In February 2019, Hong Kong’s government announced a new extradition law that for the first time would allow for the extradition of accused criminals from Hong Kong to mainland China. This decision culminated in mass demonstrations across Hong Kong numbering in the hundreds of thousands – the largest in Hong Kong since the Umbrella Movement in 2014. The movement in Hong Kong is now entering its fourteenth week. So, what are the causes of the protests, and what are the stakes for China and the world? Doug Becker speaks with Pradeep Taneja, Katherine Chu, and Daniel C. Lynch.
Katherine Chu is a Professor of Political Science at California State University, Dominguez Hills. She is an expert in cultural policy, nationalism, and soft power in Asia.
Daniel C. Lynch is a Professor of Political Science at the City University of Hong Kong. He is an expert in East Asian security relations and Chinese foreign policy and is the author of China’s Futures: PRC Elites Debate Economics, Politics, and Foreign Policy.
This interview has been edited for clarity and length
Doug Becker: Daniel Lynch, since you are in Hong Kong, can you explain what the cause of these protests are?
Daniel Lynch: That is a very complex and long story. I think if you look at the primary slogan that the protesters are using, they are using the slogan ‘Recover Hong Kong’. And if you look at the terminology, they are using the same terminology that the KMT, the Chinese nationalist government in Taiwan used in the 1940s to refer to the retrocession of Taiwan from colonial Japan to the Republic of China. In other words, there is an analogy here: the Hong Kong protesters are saying we need to recover Hong Kong in a way analogous to the recovery of Taiwan by China from imperial Japan. I think that is because many Hong Kong people feel since the retrocession to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 that they have lost something. There has been a lot of mainlander migration to Hong Kong, a lot of mainlander tourists and day traders, a lot of students have come. Of course, many Hong Kong people recognise that these people from the mainland make very positive contributions to Hong Kong life, economy, and so on. But a lot of other Hong Kongers, especially younger people, feel like they have not benefited from this migration of lots of people from the mainland and they feel like they have lost something, they feel like their community, their city has changed in the last two decades and they wanted to recover and restore what they feel was its excellence of decades past.
I will say one more thing about this. The inequality levels here in Hong Kong are really terrible. It is true in a lot of places under globalisation and a lot of people think we don’t win or benefit from globalisation and specifically here in East and South-East Asia a lot of people have not benefited economically from the kind of China-centred globalization we have seen. There has been this disinvestment from places like Taiwan, Hong Kong, South Korea over into China that has led to a stagnation of wages and salaries in places like Hong Kong. So a lot of the young people out there demonstrating really don’t feel they have much of an economic future. Another factor is people in China have done very well economically, a lot of people from the mainland have bought property here in Hong Kong so it is extremely expensive to live here and buy property and so the economic prospects for a lot of the young people demonstrating are not bright. So I think you have economic and identity and political factors combining here.
DB: Katherine Chu, Daniel Lynch suggested some of this has to do with history and with identity, in particular the idea of freeing Hong Kong, even a suggestion that perhaps we should start viewing Hong Kong as a colony or as territory that has been seized by Beijing. What ultimately is behind the younger generation in Hong Kong and their relationship with Beijing that might give a broader context to these demonstrations?
Katherine Chu: It has been twenty-two years since 1997 and the Hong Kong government has tried very hard to educate and change Hong Kong identity. For example, every night before the news they will have the national anthem, they have changed text books in schools, and right now it is not politically correct to say that Hong Kong was a colony. I recently read an article where a survey showed that people in Hong Kong under the age of thirty nearly zero percent of them believe they are Chinese, they claim themselves as Hong Kongers. So it is quite obvious, even though most young people were born after the turnover, after 1997, no matter what the Chinese government do or what the Hong Kong government try to do, the project has failed. More young people don’t feel like they want to claim to be Chinese, they just want their identity to be Hong Kongers. So this bill that was proposed in 2019 bought so many people out into the streets and we have seen the biggest protests every in Hong Kong’s history.
