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The foresight to protect our freedom

We are regularly reminded why we should be grateful for what happened in our country on July 4, 1776. One reminder came this week from Hong Kong.

Hundreds of thousands of citizens took to the streets on Tuesday to protest their government's plans to impose a rigid "internal security" law that threatens to curb dissent. The law, written to the satisfaction of China's communist authorities, would provide long jail terms for those guilty of sedition, treason or secession. It would allow Hong Kong authorities to ban organizations that were banned on national security grounds in other parts of China.

The Bosses of Beijing are turning the screws on Hong Kong. Hong Kong's citizens had hoped that reunification with China would leave them with their freedom intact. And as the demonstration showed, they do enjoy much more liberty than most of their fellow citizens on the mainland. But the future is in doubt. The new security law, said Catholic Bishop Joseph Zen, is "like a knife above our heads."

What's happening in Hong Kong is a rebuke to those who have been arguing that it's perfectly okay to live with dictatorships as long as the dictators allow a degree of freedom in the marketplace. Their claim is that economic freedom leads inexorably to political freedom. Just give the dictators time to make the economy work, goes an argument not confined to any one part of the political spectrum, and a new middle class will rise up and demand democracy.

One would like to hope that will happen someday. But the evidence from Hong Kong, as elsewhere, is that dictators can easily make the clock move backward. Hong Kong, after all, already has a thriving market economy and a substantial middle class. It had moved steadily toward democracy. But dictators, as a rule, are not the sort of people who allow historical trends to run their natural course if the new developments threaten their power. On the contrary, dictators have this nasty habit of jailing or snuffing out opposition as it arises, no matter whose theory says what.

And is it not a moral problem for those of us who enjoy freedom to say that it's okay for "them" _ whoever that happens to be at any given time and in any given place _ to live under dictatorship because "they" have to go through some historical process before they can arrive at democracy and liberty? Wasn't Abraham Lincoln right to view the Declaration of Independence as offering "hope to the world" that "in due time, the weights should be lifted from the shoulders of all men?"

The Founders of our country understood something that today's economic determinists do not: that politics _ meaning how we choose to govern ourselves _ is more important than economics. The Declaration focuses almost entirely on political rights with its ringing denunciations of King George's violations of the liberties of free citizens. ("He has dissolved Representative Houses repeatedly, for opposing with manly firmness his invasions on the rights of the people.") Trade and taxes don't get mentioned until halfway through, and then only briefly and in connection with political rights. The Founders did not protest taxes as such, but the fact that they were levied "without our Consent."

Of course no one wants to be poor, and yes, prosperous market economies have been friendly to the development of democracy. But many dictatorships have allowed the market substantial running room without ever relinquishing political power to the people. In Hong Kong, it's striking that corporate leaders questioned the new security law until the government limited the power of the police to seize financial records. Then they largely fell silent. Their economic interests were protected, but the people's right to dissent was not.

In rejecting economic determinism, Chinese advocates of freedom think far more like our Founders. "It goes too far to say that economic development alone will inevitably lead to democracy," Fang Lizhi, a famous Chinese dissident, has said. "The communist authorities clearly like this theory because they can use it to cover up their record of human rights violations. It would be wonderful if democracy did indeed grow automatically out of economic development, but history gives us, unfortunately, no such guarantees."

We should be grateful that the Founders of our country refused to accept that self-government was something they were supposed to wait for. It made no sense to them that liberty could come only after a suitable period of economic growth and tutelage from some despot. When men and women in other lands follow our Founders' example, we should stand with them and not offer smug theories that justify our freedom while rationalizing their oppression.

E.J. Dionne Jr. is a syndicated columnist with the Washington Post Writers Group.

Washington Post Writers Group