Don Morrison: They hold these truths

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HONG KONG — My wife sometimes jokes that she married me on the assumption I would be a foreign correspondent and we'd travel the world. Instead, I became a desk-bound editor and we lived in the same exasperating American city for 25 years.

But in the 26th, I made it all up to her. We moved to Hong Kong, then, as now, one of the most exciting places on the planet.

Perhaps a bit too exciting these days. As you may have heard, this "Special Administrative Region" of China has been torn by violent protests in recent months. At issue is Beijing's growing intrusiveness in Hong Kong affairs, despite promising a "high degree of autonomy" after it regained the territory from Britain in 1997. The locals are angry about many things, but prominent among them is a lack of democracy.

Ah, democracy. It used to be one of America's signature exports, before wars, scandals, racism, gun violence and our current president tarnished the country's reputation abroad.

So, imagine my surprise when, returning to Hong Kong after an overlong absence, I stumbled across a rally featuring American flags. Also posters praising, of all people, Donald Trump. That statesman, taking time off from his efforts to get Ukraine to investigate a political rival, had just signed a bill supporting Hong Kongers' democratic aspirations. Clearly, I'd been away too long.

Too long, certainly, to opine reliably on Hong Kong's confusing congee of pro- and anti-Beijing political factions, timid local officials, shadowy Beijing viceroys, self-interested tycoons, worried expats, thuggish police and courageous but naive protesters.

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Besides, that commenting task has been ably handled in these pages by my old Hong Kong friend and journalistic colleague Francis Moriarty, whose insights on the subject are unmatched in the American press.

Indeed, after hearing from people in several of the categories cited above, I concluded that neither I nor anybody has a clue where Hong Kong is headed. My wife and I soon found ourselves in the territory's impressive airport (an occasional target of protests) waiting for our flight home and worrying about the kids and grandkids we'd left behind.

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As I sometimes do in such a mood, I opened my passport. Thus, I revisited not only one of America's unsung literary masterpieces, but also the reasons people in Hong Kong and elsewhere still look to the U.S. for hope.

In tiny type at the top of almost every page of U.S. passports issued since 2007 are brief patriotic quotations. Not just from the usual suspects — George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln — but also from authors, activists and an astronaut. They paint a picture of America that has outlived its flaws.

The quotes include the majestic opening of the Declaration of Independence: "We hold these truths to be self-evident: that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness." Also this from theologian Harry Emmerson Fosdick: "Democracy is based upon the conviction that there are extraordinary possibilities in ordinary people."

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Liberty and freedom thrive in our passport pages. Here's essayist E.B. White: "Liberty is never out of bounds or off-limits; it spreads wherever it can capture the imagination of men." Here also is Anna Julia Cooper, who was born into slavery and became a celebrated sociologist and author: "The cause of freedom is not the cause of a race or a sect, a party or a class — it is the cause of humankind, the very birthright of humanity."

About that birthright, New York politico Herbert Lehman declares: "It is immigrants who brought to this land the skills of their hands and brains to make it a beacon of opportunity and hope for all men."

America certainly was a beacon for the author of this passport quote: "Every generation has the obligation to free men's minds for a look at new worlds to look out from a higher plateau than the last generation." That's from Ellison Onizuka, the first Asian-American astronaut. He died in the 1986 Challenger disaster.

All two dozen people quoted in our little blue booklets have gone to that great passport control in the sky. But their words, and their democratic dreams, endure. We living Americans carry them with us — in our pockets and our hearts — to the wider world. Including, quite obviously, Hong Kong.

Donald Morrison, an Eagle columnist and Advisory Board member, was the founding editor of Time Magazine's Asian edition.


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