of Hong Kong, from the British to the Chinese Margaret Thatcher’s greatest mistake. Of course, by 1997, she’s no longer prime minister, but the wheels had been set in motion under Thatcher’s prime ministership to begin this process.

And for people who don’t know their history of Hong Kong, I don’t blame you. It was one of the reasons we wanted to set out to tell that origin story in the film as well. So, the British acquire Hong Kong during the Opium Wars and they owned the island of Hong Kong in perpetuity. And they had a 99-year lease starting in 1898 on the so-called new territories that surrounded it.

It was Margaret Thatcher’s belief when this lease is coming up that they didn’t have much of a choice but to return it to the Chinese. As Mary Kissel points out in the film, they could have kept the island of Hong Kong, which is when people think of Hong Kong, that’s primarily what you’re thinking of, is the city there, the island.

They could have kept that and they did simply choose not to. In the course of promoting this film, I’ve had the pleasure of speaking with a number of Hong Kong activists. Samuel Chu, who is one of the people we interviewed for the film, made this point at a screening that we did in Sacramento, California. And I’d never heard it verbalized like this. It’s really stuck with me.

The Hong Kongers have kind of a half joke that the only time that Hong Kong has really existed was in the 30 seconds between when the Union Jack flag came down and when the Chinese flag went up. And really what they mean by that is the people who were left out of that negotiation in the late eighties into the early nineties, into the handover in 1997, the British were at the table, the Chinese were at the table. The people of Hong Kong were not at the table.

They were not a major player in their own future here. The British and the Chinese negotiated over it. And I think we hear echoes of that kind of approach to international relations regularly. I think when we think about the cries for the United States to intervene and broker some kind of a peace agreement between Russia and Ukraine. Again, who is not really an active participant in that? It’s the people of Ukraine.

So, I think we should be cognizant of that reality that we have this tendency that seems to exist to want to remove the people who are actually subject to the outcomes of these kinds of negotiations and agreement from the process itself, and only have these major nations involved.

The people of Hong Kong were largely forgotten in that negotiation. What they wanted was not really taken into consideration. And I think more people should pay more attention to that reality that now not only these people who are being deprived of their freedom as they continue to live and exist in the city of Hong Kong, they were not a part of the decision that set the wheels of all of this in motion.

Michael Schaus: Yeah. And it’s interesting too because if you lived in Hong Kong and if you were a Hong Kong citizen, they really did have a lot of freedom over the last, you know, several decades. I mean, freedom of speech for the most part. You’ve got obviously economic freedom. Hong Kong routinely ranked among one of the most economically free places to live or do business.

And that is very much an anomaly, just not just worldwide, but obviously when it comes to China. China’s authoritative. They run everything very, very strict. I mean, you got the social credit system and everything else that people talk about.

And what we’re seeing is a moment where that Chinese kind of authoritative Communist party is encroaching in a very real way on the freedoms of Hong Kongers.

And so obviously talking about Jimmy in the movie is key because a truly free press, a press that is actually out there talking about democratic ideals, talking about those types of freedoms that Hong Kongers have enjoyed, that is a real threat to a system that is trying to control ever more of people’s lives.

You know, I think it should underscore why a truly free press is so important. I know we all talk about how the press is biased and everything here in the western world, but the truth is we still have a large part of that freedom of the press that clearly does not exist in any real meaningful way in China.

Eric Kohn: Yeah. Before I comment on that, I want to go back to the point you made about economic freedom as well. And one of the reasons I was attracted to this story you know, for my own origin story of how I ended up with the belief systems that I did and the interest that I did. A huge part of that was Milton Friedman’s 1980 documentary series, Free to Choose.

In the first episode of that where he talks about like, what does a free-market system look like, the example that he points to, where does he go for that example?  He goes to Hong Kong as this platonic example of the market operating the way the market is supposed to operate.

And that really a benefit of being a British territory. The British, as we pointed out in the film, run Hong Kong a little bit differently than they ran Britain. They had this policy of laissez fair.

Now people in Hong Kong did not have full rights. You know, they really didn’t have the right to choose their own representation. But, you know, they had the rule of law. They had freedom of speech, they had freedom of religion, they had economic freedom, which is why you see the kind of incredible growth in an area that has really no natural resources to speak of. You know, I think it’s described by someone in the film as a pile of rocks in the South China Sea.

It turns into this great hub of finance and commerce and trade because of those underlying realities that let the market work. So, I think it is an incredible story. And then to see how easily it can be destroyed just by the kind of actions that the Chinese are taking now to restrict people’s freedoms, how easily and fragile this stuff is, and how easily it can be destroyed. I think it’s a lesson we should take.

