Hong Kong: Individuals and Collective Action Can Alter the Course of History

Stuart Krusell

July 1985 Riding the train on a Eurail Pass as a recent college graduate, two friends and I joined in the exciting adventure of exploring Europe. Seated beside us, a middle-aged woman, heading to Berlin to visit her sister.

In 1985, this trip required traveling from West Germany (Federal Republic of Germany, FRG) through East Germany (German Democratic Republic, GDR) to Berlin, a city literally divided by a wall, with West Berlin being an island of freedom inside the authoritarian GDR.

One of my friends studies German and sees an opportunity to practice his language skills so strikes up a conversation with the woman, providing us with a history lesson about her family and the post-WWII divisions that led to their separation. We ask, “Do you ever see a day when Germany will be reunited?” “Yes, some day, but certainly not in my lifetime,” she replies with a sad smile.

June 2006 On vacation with my wife and son, we are enjoying a trip through Germany, a nation reunified in 1990.

In Leipzig, we are surrounded by Mexicans and Argentinians preparing to cheer on their teams in a Round of 16 game being held at the Zentralstadion, one of twelve stadiums, and the only one located in former GDR territory, hosting the 2006 World Cup.

However, the real celebration is in a nearby park, where tens of thousands are waving German flags in joy over their 2–0 win over Sweden. Reunification is not only political.


November 2003 Seated for lunch with Wan Azizah binti Wan Ismail at her home in Kuala Lumpur, we are also joined by her daughter, Nurul Izzah Anwar. Both are powerful political leaders, Wan Azizah being President of the People’s Justice Party (PKR) and a Member of Parliament and Nurul Izzah having a vital role in the founding of PKR.

Our discussion focuses on the upcoming 2004 general election, an election in which Anwar Ibrahim, Wan Azizah’s husband and father of Nurul Izzah, is unable to compete. A former Deputy Prime Minister, he is imprisoned on charges of leading human rights groups described as politically motivated.

April 2018 Seated at the graduation of the Asia School of Business, an MIT Sloan partner school, listening to Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad deliver the commencement address.

Wan Azizah binti Wan Ismail is serving as the first Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia. Nurul Izzah Anwar is an elected Member of Parliament. Anwar Ibarhim has been freed from prison, pardoned by Sultan Muhammad V, elected a Member of Parliament, and is designated by the ruling Pakatan Harapan coalition to succeed Mahathir as Prime Minister.


July 2019 Walking the streets of Hong Kong, it is free of cars but it is by no means deserted. Thousands of people, mostly but not exclusively young, are gathered in protest. Two weeks earlier, 2 million, out of a population of 7 million, had marched in similar protest. The scene is not dissimilar to the one I witnessed in October 2014, during the Umbrella Movement when peaceful students alternated between actively participating in protests and withdrawing to a university library-type setting in the middle of the street to study.

Hong Kongers come up and offer surgical masks in case the police use tear gas. Others urge caution, suggesting paths away from potential clashes. Yet, the protesters appear peaceful, organized. While later actions by some may deviate from this initial impression, it remains clear that this is not a riot, it is citizens exercising their freedom of expression.

August 2019 The stakes are being raised in Hong Kong. Protests continue. A general strike is called. How the government will respond is unclear.


If there is one certainty to the world in 2019, it is that there is great uncertainty. Political divisions in the US. Brexit looming. Trade Wars. North Korea. Iran. The list goes on.

We like to think that we know what is going to happen, that we can predict the future. If the events detailed above are any indication, this is wishful thinking.

Yet, there is another certainty, which is the role that principled, innovative leaders play in defining what will happen to our generation and the ones to follow.

Both individuals and collective action can alter the course of history. Again, consider the examples above. The question is, in what direction are we heading?

The outcome may be uncertain, but the need to act is not.

“Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing.” -John Stuart Mills, 1867

Stuart Krusell

Written by

Senior Director & Senior Lecturer, MIT Sloan

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