Born and raised in Hong Kong, my biggest impression of the United States was always its foundation of freedom. A large part of that came from the previous generation, many of whom had moved to the U.S. in an effort to evade communist rule before the handover of Hong Kong from Britain back to China in 1997. Still, “freedom” is an abstract concept — one that I did not reflect deeply upon until my year as a visiting student at Yale.

Living in the U.S., I quickly realized that freedom was not only an integral part of the Constitution, but also one of America’s history, foundation and way of living. Yale, being a liberal arts college, certainly embraced some of those ideals. Thanks to that year, I now care more about social injustices, understand how to be more inclusive and generally am a happier and more genuine person.

But the definitions of both “freedom” and “liberty” may vary significantly in different communities and contexts. Throughout American history, these concepts have manifested and evolved in different ways, so much so that “classical liberalism” (libertarianism) and “liberalism” mean entirely different things. The same country that legalized cannabis in certain states and gay marriage in the name of freedom has also fought in unjust wars and intrusively scanned our bodies in airports. When freedom is merely a vague concept, it inevitably becomes more of a slogan than anything else. Both sides use it to defend their work, but it doesn’t mean much more than a “hurrah to our side.”

What is happening now in Hong Kong should serve as a reminder to the world that freedom is more than a buzzword — it is an innate right of every being, one that many people are risking their lives to defend. Hong Kong is a highly developed region, both economically and socially: It is consistently ranked among the top 10 “safest cities in the world” and boasts a GDP per capita that is 4.33 times that of the world average. Most Hong Kongers would not have imagined that one day, they would be wielding umbrellas and helmets against a police force armed with tear gas and rubber bullets.

The conflicts in Hong Kong began in February of 2019, when the Hong Kong government pushed forward an extradition law that would allow the Hong Kong government to hand over fugitives from Taiwan or Mainland China back to their respective regions (currently, the Hong Kong extradition law explicitly forbids the handover of fugitives to these two regions.) Many, including those in the legal and the financial sectors of Hong Kong, fear that the Chinese government will use this law to purge people who are deemed a threat to the Chinese regime. This eventually led to the two largest protests since the handover of Hong Kong in 1997, with reportedly 1 and 1.7 million citizens protesting, respectively. The government, however, decided to ignore the demands of its people and refuse to withdraw the bill.

Since those demonstrations, however, the situation has turned from bad to worse. The government has begun using methods unfathomable to most Hong Kong citizens against protestors, many of whom are peaceful. On  July 21, a mob of over 100 indiscriminately attacked innocent citizens in a subway station. Multiple reels of footage show the police walking away when the mob attacked, with enforcements arriving a full 39 minutes after the emergency hotline was called. A pro-establishment lawmaker was even seen shaking hands with the mob after the attack, as if sanctioning their violence.

This level of police misconduct also shocked Hong Kong citizens. Police have been wrongfully arresting people for the most absurd reasons. The student president of a local university was arrested for “possession of offensive weapon” after he bought some laser pointers, which the police argued were  “laser guns.” Tear gas has been used inside subway stations (directed at protestors but also ordinary citizens), with a clear disregard for public safety. Arrested protestors were sent to a detention center close to the Chinese border, and lawyers were denied their legal rights to enter the facility. Thirty-one arrested individuals were hospitalized after the detention, allegedly tortured by the police.

The U.S. has a very special place in my heart and always will. I met amazing people and went to some of the most breathtaking places I have ever seen while also falling in love with the ideals the country represents. However, it is important for us to remember that sometimes, freedom is not free. Let us remember what happened in the forts of Boston and on the bus in Montgomery, the sacrifices that were made to bring us to where we are today. If we do not actively maintain and protect our freedom, it will be slowly eroded — what is gone will be gone forever. A transparent government with limited power and a system of checks and balances is key to preventing what is happening in Hong Kong from one day happening in America.

And to those who speak Cantonese: Heung Gong Ga Yau.

Kenny Lam graduated from the University of Hong Kong in 2019. He was a visiting student at Yale College during the 2017-2018 academic year.