Michael Schaus: And to that point, I mean, since you brought up Milton Friedman, you know, he was a huge influence on me and part of the reason why I now do the type of work that I do. And something that he always said that really stuck with me was when he was talking about capitalism or, or free market economics, he said that’s the economic dimension of freedom.

If you’ve got personal freedom, you know, religious freedom, freedom of speech, things like that. But then the economic portion of it, if you’ve got it, people want more freedom in the rest of their life. And if you are able to destroy that economic freedom, then people become less free in all other aspects of their life as well.

So, Hong Kong to that extent is definitely something that anybody who’s interested in individual human freedom needs to be paying attention to right now.

Eric Kohn: Well, this is why Hong Kong came under the thumb of the Chinese in the way that they did, right? Because the Chinese are promoting this idea of this struggle between the east and the west, the Chinese way of doing things and the West Western way of doing things.

And Hong Kong’s bad luck, I guess we could put it that way, was to represent all of these Western values in a Chinese form. It was a multimillion resident city that was a refutation to the Chinese notion that we are just different, things just work differently here, that we can’t have these Western values embodied in a Chinese form. And it’s just simply flat out untrue.

The people who are Hong Kongers are largely made up of people who were Chinese immigrants after the Second World War or descendants of that. So, you see the possibility that the Chinese people could live that way represented in Hong Kong, and that’s one of the reasons why it was so important for Beijing to crush what Hong Kong represented because they see the risk that it poses for the Chinese mainland.

The idea that was propagated for letting China into the World Trade Organization and some of the other decisions that were made by international bodies over the course of the last several decades that opened up trade in China and with China, with the idea that you give these people a taste of economic freedom and they’re going to demand more personal freedom, or it is going to lead to the development of more personal individual political freedom. You build a middle class like that and eventually they’re going to start demanding the tapestry of freedoms that all flow together.

You’re right in Milton Friedman’s point. Economic freedom is just an element, it’s a dimension of human freedom. It is a necessary condition for human freedom, but it’s not a sufficient condition for human freedom. And we have seen the Chinese Communist Party work in overdrive to want to suppress that.

And sadly, they’ve proven very, very effective at it in a way that the Soviet Union was never particularly effective at it. And I think that was largely to the Chinese willingness, in a sense, to be hypocrites.

They are still run by a Chinese communist party. But it is “communist system” that has been more than happy to embrace market reforms as a last resort to develop the kind of capital, power, and influence around the globe that the Chinese sought and now enjoy.

The Soviet Union was far more ideologically driven and never able to make the kinds of transitions in the marketplace that would’ve been necessary for them to potentially retain their control over the people of the Soviet Union to prevent the collapse of the Soviet Union like we saw in the early 1990s.

The Chinese were far more willing to be flexible on those points, which I think in that sense makes China a far more vexatious problem for those of us in the West than the Soviet Union was. Even if the chances of say horrible, like global thermonuclear war, I think was far more pronounced during the Cold War than it is now with the Chinese. The Chinese are just a much, much more difficult nut to crack.

Michael Schaus: Well, and I think people view the Chinese Communist Party a little bit differently than say they would view the Soviet Union. And part of that is because of exactly what you said, their willingness to let Disney film a big budget Hollywood movie in their backyard or creating factories for Apple or what have you. They’re very willing to “work with the west,” whereas the Soviet Union was okay. Yeah, you might have good cars in West Germany, but no, we’re sticking with these Soviet sedans.

It creates a different view for those of us in the west too. I don’t think people really take the authoritative nature of the Communist party in China as seriously as they should. Or as seriously as those folks in Hong Kong do because they’re living it.

Eric Kohn: Yeah. I’ve said since the beginning of the time that we started promoting this film that for better or for worse, over the last eight years or so, the United States has been a very inwardly focused nation.

We have been paying attention to a lot of what is going on in our country and about us. And there are clear advocates that that should be our really first, and, maybe in some cases, only priority is what is going on with us as a nation. I think we have done that though to the detriment of not only the safety of the rest of the world, but certainly the plight of people like those in Hong Kong that I think we should have solidarity with.

And we can compare this to the way that I think people in the United States were focused on what was happening in Eastern Europe in the 1980s. It was a far more prevalent issue. You saw it covered in the news media a lot more frequently than what you see covered about what has happened in Hong Kong, what is still happening in Hong Kong.

You just don’t see it to the same extent that you saw the coverage of Eastern Europe in the 1980s. I think that that is a tragedy. It’s one we would like to do everything we can to rectify. It’s one of the reasons that we wanted to make this film because we think Jimmy’s story is an incredible personification of the values of the people of Hong Kong.

We tell the story of the people of Hong Kong through this one remarkable individual while pointing out that he has done things that most people could never be expected to do. I’ve watched this film I don’t know how many times now, and I’m always caught by this line in there from Lord Patton, who is the last colonial British governor of Hong Kong, where he’s talking about the things that Jimmy and his family have been subjected to, the things that they have been willing to face.

