By Miriam Lexmann
A few days ago, I added my signature to a letter from international public figures addressed to the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, in support of your demands: an independent inquiry into police brutality, a timetable for democratic political reform, leading to universal suffrage in elections for the Legislative Council and the Chief Executive, and the release of all those unjustly detained.
Now I would like to address my protesting friends in Hong Kong. I do not feel that I can tell you what to do… Every country has its own unique way to democracy. I only want to share my deep sympathy and solidarity, and some of my thoughts when looking back on my own personal experience in Slovakia and my professional work following pro-democratic changes and supporting reforms in many countries.
Dear friends, I admire your love for freedom that has endowed you with enormous courage! I admire and pray for all those beaten up, detained and treated with violence, both physical and psychological. I suffer with you and understand—to a certain extent—how you feel.
I was born in a communist country which has trodden a long path to democracy since 1989. Although I myself never experienced a similar situation to yours, I grew up in a dissident family. I was a teenager in 1989 when, in the then-Czechoslovakia and many other European communist states, we took to the streets and toppled Communist rule. The risk of repression was there, at least in the first days, but there was no violence of the kind now suffered by Hong Kong. We knew that our country would change and that we would be the masters of our own future.
You may think that this Velvet Revolution was the magical moment when my country changed into a democracy—a turning point that you too yearn for and risk so much for.
Well, 1989 in Czechoslovakia was indeed a magical moment. Symbols play a strong role in our lives. They motivate us and help us to continue in times of hardship. They remind us of our virtues and of our desire to work hard to make the world around us a better place. So we do celebrate the Velvet Revolution as a symbol of change. But the actual change has its roots long before November 17th 1989—and is yet to be completed.
The path to my country’s current freedom did not start in 1989, but was paved by many brave men and women who had given up their lives and external freedom by remaining internally free. They did not renounce their faithfulness to God, or their political views. Their sacrifice in terms of many lost lives and years of imprisonment has provided for a strong base for our freedom today.
I would like to mention my great-uncle, a Catholic priest and a Dominican, who refused to sell his soul to any tyrannical regime. Risking his own life, he saved lives of the Jews during the Second World War. Later he died, aged 52, in a communist labour camp, refusing to give up his faith, the source of his internal freedom.
I would also mention Silvester Krčméry and Vladimír Jukl, who despite 14 years imprisonment still had the courage to build a strong base for an underground Church. These structures – secret meetings for prayers and talks and informal spiritual, religious and political education— helped create another important pillar for our freedom today: hundreds of people across the country who became internally free.
The effort of these two men led to the 1988 Candle Demonstration in support of political and religious freedoms. Although the demonstration was brutally suppressed, the communist regime fell apart 20 months later.
Joachim Gauck, a former dissident in East Germany who later became president of the united Federal Republic, said it gave people in the communist state the courage to overcome fear. It opened the path to the fall of the Berlin Wall and of the communist regimes across Europe in 1989. Internal freedom, even among a few people, can have powerful results.
One change in 1989 was immediate and sharp. It was that we became free in our actions and thus responsible for our own future. A leading figure of the underground movement, my uncle František Mikloško, once said that the biggest change was the feeling of freedom. He could do and say what he wanted, without fear of imprisonment or reprisal. In order to enjoy and exercise this external freedom, one needs to be internally free and thus ready to bear the responsibility that goes along with it.
For our hearts and minds did not become free from one day to another. Thirty years on we can see that our dreams are not yet fulfilled; that our democracy is still fragile and the long tentacles of the former communist regime hold many parts of our public decision-making in a firm grip, serving not the public good but narrow and often hidden interests.
Judges remain in place who once sentenced people for their political or religious views. Children of former communist bureaucrats and secret police officials run successful businesses thanks to their close ties with the state.
At times the influence of such people has endangered our freedom and democracy. Their machinations led to a situation that for many months I could not exercise my political mandate as an elected Member of the European Parliament. The people whose power stems from spreading fear and corruption endanger our democratic path again and again, but so too does the electorate’s lack of the vital quality of internal freedom. It is they, the voters who place these caricatures of leadership into office.
My intention in sharing this with you is to warn that the road ahead will long and not always straight. Do not focus on what appear to be magical moments, marking a clear break between the past and the future. The moments may serve as a symbol for your journey, but real change will be slow. What really matters is the hard work of many people before and after.
I was part of the international delegation that observed the Sixth District Council Elections in Hong Kong. I shared your happiness as we observed the landslide victory of freedom and democracy. A magical moment!
Having declared victory, you need to act as victors, avoiding behaviour that may allow the enemy to counterattack. Martin Lee, the “grandfather” of your democracy movement and founder of the Democratic Party, urged you to turn victory into a springboard for reform in the local districts, “You do not need violence any longer,” he said. “you already got the attention of the world. Everybody knows, you won!”
You may ask: How does a victor act? The answer I would like to offer to you is provided by the Slovak dissident I mentioned, Silvester Krčméry. He concluded his defence speech: “You hold Power in your hands, but we hold the Truth. We don’t envy you the power and do not long for it, we are satisfied with the Truth. Because [truth] is bigger and stronger than Power.”
One clear difference I see between Hong Kong today and the post-communist countries after the fall of the totalitarian regimes is that the internal freedom of people did not vanish yet despite the regime’s oppression.
The number of people who took to the streets in Hong Kong and the high level of support during the last district elections bear clear witness of that. Do not give it up, but build on it! Only free people can hold the truth, that is more powerful than any political power. Only free people can change their country to democracy.
You have got the magic moment, you have got the moral and physical victory, you hold the Truth; what needs to be done now is to use the victory and translate it into a change through day-to-day struggle within your institutions, schools, private sector and even homes or sport clubs.
The other big difference between Hong Kong today and post-communist countries then is that China’s might is rising, while the Soviet Union was then on its knees. Yes, this difference seems threatening. But the world is different too!
It is more global than it was at the end of the cold war and that makes us, people of other countries, co-responsible for your fight for freedom. If one Hongkonger is oppressed, we are all oppressed! Your freedom is our freedom. The democratic world must find ways to support you—otherwise our own democracy is at risk!
Miriam Lexmann is a Member of the European Parliament from Slovakia.