DB: Pradeeb Taneja, these images must be having an impact regionally as well. What are some of the perceptions in the region that would likely contrast with some of the images we are getting in the US for example?
Pradeeb Taneja: It is true that China has invested heavily, particularly after Tiananmen Square in trying to improve its soft power. I mean there has been this perception that China has a negative soft power and China has been investing very heavily in trying to improve their soft power. So I think what is happening in Hong Kong kind of plays into that narrative of China having a negative soft power because the general perception around the region is that China’s handling of dissidents within China but also particularly in Hong Kong has really been very negative for China’s image overseas. Now, we know that many governments in the region will not say anything openly, they will not criticise China openly, but in terms of the media and the general public the perception certainly is that China is incapable of dealing with the demands of the protesters in Hong Kong without jeopardising the internal stability which the CCP so cherishes. Everyone outside of China is watching with bated breath as to how China responds. We know that China has condemned the statement from the G7 summit in France. The G7 summit has of course reaffirmed the existence of the 1984 joint declaration between Britain and Hong Kong and they have also called for calm. Now the Chinese foreign ministry has condemned that statement so clearly the response to concern by the international community to the protests and the situation in Hong Kong from China, the response has been to condemn and say there are dark forces trying to interfere. Personally, I think that is not going to play very well in the international community because there is a great deal of concern among the citizens in the Asia-Pacific region who are actually looking at the Hong Kong situation with great concern.
DB: Dan Lynch, one of the concerns has been how China will respond. The nightmare scenario we keep hearing is a potential return to Tiananmen Square, or at least some version of sending in the military. What options does China have to respond to the protests and what is at stake here?
DL: This relates to your question about the region. In January, Taiwan will hold elections for the president and for the legislature. And, of course, Taiwan, is another territory that the CCP claims as a part of China even though it has been run autonomously with de-facto sovereignty ever since the late 1940s. So in order to convince Taiwan peacefully to unify with China, the CCP since the late 1970s has pursued this policy of implementing ‘one country, two systems’, just like it has tried to implement in Hong Kong as well as Macau. I was in Taiwan for seven weeks earlier this year just as the demonstrations were exploding in Hong Kong and I can say categorically that it convinced many who supported the one country two systems policy that it is now a bankrupt and failed system. Nevertheless, there is probably still some hope in the minds of Chinese leaders that if they handle Hong Kong’s current crisis successfully without using violence and force they might still be able to convince some Taiwanese to come to an agreement along similar lines. But in the meantime, the candidate that China was pushing for hardest in the election, Han Kuo-yu, he has really fumbled and mishandled his response to the Hong Kong protests. Even during the first couple of weeks he claimed he had not heard there were any protests in Hong Kong, which is quite implausible. So his fortunes have really sunk and it is now looking pretty good for the incumbent president of Taiwan Tsai Ing-wen who is the candidate of the Democratic Progressive party which has always been the pro-independence party in Taiwan. Nevertheless, Xi Jinping and China need to think very carefully about how to handle the current crisis in Hong Kong because if there is any sort of uncontrollable violence that will just then create even bigger fissures with Taiwan.
Now, in terms of what they can do: the whole Tiananmen scenario seems completely misplaced to me. That was already thirty years ago where you had demonstrators in Beijing gathering right in the centre of the city and in a way it was fairly easy for military forces to kill hundreds of them. So here in Hong Kong the scenario would be quite different. First of all, it wouldn’t likely be the PLA [People’s Liberation Army], it would be the People’s Armed Police. If they were to cross the border and come into Hong Kong they would have to deal with protesters who are displaced all over the place and who have the home field advantage. Hong Kong is a three-dimensional city, it is not just flat and on the ground, you have to go up as well, and down into train stations, so the Hong Kong protesters would have a major advantage. There is a PLA garrison that holds several thousand military personal stationed in Hong Kong. My impression is they are really more public relations type military officers and they are not armed to the teeth looking for a fight in my personal opinion. So I think the CCP will do everything it can to let the Hong Kong authorities deal with these protests which means possibly putting in place some emergency regulations that will allow the police to arrest more people and to become more aggressive in their tactics. I really don’t think with the seventieth anniversary of the founding of the PRC coming up on October 1st and then in January the Taiwan election in the context of a very tense US-China relationship that the CCP would want to introduce forces from the mainland into Hong Kong.