Because again, keep this in mind about Jimmy when you hear this story. This man is a multi-billionaire. Because he was a citizen of Hong Kong, he was also a British citizen. So, at any point in time, he could have chosen to go to London, he could have gone to Taiwan, he could have come here to the United States.

He could have escaped the kind of persecution that he is currently facing. But he chose to face all of this willingly. And as Lord Patton says in there of him, he’s been incredibly principled and brave. And then he says, “I wish I could think that I would’ve been as brave.”

And here’s this incredibly distinguished man with an incredible career and you just hear in his voice this recognition that he wouldn’t have been able to do the same kind of things that Jimmy is doing. I don’t think I would’ve been able to do the same kind of things that Jimmy is doing.

Thankfully, I have never been faced with the choice. I have been able to live a life of relative peace and comfort here in the United States and have never been faced with the kind of dilemmas, the kind of choices that Jimmy has to kind of to pick up his cross and carry it in the way that Jimmy has chosen to. Which I think also leads back to the point that you were making earlier about the way we compare and contrast things between us and other parts of the world.

I have had numerous people make remarks when we’ve screened the film and we’ve done Q&As about the kind of things that are happening to Hong Kong and saying like, “It’s just like the kind of things that are happening here in the United States.”

I understand where the motivation for those kinds of comments comes from. I too am deeply concerned about the erosion of our freedoms here in the United States. I’m concerned about the problems of the erosion of trust in institutions, like in the mainstream media. I think all of those are significant problems and we do need to deal with them. But what we’re talking about in the United States versus what we’re talking about in Hong Kong, our differences are in kind and degree. Even when we can draw parallels the differences in kind and degree are so significant.

To say that, you know, I’m mildly annoyed by the orientation of the coverage of the New York Times on domestic political issues because there’s a very real bias that seeps into that and the way that they approach issues.

And particularly here at the Acton Institute, where you know it’s the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion and Liberty, one of the biggest errors we find in the media in stories relating to people of faith is that they’re written by people who have no understanding of people of faith. That’s a failure and it leads to bad and biased coverage. But it is incomparable to the kind of propagandistic “news coverage” that you will find in China, in Hong Kong now.

The lack of a voice like an Apple Daily, which was a pro-democracy, Chinese language newspaper, advocating for the kinds of things that we value in the West to not only be in Hong Kong, but to be in China as well. That newspaper has been shut down. Other newspapers that were similar and had similar points of view have also been shut down.

But of course, you can look across this country and find myriad examples of dissenting voices of all kinds, all of which continue to operate. And the most that people can complain about, which again, has merit, is maybe my reach on Facebook or Twitter isn’t as much as it should be. Or maybe the people who run Twitter make a very ill-advised decision to not allow the New York Post story about Hunter Biden’s laptop to be shared.

But again, the unintended consequences of that are remarkably different. Whereas you have a complete lockdown on social media in China and in Hong Kong, I think it is almost indisputable that making that story unshareable on Twitter brought more attention to it, not less.

So, we have these huge differences in degree in kind, and I think it is important for us as Americans to really keep our sense of perspective of how bad things are here versus how bad they are for people like those in Hong Kong and also other places around the globe.

Michael Schaus: I’m really glad that you brought up that point because that was something I was thinking about and I’ve got it on my list to talk to you about because you know, obviously there are lessons in this movie and lessons in what’s going on in Hong Kong that you can take away and kind of apply it to here.

You know, you’re talking about what Jimmy is doing. Him deciding to stay there and fight for Hong Kong is, is amazing because I mean, I know people here in the United States that get a little bit upset with their governor and move to a different state. They flee. They’re not going to stick around and try to fight.

But there is such a huge difference in scale and kind. It’s something that kind of strikes me when I watch something like this, even just the trailer. I’m watching it and I’m thinking to myself, some of the problems that we worry about really are not that big. I mean, don’t get me wrong, I love my gas stove, but the idea of the federal government deciding to crack down on the gas stove is nowhere even in the same ballpark as what the Chinese are trying to do to, for example, Jimmy. And we see that time and time again. You know, I’m not being told, you have to believe a certain thing.

So, what are some of the lessons that you can kind of take from this since it is a more profound example of authoritative you know, government than what we’ve got here?

Walking away from this, what are some of the things that you think people are going to really be thinking about as it relates to our time in the United States and kind of where we are in our own history?

Eric Kohn: I think people are right to be cognizant of the erosion of our freedoms over time. You know, the Chinese started backing away from the agreement that they struck in the handover pretty much immediately.

So, in 1997 when the handover happens it is under this rubric, this slogan from Deng Xiaoping of one country, two systems. And we see them again backing away from that almost immediately. But again, it is a backing away. It is not a snap your fingers and an overnight change there.

