August 11, 2021
In just a few years, the Chinese government has wiped out the political freedoms once promised to Hong Kong. How did this happen, and what is next for the city? On the show this week to help answer these questions is Notre Dame professor and Hong Kong native Victoria Hui. Check out her twitter @victoriatinbor and learn more about Hong Kong’s fight to keep its autonomy at https://hkdc.us/
117 — What Happened in Hong Kong? with Victoria Hui
Speaker 1 [00:00:22] Hello everyone and welcome to Factually. I’m Adam Conover, thank you so much for joining the podcast once again, to listen to some astonishing new perspectives from experts from around the world of human knowledge. It’s my greatest pleasure to learn from them, and it’s my great pleasure to bring the things that they had to say to you. So let’s jump into it. This week I’d like to talk about a topic that would be one of the biggest news stories in the world if it weren’t for COVID 19 and everything else that’s happening around the world. It’s something that’s gotten a fair amount of attention, but maybe not quite enough (especially in this country). I’d really love to shine a light on it and give you a little 101 on what exactly is going down and why it is so important. Let me start with my own personal experience: a couple of years ago, I had the pleasure of traveling to Hong Kong. Travel, as I’m sure you know, is wonderful. It’s a really wonderful thing to be able to do. I was privileged to be able to do it. When you travel, you get new perspectives about the world. You can start to understand a place on the ground level, in a way that you can’t until you see it with your own eyes. I was transfixed by Hong Kong. It is one of the most unique and special cities in the world, and a lot of that is because of its completely unique history. See, Hong Kong as a city was ceded to the United Kingdom by China after the first Opium War in 1842, and it was ruled by the British for over a century. In that time, it transformed into a mega city and a major node of global finance. And also during that time, the rest of China (the Chinese mainland) became ruled by the Chinese Communist Party in the 20th century, while Hong Kong was ruled by the British. And as a result, Hong Kong developed a completely different civil society and political culture than the rest of Mainland China. Hong Kong became more capitalistic than the mainland. It had its own legal system. The judges there literally wear wigs as though they’re British, and it eventually evolved a more democratic system of government with rights to free expression (what we would think of as First Amendment rights here in the U.S.) and rights to assembly and some measure of democratic rule. Now, none of that is to whitewash the incredibly destructive legacy of colonialism. Colonialism is very, very bad. But the unique civil society and political culture of Hong Kong is incredibly special, and it’s something that the people there are very, very proud of. But the unique political, culture and civil society in Hong Kong is very, very special and it’s something that the people there are incredibly proud of, and you just feel it when you walk around the city. What a special place it is. But pretty much as soon as I left Hong Kong in early 2019, things there started to change shockingly quickly. See, after the British handed over Hong Kong to China in 1997, the city had an agreement with the mainland government in Beijing that it would continue under a regime known as ‘One country, two systems.’ This would allow Hong Kong to keep its separate, more democratic, freer political system and culture while allowing it to remain a part of Beijing. But over the last two years, the Chinese government has been stamping out this arrangement. Following pro-democracy protests that began in Hong Kong in 2019, the mainland government has been wiping out the freedoms and the uniqueness that defined the city, step by step. Pro-democracy newspapers have been forcibly shuttered by the government. Pro-democracy activists and even elected officials have been imprisoned or fled the country because they felt that they would be imprisoned. It’s been stunning to watch this happen over the course of just twenty four months. You know, I left Hong Kong feeling ‘This is a city that I would love to come back to again, that I’d love to visit more over the course of my life.’ But now I know that when I go back, it will be completely different. That so much about what made the place special will be forever changed. How did this happen and what is next for this city? Well, here today to talk with us about it and help us understand, we have a fantastic guest. Her name is Professor Victoria Hui. She’s a professor at Notre Dame and a native of Hong Kong. And she speaks so movingly about what happened in this city and what is happening in China right now. I was incredibly moved by this conversation, and I hope you will be too. Without further ado, please welcome Professor Victoria Hui. Victoria, thank you so much for being here.
Speaker 2 [00:05:07] Thanks for having me here.
Speaker 1 [00:05:09] So look, there’s been a lot of news about Hong Kong in the news over the last several years and something that I followed as best as I can. But it’s a very hard issue to understand if you don’t understand the political context; the history of Hong Kong and why it is such a unique place in the world. There’s really no other place like it sociopolitically. Could you give us a little background on why that is, what the history of the place is and how we got to today?
Speaker 2 [00:05:40] Yes, the important thing to keep in mind is that Hong Kong was a British colony. So first of all, after the first Opium War then the Hong Kong island was ceded to the United Kingdom for perpetuity. Then after the second Opium War across the Victoria Harbor, the Kowloon Peninsula was also ceded the to the United Kingdom. And then in 1898, another piece of territory called ‘the New Territories’ was leased to the United Kingdom for 99 years. The lease was about to expire in 1997. So this kind of laid down the foundation for the return of Hong Kong to China in 1997. And then when the lease was coming to expire, a lot of the local property developers were like, ‘What? We can’t even sell lands anymore because we don’t know when the leases are going to come due. What do we do about 1997?’ And therefore, they pressured the Hong Kong government to bring up this issue with London and Beijing. Margaret Thatcher at the time, she thought that, ‘We are running Hong Kong so well, maybe we could actually convince the Chinese leadership that we’re just going to return sovereignty to China, but will maintain administration over Hong Kong.’ Then Xiaoping at the time wanted none of that. He said ‘We’re going to take back Hong Kong. Whether you like it or not, we’re just going to do that.’ And with that emerged a kind of balance of forces. Essentially, Beijing had a strong hand and London had a very weak hand. They finally negotiated and signed British-Chinese joint declaration and throughout the negotiation, the Hong Kong people were completely shut out. Finally, the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed in 1984. It came actually as a relief to a lot of people because it promised Hong Kong a ‘One country, two systems model.’ It promises Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong. It promises that Hong Kong would continue to enjoy a high degree of autonomy and that all the persisting rights and freedoms would remain unchanged. Then Xiaoping (this is not in the documents) would then go around traveling to different world capitals saying that, ‘Oh, don’t worry guys, the only thing that’s going to change is the change of the flag. Nothing else would change. You guys can continue to live the life that you enjoyed.’