DB: Katherine Chu, with those potential options, whether it is the use of the police or paramilitary groups or perhaps just accepting Carrie Lam’s resignation or announcing that the extradition bill has been removed, at this point, would that be enough to stop the protests or is something larger going on and the expectation is that the protests are really not about a policy or a decision right now but about something larger?
KC: Yes, something larger, I think. The major demand is universal suffrage for the chief executive [position] and the legislative council. I think this has become the most important demand. In terms of the resignation of Carrie Lam, I think if you look at the five demands from the Hong Kong people – that is not on that list. So whether she remains in power or whether she steps down, actually no one cares because everyone knows that she is just a puppet. She doesn’t have any power to do things because right now she is just a machine and just repeats the words that are written by the CCP. We can look at the vocabulary she uses and it is exactly the same as the stuff coming out of the Chinese propaganda newspapers. So no one cares about her from the Hong Kong people’s perspective. For the future, I think it will come down to how they respond to the five demands. Number one, completely withdraw the bill, people want them to officially use the legislative language of withdrawal. Secondly, I don’t think Hong Kong people will continue to accept the language used by police and officials to describe them, words like terrorists and rioters. They have to change and then they need to back down. They need to directly respond to the five demands from the people and then I think the protests will stop.
DB: Pradeep, this is serving as a potential test case for the Chinese government to see how well they might be able to respond to these types of protests, ideally without violence. What ultimately do you think China’s response would be or should be and how important is it that China avoid any accusations of violence or manipulation and signal to Taiwan or other nations within the region that this is a different China?
PT: I agree with Katherine that Carrie Lam doesn’t really have the power. She appears from time to time, makes a few statements, but really the power lies in Beijing and whatever they want will happen. Therefore it is really astounding that these protests have been going on for three months. I remember my student activist days in India, and if you protested for a week you will get a dialogue with the government. But the government in Beijing seems to be completely tone deaf. They are not willing to engage in any dialogue, there is no potential for dialogue so far from what I can gather.
In terms of the future, I can see the continuation of Xi Jinping’s policies within China because we have seen that any opportunity for reform under Xi Jinping has been pushed back. There is no conversation, there is no talk about reform. Every Chinese leader since Deng Xiaoping has talked about reform but we have never seen such lack of movement as we are seeing now under Xi Jinping. And I think this is consistent with the internal approach to dealing with demands for political change within mainland China, that the Chinese authorities really do not know how to respond to the protests in Hong Kong. Because clearly there are significant demands in my opinion, the demands have now moved beyond the extradition bill, I think this is more about Hong Kong’s future from now on but also what happens to Hong Kong after 2047. I think the protesters want much more, they want to see elections to their legislature council, universal suffrage, they want to have a say in the election of the chief executive of Hong Kong and I don’t think that Beijing really have any response to this. They do not want to accept the demands but at the same time they seem incapable of engaging with any negotiations with the protesters.
KC: I keep thinking about the Hong Kong system, the one country two systems approach. The Hong Kong government is not a democratic government but it is not completely an authoritarian regime, they are in the middle. Right now, the protesters are demanding the government change but we all know the government does not work for the Hong Kong people, they work for the Beijing government. So this government is not accountable because it is not a democracy. We still have some form of election every four years and half of the legislative seats can be voted on by the people, so it a little bit different from the system on the mainland. The Hong Kong government is different from China but the one country two systems approach is a problem and is the root cause for these protests. This is a political institutional problem Hong Kong is facing.
