It's hard to resist the urge to reach out and support someone like Joshua Wong. The Hong Kong student has the slight features, thick black-framed eyeglasses and misleadingly nerdy disposition of many of his classmates, as well as startling self-confidence, unflappable courage and a solid sense of principles that have turned him into an outspoken leader of the "umbrella revolution" democracy movement that has choked the city's streets all week.
He is also 17, almost exactly the same age as the Hong Kong government whose democracy he is fighting for. He was born several months before Britain handed the city back to China and Beijing promised it would be, for the first time in its history, subject to democratic rule and "universal suffrage."
Like most of the protesters, Mr. Wong has never known anything but Beijing's rule, and isn't fighting it. National multiparty democracy, the guiding idea behind the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests, is also absent from the vocabulary of these students. Rather, they have drawn hundreds of thousands to the streets with a demand that even many moderate, non-confrontational urbanites acknowledge: They want the national government not to meddle in their city's municipal politics, to reverse its plan to vet candidates for Hong Kong's first democratic city-council elections in 2017. In other words, they are demanding what many mainland Chinese cities already enjoy without controversy.
Mr. Wong may be young, but he has a record of success: Two years ago, he led the fight against Beijing's attempt to rewrite Hong Kong's respected secondary-school curriculum so it would contain more party propaganda. He won.
Their combination of peaceful protest and Chinese patriotism has made Mr. Wong and his colleagues the best sort of protesters, and they are surely deserving of our support, endorsement and resources.
But we, and our governments, should resist.
For those of us who live in established, secure democracies, that may seem a strange suggestion. Since 1789, democratic freedoms have been delivered as gifts from those who already have them. The huge rise in the number of world democracies over the past 50 years is in good part due to the work of diplomats, political organizations and citizens lending support to movements.
But something is different today, especially in China. If you live in one of the world's remaining autocracies, it has become poison to associate your democracy campaign with the established countries of the West (or, for that matter, of Japan and South Korea). The false but popular idea that liberal democracy and individual rights are something "for Westerners," a foreign import that is not suited to the Eastern mind or society, has become a key quiver in the authoritarian arsenal.
This idea has also been embraced, all too eagerly, by many right-wing Westerners: the notion that Asians or Arabs or Muslims or Africans are temperamentally or intellectually unsuited to full democracy, that they will inevitably descend into chaos and war if given a taste of it, is a racist concept that has been eagerly absorbed by conservatives both here and there.
Among Beijing's very conservative ruling circle, the myth of democracy as a Western product has turned into a key defensive weapon. In an important new essay on the evolution of Chinese-American relations, writer Orville Schell notes that Chinese rulers, buoyed by growth-driven self-confidence and (rightful) pride at the demise of a century and a half of national humiliation, have recently changed their language: From the 1980s into the 2000s, officials would repeatedly speak of ongoing political reform leading to democracy, but slowly: "Give us time. China cannot change all at once."
Today, Mr. Schell notes, President Xi Jinping and his circle have dropped those phrases – "Xi's version of reform no longer even includes a meaningful program of political reform," Mr. Schell says. Democracies, instead, are openly criticized for their failings and errors – and Chinese democratic reformers are associated with those failures.
Young Mr. Wong has himself been branded a foreign agent by the more conservative branches of the Chinese press; the pro-Beijing paper Wen Wei Po ran an "exposé" of the "U.S. forces" influencing him – supposed visits to the U.S consulate and records of his family's vacation at a hotel in Macau owned by an American company. It's a lot like Moscow's ham-fisted attempts to brand Ukraine's democracy movement as a Western-backed plot: Wrong, but contagious.
This movement is too important to risk jeopardizing it by association with the West: That could endanger not just the students themselves, but their ideas. Including the fascinating idea that democracy activism no longer needs the older democracies.