Too many nights in recent years I have gone to sleep hoping I would not wake up in the morning. Too many nights I have figuratively (not literally) held a gun to my head and, in my imagination, pulled the trigger. Why? The state of the world.
For much of my life the world seemed to be progressing. In 1989, the Berlin Wall fell, and in the early 1990s, freedom swept Communist tyranny away across eastern Europe and the Cold War ended. In those same years, Nelson Mandela was released and apartheid was dismantled in South Africa. Francis Fukuyama famously declared “the end of history” and the victory of liberty, trumping Samuel Huntington’s “clash of civilisations”.
Yet over the past two decades, Huntington has been proved more right than Fukuyama.
The series of crises which have sequentially hit the world – from the 2007-8 financial crisis; the age of austerity that followed; the Brexit crisis in Britain which, whatever side you took, poisoned our politics; the rise of populism across the globe; the Covid-19 pandemic; Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine; and now the tragedy in Israel and Gaza and the related rise in anti-Semitism here at home – have ushered in dark times.
And that is on top of the lesser-known crises with which I am directly involved, such as the conflict in Myanmar following the coup in 2021; Azerbaijan’s assault on Nagorno-Karabakh, which I have visited; the genocide of the Uyghurs in China’s western Xinjiang region, which I am deeply involved in campaigning against; the dismantling of Hong Kong’s freedoms, in a city where I lived for five years and began my career; and the ever-present challenge of North Korea’s nuclear capacity and crimes against humanity. I have visited North Korea, and North Korean refugees on the China border, been chased by the Chinese police and campaigned for the establishment of a UN inquiry into crimes against humanity in North Korea.
These are all issues on my mind and in my heart, and so it’s no wonder I don’t sleep easy at night.
Yet a fortnight ago, something happened. 1,500 people gathered in Greenwich to do something about the world. To seek – and tell – a better story.
The establishment of the Alliance for Responsible Citizenship (ARC) was perhaps the most extraordinary initiative I have ever encountered.
I myself have initiated coalitions, campaigns and organisations on various causes, brought together diverse people for a common purpose and been at the coalface of advocacy.
But never have I been in a room-full of so many people united in a vision for a better future, with so many speakers from so many countries with such unity in diversity.
We heard from business, philosophers, politicians, religious leaders, experts on the environment and energy, and artists – poets, painters, musicians. Where else would you find such an eclectic mix?
The main purpose, as far as I could see, was to rediscover our civilisation, re-establish our values and renew our humanity and hope.
The former deputy prime minister of Australia, John Anderson, was one of the pioneers of ARC and he communicated the problem of the western world well: “We don’t know where we have come from. We don’t know who we are. We don’t know how to tell our story.” And if we, in the free world, don’t know these basic points of our story, how can we possibly hope to defend our freedoms or fight for those in other parts of the world who are denied them?
We heard some necessary hard truths.
Ayan Hirsi Ali told us plain and simple that Hamas is “evil”. If we don’t stand up to them, Hamas will not just be killing Jewish babies – “they’ll kill yours too”. She’s right.
Hedge-fund investor Sir Paul Marshall delivered a rallying cry for the defence – and reform – of capitalism, calling out the “mutant” forms of capitalism: monopolies, cronies and ‘woke’ capitalists. He’s spot-on.
Historian Niall Ferguson alerted us to the fact that democracy is under threat, from an axis of authoritarianism led by China, Russia, North Korea and Iran, as well as an erosion in western democracies’ education systems. He called for a defence of “liberty, legality and respect for human rights”.
Theologian Amy Orr-Ewing critiqued “cancel culture”, claiming that “public floggings are back” on social media, resonant with authoritarian systems, and that instead “forgiveness and redemption” can “help rebuild a broken world.”
And the wonderful Bishop Robert Barron gave a tour de force on “what is the true nature of freedom?”, taking us through a series of reflections on Martin Luther King Jr, Bob Dylan and St Thomas Aquinas. He begins with Bob Dylan’s question: “Freedom just around the corner for you, but with the truth so far off, what good will it do?”. A question truly for our times. As someone who has spent my entire adult life fighting for freedom for others, I know that unless freedom is anchored in responsibility – and is a freedom “to be” and not only a freedom “from” – then it is not true freedom.
Throughout the past week, while attending ARC, I have been reading my friend Os Guiness’ 1993 book The American Hour. It’s 30 years old, but it is a book for our times. In it he defends liberty, responsibility, freedom of conscience and pluralism.
Guinness, who spoke at ARC, quotes Abraham Lincoln, who said: “Let us hope … that by the best cultivation of the physical world, beneath and around us; and the intellectual and moral world within us, we shall secure an individual, social and political prosperity and happiness, whose course shall be onward and upward, and which, while the earth endures, shall not pass away.”
Guiness notes that “no civilisation lasts forever” and that “disorder in human society is ever present”. But if we pursue freedom as “the power to do what was right”, rather than “the power to do as one pleased”, and sought the language of “‘good’, ‘duty’ and ‘freedom for’” and not only “’freedom from’”, we might build a better future.
For the people I work with day by day – in or from Myanmar, North Korea, China, Hong Kong, and religious minorities in Pakistan, Indonesia and elsewhere – the immediate pursuit is freedom from bad things: torture, rape, forced labour, slavery, bombings, beheadings, assassinations. In the words of one of Aung San Suu Kyi’s books, “freedom from fear”. At least two of my good friends have been assassinated and many have been jailed. I myself have been deported from Myanmar twice, denied entry to Hong Kong, and threatened with imprisonment.
But deep down, I know that is not enough. Freedom from arrest, imprisonment, torture, assassination, enslavement is just the starting point. I want a better future. I want a freedom for.
My sister is a most beautiful, talented musician, an accomplished violinist, the leader of the London Mozart Players. But she did not get there by accident. She had the freedom to pursue her gifts, combined with the diligence and hard work required to learn her scores and practice, and the instruction necessary from gifted teachers. In my family, music, literature, theatre, culture, compassion and kindness have been our lifeblood. I want for others what I have grown up to enjoy – a freedom for, a freedom to be, a freedom to give to the world. A freedom that combines liberty with responsibility.
ARC ended in a way no conference I’ve ever attended ended. Opera singers popped up throughout the hall singing “Do You Hear the People Sing?” from Les Miserables. Not a typical anthem at a conference described as “right-wing”. I hope the world will hear the people sing. I hope we will all remember, as Jordan Peterson said in his closing remarks, “who you are”.
Let’s rediscover our freedom, responsibility, identity, community and humanity.
No conference by itself can deliver that. And I am instinctively suspicious of fads. I am also increasing uncomfortable with tribes. But I have a hunch that ARC might not be just a passing fad. Nor was it tribal. It brought together people who, yes, had a common cause but expressed it in a multiplicity of ways. Knowing the people who are behind it, I think ARC might be just what the world needs right now.
Let’s see. The world needs some hope right now. Let’s hear the people sing.
Benedict Rogers is a human rights activist and writer, co-founder and Chief Executive of Hong Kong Watch, co-founder and deputy chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, an advisor to the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC) and author of The China Nexus: Thirty Years In and Around the Chinese Communist Party’s Tyranny (Optimum Publishing International 2022).