DL: It sounds like we are all sympathetic to the Hong Kong protesters and Hong Kongers ambitions and desires to maintain its relatively liberal political system. But there are some worrying dimensions to the protests as well, especially some of the protesters’ anti-mainlander sentiment. For example, at a university in Hong Kong city some students were called out for chanting ‘Build the wall, build that wall’ – in other words, build a wall to wall out students from the mainland. And the thing is there are a lot of decent people from the mainland who are actually also quite sympathetic to the protests in Hong Kong. I think it is just a small minority of the Hong Kong protesters who are going that far, but I have talked with mainlanders who even say they are actually a little bit worried about going out at night because they might be targeted. There have been incidents where innocent mainlanders have been beaten up for just being a mainlander. It is similar to what goes on in Taiwan as well, the split between native Taiwanese and the mainlanders who migrated in the late-40s. It is very important to not lapse into a political movement that excludes people purely on the basis of ethnicity.
DB: One of the elements that I think Beijing had counted on as far as sentiment in Hong Kong is the fact there has been quite a bit of migration from the mainland to Hong Kong. I know in some cases it has manifested itself in violence between activists who are pro-Beijing and protesters. How tempted should Beijing be or likely will be to try to change some of the demographics by simply moving or encouraging migration from the mainland to Hong Kong. By 2047, the population of Hong Kong is going to be quite different than it is today because of migration.
KC: Right now Chinese mainlanders are immigrating every day because there is a quota system, every day there is 150 mainlanders migrating to Hong Kong. This policy started before 1997 because before then it was for family reunions. After 1997 they continued to use this as a reason even though not many families still need to be reunited. Right now we believe there is over 1.5 million Chinese mainlanders who have migrated to Hong Kong after 1997 so they already make up a big chunk of the population.
DB: Dan Lynch, what sort of an impact does this have?
DL: I think part of that is that movement has been facilitated by Hong Kong elites who are trying to stay in favour with Beijing at the expense of some of the democratic forces. Every day coming down from Xinjiang you have so called parallel traders who go to grocery stores and buy up a lot of high quality consumer goods and then take them back up into China. Every day the train stations get clogged, there are people pushing suitcases to fill up with goods. Those kinds of things sound minor but they get on people’s nerves. Let me say one other thing about that. It is not just the physical presence of people from China but you also have a large presence online and through social media. And for some reason which I cannot quite figure out, the Xi Jinping propaganda strategy through social media has been to mobilise very vicious, hostile trolls to insult Hong Kongers and denigrate them and call them dogs of the Americans and the British. I can’t understand for the life of me why the PRC propaganda strategy is to insult and malign Hong Kongers through the internet. If anything they should be doing the opposite, try to find common ground and acknowledge the position of the protesters but instead they are fanning the flames and irritating people. So if you can reign those people in online you are already going to make some progress, I think.
PT: You see this sort of fanning the flames happening in other parts of the world, particularly here in Australia. We have had demonstrations and counter-demonstrations by mainland Chinese students who are studying here and there is some really foul language being used by mainland Chinese students and I am not sure whether there is a backing for this by the Chinese embassy. But certainly in places like Brisbane there was a case where the Chinese consulate made a statement in support of those counter-protests. So it is not only the trolls but it is also the alienation that Hong Kong students are feeling from the mainland in the form of these counter-protests by Chinese students in other countries.
KC: It is very interesting as to how the Chinese government is using this kind of propaganda. My argument is it is a form of soft power. Usually we use the term soft power to describe foreign policy but when the Chinese government has this kind of propaganda campaign, actually the major target for them is domestic, and not the international community. The major target is Chinese and it is done through social media because most young people in China do not read the newspapers and they do not watch television news. CCTV is propaganda so they do not watch it, most young people watch online media because there is less regulation from the Hong Kong government so there is more freedom of speech. So the propaganda Beijing uses is mostly for the mainlanders, the people who speak Mandarin, the people who use Chinese media.
DB: Ultimately, viewing this from the outside, what kind of impact can international actors have on these ongoing protests? Are we observers or are there tools that could be in place for international actors?
