Harbour City, Hong Kong shopping mall
Credit: iStock

Globally, malls have become renewed public squares. They also are where a revived Chinese democracy movement is finding a home. Demonstrators, peacefully gathering , singing songs of freedom and waving Hong Kong flags, are defying Beijing by packing into places like the Amoy Plaza megamall.

For the past few years, it has seemed as though China’s powerful economic engine—with projections that it will soon overtake America—propelled the Communist Party’s message and made mainland China look like an unstoppable force. In the shadow of these regular mass protests, the People’s Republic of China now seems like a powerful and towering Goliath facing down Hong Kong’s David.

Thank the shopping mall.

In neighborhood after neighborhood, the mall has become the center of protest activity. In mall gallerias, chanting protesters no longer need yellow umbrellas to protect themselves from torrential rains and water cannons. Balconies are full of indoor dissenters who doff their gas masks in that last haven of consumer promise and pristine pacifism—the mall, with its food court, luxury goods shop, anchor department store, Huawei phone outlet and teen boutique.

Thank heaven for privatized, sanitized, and profit-protected capitalism. The mall may be the last refuge of democracy overseas—and maybe even here at home.

Public spaces and parks in urban America often are neglected or dangerous, occupied by unfortunate homeless people or substance abusers. For decades, the suburban escape to antiseptic and manicured public spaces provided a reprieve from downtown maladies while offering reliable food, amenities, and clean restrooms. The larger malls offered cultural and popular programming—not just during the holidays, but year-round.

Then something happened. The rise of internet shopping and Amazon’s dominance means that Americans are no longer only “bowling alone,” as put forth by author Robert D. Putnam almost 20 years ago. They’re also shopping alone.

We spend more time in our news-filter bubbles, with more time to watch Fox News or MSNBC, more time to indulge in offbeat conspiratorial podcasts, more time to go down the rabbit hole of YouTube rolling “Up Next” autoplay videos that devolve into the latest bizarre, soul-crushing extremism.

This all seems pretty dire. But there is hope, and it comes from an unexpected corner of the world—the mall.

America not only invented a modern form of representative democracy, manufacturing assembly lines, the age of flight, and the microchip. We also gave birth to innovative research institutions that continue to educate the world and bring about earth-shattering, transformational, and disruptive technologies—from quantum computing to genetically engineered, life-prolonging pharmaceuticals. We brought hope and unimaginable solutions to the world.

And we created the mall.

Okay, not entirely. Like our democracy, we borrowed heavily from the ancient Athenians. In this case, the “Agora,” a simple Greek word meaning “the strip mall that connected developers got permits to build next to city hall.”

The ancient Agora was a gathering place where citizens discussed philosophy, exchanged ideas, debated democracy, and crafted laws. It also was the city’s commercial center where people bought and bartered goods. This was as much a place for playing politics as it was for pursuing profits. Especially during the holiday season, when gatherings took on a more festive nature and gifts to the gods flowed as freely as wine for the weary. American malls were imagined as modern-day Agoras.

Hong Kongers are reviving what Americans long took for granted and that we are slowly watching decay. The mall is the last physical forum in this country for broad and informal civic assembly and engagement across our diverse populace. It’s a place where we collect petition signatures and register voters. Some of this activity has moved to massive regional Walmart and Target-anchored power centers, conveniently, if soullessly, located off freeway exits. These places may provide inexpensive goods but are not generally known to inspire political flash mobs.

Yet, the malls that once promoted suburban American congregation have evolved overseas to become hothouses for urban political demonstrations. Witness Hong Kong.

But in this country, when you click on that website to make a purchase instead of going to the mall to buy, you not only lose a step on your Fitbit, you take a stride away from American democracy. If we expect that the public square will move easily and freely from the front of the Apple Store to the screen of your Apple device, think again.

Has Facebook aided or threatened some of our more democratic discourses, practices, and institutions? Can Alibaba or Amazon catalyze face-to-face human interaction? Do they create community and inspire collective political action?

In the ancient world, it was said that if the Coliseum fell, so, too, Rome. Today, as go malls, so, too, Hong Kong.

Et tu, America?

Markos Kounalakis

Markos Kounalakis is a visiting fellow at the Hoover Institution. He is a former NBC Radio Moscow correspondent and the author of Freedom Isn’t Free: The Price of World Order (Anthem Press, 2022).