So, I think the Ratchet Effect, you know, the concerns raised by Robert Higgs in Crisis and Leviathan, I think these are all things that we should be cognizant of.  But again, while recognizing the difference in degree and kind and adjusting our level of outrage to that proportionately. We can get exercised about the things that we get exercised about in the United States. But I think we should do good work to remember how good we have it comparably to a lot of other places around the world.

I mean, even Barack Obama, right? Even Barack Obama said that, you know, if you had to pick a place in time to be born (I think when he said this was somewhere by time around 2014, 2015) you would pick right now in the United States of America. That is where you would want to be born.

You have the greatest sense of prosperity. You have the greatest guarantees of freedoms. And yeah, we have plenty of things that we’re going to continue to fight over, but understanding how good we have it and being thankful and having a sense of appreciation for that I think is important.

I also hope people will draw from it some inspiration for the times that they will, you know, as CS Lewis said, that courage is the summation of all other virtues at their testing point. I think we see a clear example of that in Jimmy in the things that he’s chosen to do. To, you know, sacrifice himself for a cause greater than himself.

Most of us, thankfully, will never be asked to do something like, I don’t think it’s a bad idea though to ruminate on the kind of things that might be required of us, but also to look for the places and the opportunities within our lives to be able to do follow the example that Jimmy has shown in this, of being able to say, “No, no further, and I’ll accept the consequences of it. I’m not going to knuckle under to what other people want me to do. I’m going to do the right thing,” as he says in the film and some of the interviews we have with him. “I’m going to do the right thing and I’ll let the consequences happen.”

And they may not be pleasant consequences, but doing the right thing is its own reward. And I think we should be cognizant of that fact. And I think that’s a lesson that we can take from the incredible amount of bravery that Jimmy has shown in his personal situation.

Michael Schaus: Yeah, and on a very personal level as well, you know, it doesn’t have to be the big grand thing. Am I going to draw a line in the sand, you know, when it comes to gun rights or religious rights or something? It can be also your day-to-day life.

You know if you believe that you’re doing something right, okay. Are you going to continue to push forward with that or are you going to let outside influences allow you to kind of back off?

If people want to learn a little bit more, people maybe want to watch the trailers, keep up to date so that way when it actually comes out, they can rush out and see it, where’s the best place for them to go?

Eric Kohn: They should go to freejimmylai.com. You could also go to theHongKongermovie.com. Both of those will take you to the same website. There you can watch the trailer; you can sign up for email updates.

We’re expecting the film to be public fairly soon. So, if you sign up for email updates there, we’ll keep you notified when it is available for you to watch publicly.

There are a lot of other resources there that you can peruse. We’ve had a lot of news coverage of what is happening with Jimmy and what is happening with Hong Kong. We encourage people to sign up for those updates and stay engaged with us, and we’ll let you know when and where you can watch the full film.

Michael Schaus: Excellent. Well, I really appreciate it, Eric. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk with us.

Eric Kohn: My pleasure.

Michael Schaus: Again, Eric Kohn. And go to theHongKongermovie.com. Watch the watch the trailer. I mean, just the trailer as short as it is, is extraordinarily powerful and kind of inspirational too, because what Jimmy is going through really is amazing.

I think about this a lot. Somebody told me years ago, and I don’t remember who it was, but they said, “Look, most people would like to think that they would be the guy that stands up against tyranny.” If this was World War II and you lived in Germany, you’d be the person smuggling Jews away from the Holocaust and, and towards the west.

The truth is, though, most people don’t have that level of conviction. Most people would either flee themselves or a lot of people would succumb to the pressure of the day and just do whatever is necessary. And that’s one of the ways that an authoritative system, such as what we see in China, gets away with doing a lot of what it does. There are very, very few people who are willing to stand up and say, “No, I’m not going to let you push any further.”

So, the idea that Jimmy is that guy. He’s standing up and pushing against it, even though he had every opportunity in the world to leave Hong Kong and go pursue a life somewhere else. It really is inspirational.

So, I highly, highly recommend it. When this movie comes out, I highly recommend going and watching it. At the very least, I tell you what, it’s going to add a little bit per of perspective to the way that you view the events of the day here in our relatively comfortable, free, and prosperous state of Nevada in the United States of America.

Hey, thank you so much for listening today. Be sure to go to Nevadapolicy.org/podcast. There you cannot only sign up for email alerts anytime we have a new episode, we will let you know. But you can also reach out let us know if there are any guests or topics that you think we ought to cover.

This has been Free to Offend.

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 Free to Offend:
A podcast that radically defends free speech by regularly practicing it.

Produced by Nevada Policy Research Institute,
featuring Nevada Policy’s Michael Schaus.