DL: There is something very specific going on right now in the US. In 1992 the US passed the Hong Kong Policy Act which granted Hong Kong a special status in international economic and legal terms apart from the mainland which is what allows Hong Kong to play such an important role in the overall Chinese economy. And then, in June of this year, Congress introduced a new Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and that reinforced the act of 1992 and threatened to withdraw some of those special privileges depending on how events unfolded. This is something the US government is considering as a way to put pressure on China to handle Hong Kong carefully. And this is completely bi-partisan, both Democrats and Republicans agree that Hong Kong should be allowed to advance its liberties and they agree on opposing strongly any sort of forceful mainland intervention in Hong Kong.
DB: I would assume the ongoing trade war and the White House’s view of China would complicate that?
DL: Everything’s complicated by the White House these days. But you had Nancy Pelosi in the House and Mitch McConnell issued statements as early as June and both are in agreement that the Hong Kong crisis has to be taken very seriously. Eventually if this new act passes it would go to the desk of President Trump and we will just have to wait and see what he might do. But so far he hasn’t done to badly on this issue, he has been generally restrained, he praised Xi Jinping for handling it well. I don’t think he has mishandled Hong Kong yet so I am somewhat optimistic he will continue to play as positive a role as he is capable of playing in a situation like this.
PT: One of the consequences of China’s economic rise has been its growing interdependence between themselves and other countries in the region. In Australia, for example, the government is very cautious about saying anything about the Hong Kong situation apart from calling for calm and that is largely because Australia is one of the few countries that runs a trade surplus with China. And although China looms large in much of the public discourse in Australia and there has been a great level of concern expressed by civil society organisations about the situation in Hong Kong, the governments in the region are very cautious about what they will say and not say about Hong Kong. Ideally I think if this situation is to be resolved peacefully you would expect that governments in the region would have to lend a degree of support to the protesters. But unfortunately because of these economic concerns, governments are very reluctant to do anything about it.
DB: How do you think these protests end? Is there a peaceful end? Will there be some forceful end? How do you see the relationship between China and Hong Kong developing into the future?
DL: I don’t know. I don’t think anybody knows exactly how this will end. I imagine things are going to become even more tense. It is not just a matter of withdrawing the bill formally or even having Carrie Lam resign, you are always going to have some people who want democracy and full universal suffrage and so on. But I think the vast majority of protesters will be nullified, at least temporarily until the next provocation from the government. So if Xi Jinping wants to have a smooth and peaceful seventieth anniversary of the founding of the PRC, if he wants some hope of having pro-China candidates winning in Taiwan, and if he wants to manage the US-China relationship he will restrain himself and possibly find a way to allow Carrie Lam to make concessions.
PT: I agree with Dan. It is very difficult to predict how China is going to respond to this situation. I know what I would like to see happen: I would like to see China engage in dialogue and that should lead to some of the demands being met, some progress being made. And, in fact, in the long run, it will be good for China too, because China has long had this policy of having these enclaves where they conduct experiments on economic policy. I always thought after 1997 that Hong Kong would actually provide a platform for some conversation about political reform in China also. So in the long run I think it will be good for China to begin this dialogue in Hong Kong and perhaps that could have implications for political reform in China.
KC: I think to answer this question we need to divide it into different levels. First of all, a lot of people are adamant in their belief that Hong Kong will never return back to the past after this movement. The relationship between the Hong Kong people and the Chinese people I think will only grow further apart because our identity will get stronger and stronger. There is a strong feeling that right now they are Hong Kongers and they do not want to bother with China. Most of my friends just want to stay in Hong Kong, they do not want to leave, they want to stay there because they consider it their home. So from the individual level, I think the identity of Hong Kongers is even stronger and finally after many years people have regained their identity because we know we are Hong Kong people and not Chinese. From the government-level, I think right now it is quite obvious this is an authoritarian regime and this government is nothing, it just works for Beijing. They are trying to read this as an economic issue but it will not work because most Hong Kong families are quite well off. This is a political issue and it comes down to the one country two systems policy. So I think for the government they need to tackle this issue because the current system does not work now and it will not work in the future.
This interview was originally aired on the Scholars’ Circle. To access our archive of episodes and download this interview click here.