A week ago, as helicopters buzzed above my Harlem apartment and police lights glided across my window, I scrolled through image upon image that I had captured on my phone of men and women in masks facing off against police in riot gear. Nine months earlier, when I posted similar images from Hong Kong, friends and colleagues here who had known the city as a gleaming, orderly metropolis expressed their shock. What compels a city to erupt? This, of course, is the question that I was sent to answer. I already knew the broad arc of the story. In 2019, Beijing had supported an extradition bill that would allow people in Hong Kong wanted on criminal charges in China to be taken to the mainland and detained there; the fear was that this could include people wanted on political, rather than legal, grounds. The bill might have been the trigger, but the size and the scale of the protests that ensued attested to increasing frustrations with Beijing’s encroachment on the city’s civil liberties, which have been protected by its semi-autonomous status. There are close to seven and a half million people in Hong Kong; at one point, almost two million of them joined the street marches. The protests began peacefully, but sometimes turned violent, and police brutality further inflamed the demonstrators. Nearly nine thousand people were arrested.
There is no hope, more than one protester told me; Beijing will have its way. Eight months on, those words are proving prescient. On Saturday, Beijing revealed plans for a new security law that would grant it broader power over the territory, by overriding Hong Kong’s independent judiciary and establishing a national security office in the city. The law would give Beijing the authority to “exercise jurisdiction” over cases that “jeopardize national security under specific circumstances.”
Beijing’s extradition bill was the spark but not the sole reason for the Hong Kong protests. Similarly, the death of George Floyd, an unarmed black man who died under the knee of a white police officer, was the catalyst but hardly the only cause for the protests across the United Statesthat have followed it. Rage at institutionalized racism—including wrongful deaths at the hands of the police—was exacerbated by an unequal toll in deaths and hardships during the pandemic, and by the words and actions of a President who seems determined to provoke division and hatred. In the past three weeks, more than two thousand cities and towns have seen protests. Twenty-three states called in the National Guard, and a total of sixty-two thousand troops have been activated. More than eleven thousand people have reportedly been arrested.
Watching the protests in New York, I’ve been compulsively pattern-matching them to the events in Hong Kong. Similarities aren’t hard to find, but my role is different now. In Hong Kong, I was an outsider: born in mainland China but reared in the United States, where a free press is constitutionally protected. Any storyteller chooses what information and details and sources to rely on, and my choices reflect my own culturally inflected values. Under President Xi Jinping, independent voices have been silenced in China, and the media has increasingly become an arm of the government, publishing news that serves the interest of the state. The irony is that the mainland media believes the same of Western reporters, denouncing them as government-sponsored shills selling propaganda to thwart China’s rise. My most memorable interview in Hong Kong was with a young man who had a different perspective. “On the one hand,” he told me, “I want you to report on what’s happening in Hong Kong, so that maybe the U.S. government can help us. On the other hand, I’m not really sure that that can be your responsibility.”
His words came back to me recently, as the protests spread across this country. What is the American responsibility at this moment? The uncertain, expansive nature of events has come into direct confrontation with Donald Trump’s fixation on a consistent message: any narrative that does not endorse his agenda is part of a conspiracy. In that, he has much in common with the current leadership in Hong Kong. The city’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, with the support of Xi and the Communist Party, has portrayed the primary actors in the protests there as fringe hooligans and mercenary criminals. The state media has reported that the protesters were wreaking havoc on society, and that the use of aggressive force was necessary to quell them. Trump predictably chose a similar tack, characterizing the U.S. protests as the work of radical-left terrorist “thugs” and encouraging his supporters to clash with Black Lives Matter demonstrators. Sowing division to distract the public is a tried-and-true tactic of the tyrant. While Trump repeatedly denigrates journalists as “the enemy of the people,” Xi likely says to himself, “That’s why I silenced them.”
It should come as no surprise, then, that, according to the former national-security adviser John Bolton, Trump courted Xi to help him win reëlection, while publicly berating his rival Joe Biden for supposedly being soft on Beijing. (Or that Trump reportedly endorsed the idea of holding members of an ethnic minority in detention centers.) Yet the emergence of an American would-be authoritarian has largely played to Xi’s benefit. Images of American police officers using tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets to crack down on protesters, including across the street from the White House, were splashed across Chinese media. “U.S. Deploys Weapons of War in Bid to Control Protests,” a headline in the Global Times, a Communist Party-controlled news outlet, read. Its editor also took to social media to post that, for the United States, the “repression of domestic unrest has further eroded the moral basis to claim itself a ‘beacon of democracy.’ ” Then there was a message from my aunt, a retired journalist for Xinhua, China’s official state-run news agency, telling me that “America has begun arresting and shooting at journalists.” She had predicted all of this long before, she said, and added, “Please watch what you write about America and Trump.”
I tell my aunt that I can write what I want about American politicians, and that freedom of the press marks one of the fundamental differences between the United States and China. But I have to admit to myself that my pride in that fact has been shaken not only by Trump’s attacks on the press but by his contempt for the truth. What concerns me most, as a journalist and as an American, is how relentlessly the President seeks to rewrite the American story in real time. Now he’s trying to vilify the protesters who hope to heal America’s most searing wound—racism—as part of his reëlection strategy. He anoints himself the “President of law and order” at a time when he is transparently inciting disorder. This kind of revisionism is another hallmark of the Chinese Communist Party, which, in erasing the truth of China’s story, has inflicted a kind of cultural amnesia upon generations of its people.
After my story on Hong Kong came out, the official Chinese media called me a “pro-U.S. journalist who has made a career of smearing China.” Not that many people in China are likely to have seen my piece—The New Yorker’s Web site is blocked by the same digital wall that censors all press that does not conform to the Party line. I had an inkling that this might happen and realized, in retrospect, that my concern with projecting objectivity was born out of the anxiety that I could never prove my objectivity to my detractors. In an unfree society, even the pursuit of objectivity is a threat, because it suggests that there is a reality beyond the official state narrative.
During the past three years, Americans have experienced what it’s like to be characters in Trump’s story of America. But he can’t stop the true stories spilling out of this moment of reckoning. These stories have led us to reconsider the monuments to our past—from Columbus to the Confederacy—and to reassess the narrative framework from which these figures and symbols draw their value. Living in an open society means acknowledging that, although America is one nation, a good number of Americans have been complicit in relegating their fellow-citizens to another, meaner nation, one riven by arbitrary official violence—even though this is not the story that America wants to read about itself. Institutions and political systems live inside the stories we tell ourselves. Revising our history to acknowledge our failures is not an act of desecration but of hope. It is a reminder that we can change the course of this country and that, perhaps, we will.