Hong Kong Understands the Uncommon Value of the Common Law

The colonial flag of Hong Kong flies over a march of anti-extradition bill protesters in Hong Kong, China, July 7, 2019. (Thomas Peter/Reuters)
In Asia-Pacific, we need to reassert the fundamental values that make men free.

When conservatives in England and America talk about their civilization as an inheritance, they often talk about the genius of the common-law tradition. By that they mean the body of legal thought and practice that grows from the bottom up. Our expectations about due process, evidence, and presumed innocence grow from this tradition. We usually contrast this with the law tradition on Continental Europe that has roots in the top-down approach of the Roman Empire. Thomas Jefferson talked about the American form of liberty as the sum of this common-law tradition of freedom, one that stretched back into the Middle Ages.

I’m sure that even for many of the conservatives audiences that endure these talks by pundits, academics, and philosophers, this topic can seem boring, abstract, and gaseous. It seems that way because we take it too much for granted. Most people in America probably never hear about the common law apart from the phrase “common-law marriage.”

In Hong Kong people are not lucky enough to be forgetful. Hong Kong is not in a neighborhood that lets its people forget. Most media stories note that the incredibly large protests that have rocked Hong Kong recently are against an extradition law that has been proposed by the government. It’s called the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Bill. It would allow the authorities in Hong Kong to extradite criminal offenders to China. In other words, it would facilitate the authorities’ ferrying people away from the common-law courts and jurisprudence of Hong Kong, a holdover from its days under British colonial government, to the politically controlled courts of China.

This isn’t conserva-splaining the dispute from afar. These are exactly the terms in which citizens of Hong Kong see their conflict. And it is their shock of recognition at their dire situation that is so moving. Lok Cheung is a YouTuber from Hong Kong. He is Internet-famous among photographers and videographer enthusiasts for the videos he makes reviewing the latest cameras and lenses. He’s been doing this work for the better part of the last decade, and the persona he’s developed on camera is usually one that is gently befuddled, amused by the expensive gear he uses, and almost embarrassed by his honest assessments.

But this week, in a halting and moving interruption to his own channel, he decided to speak about the extradition law, the protests, and the incidence of crime in Hong Kong that is attributed to Chinese triads. He tries to explain the common law to an audience that hasn’t been conditioned — as readers of National Review are — to apprehend what it means.

Lok Cheung has not been a highly political person. As a member of Hong Kong’s remarkable society, he has ambitions that have not normally run into or conflicted with those of Hong Kong’s rulers. His whole life — the type of enterprise he runs, his free communication across borders within a free Internet, even his normally bemused persona — were all able to flourish precisely because he is protected by this tradition that was implanted on his island. “Freedom of speech, freedom of press is done” if the law passes, he says, and “Hong Kong won’t be Hong Kong anymore.”

The increasing influence of the mainland government has changed the character of Hong Kong’s police force and lowered the esteem of Hong Kong’s citizens for those who guard and defend this orderly but free society.

As a fan of Lok Cheung’s videos, and a well-wisher for Hong Kong, I also feel compelled to say something. The assumptions that have undergirded the West’s relationship with mainland China for the past 25 years were wrong, and have contributed to his recent sleepless nights. The belief — once common, during the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from the U.K. to China — that open trade with China, and the examples of Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, South Korea, and Japan, would inevitably draw China to become more liberal and democratic was wrong. And like Cheung and his compatriots in the streets, we need an important interruption to business as usual. In Asia-Pacific, we need to reassert the fundamental values that make men free.