Speaker 1 [00:08:26] Because Hong Kong (I want to give a little more context here) was under British rule for so long, an entirely different political culture and really social culture grew up in the city compared to the rest of China. It was a century or more of British rule. And so in many ways, the people of Hong Kong became very used to having a very democratic, liberalized capitalist society. And so there’s a concern when becoming part of mainland China that, ‘Hey, what’s going to happen to the culture of this place?’ Right?
Speaker 2 [00:09:05] You are certainly right. This is why there was so much anxiety. I still remember in the early 1980’s when the two sides were negotiating, Hong Kong people panicked. And I remember seeing that there were bank runs in Hong Kong. People were wondering what the future was going to hold. This is why, when the Sino-British Joint Declaration came out, it was a big relief for many people. And of course, Hong Kong people were not so stupid. They were a bit skeptical about whether Beijing was going to keep all their promises. But then, if you’re not given the choice, you’re not really given any say on what is possible and what is not acceptable. ‘This is the only thing, take it or leave it.’ And then so many people (including myself) at the time were like, ‘OK, this is what we have to live with.’ And at the same time, also that joint declaration promised that Hong Kong people would be able to rule Hong Kong. That essentially also gave rise to this Hong Kong democracy movement. Well, the future is going to be written by us. So in the mid-1980’s, there was also this flourishing of civil society and political groups trying to really rise the future because the Sino-British Joint Declaration would have to be turned into a Basic Law; Hong Kong’s mini constitution, but promulgated by Beijing only. I should note that Hong Kong, by that time, enjoyed a lot of freedoms but not quite democracy. So this is why the emergence of a democracy movement was really stimulated by the Sino-British Joint Declaration. A lot of people would say that the British are so hypocritical. You keep talking about democracy, but you didn’t get really give Hong Kong people democracy. I want to add that every step of the way, whenever Britain wanted to introduce some measure of democracy to Hong Kong, Beijing would object. So immediately, in the mid 80’s, Hong Kong people were mobilizing to try to get democracy because people already understood at the time that the freedoms and rights that Hong Kong people were enjoying at the time would not really be protected without democracy. So the United Kingdom began to introduce a representative government in Hong Kong. But then Beijing objected, and then the UK backed down.
Speaker 1 [00:11:29] So to me it sounds like the really important part, is that Hong Kong had a very distinct political culture at this point that there are these freedoms, rights, a civil society. I assume you had professors writing about the importance of democracy and free speech and young people who who want a free society. You’ve got a free press, you’ve got a civil society and that was something that folks in Hong Kong were worried about: making sure it was protected. When this agreement is signed, saying, ‘Hey in 50 years, mainland China is going to completely absorb the city.’
Speaker 2 [00:12:14] Well, so one thing also that is important is that then Xiaoping himself was asked many times ‘Why for 50 years only, why the one country two systems model for 50 years.’ A lot of people also say that, ‘Well if Hong Kong is supposed to be absorbed by China by 2047, if you’re going to die then it doesn’t matter too much that you die earlier, right?’ At the time Xiaoping said, ‘Well, why for 50 years? It’s because we expect the rest of China to catch up with Hong Kong after 50 years. So that there will be no more need to protect Hong Kong from the mainland system.’ So in the mid-1980’s, the mood from Beijing was all reassuring. So then another thing that’s really monumental was the tenement pro-democracy movement and the crackdown in 1989. The Basic Law was promulgated by Beijing itself in 1990, but the year before there was Tiananmen in China.
Speaker 1 [00:13:19] The Tiananmen Square incident, yeah.
Speaker 2 [00:13:22] A brutal crackdown. So all around China, there were still a lot of students and activists and just young people protesting and trying to ask for some liberal political changes in China. And then the crackdown was very, very harsh. In Beijing, the People’s Liberation Army roll out the tanks to crush the people. And then in the rest of China, there was also a very brutal crackdown. Before the crackdown, the Hong Kong people poured through the street to support the protesters in China; they donated money, donating a lot of those camping tents that people were using in Tiananmen Square and elsewhere. Then after the crackdown, the mood in Hong Kong was ‘If they could do this to their own people today, what would they do to us?’ So there was a slogan: ‘Today’s Tiananmen, tomorrow’s Hong Kong’ that gave further inspiration and impetus to Hong Kong people to step up for the call for democracy. Again, Hong Kong people from day one understood that without democracy, the freedoms that they enjoy then would not really be protected in the future. Beijing learned the opposite lesson. They became so fearful that Hong Kong was going to be a subversive base to overthrow the Chinese Communist Party, and therefore, from day one, they were like, ‘We are just going to really stop any call for democracy along the way.’ The Sino-British Joint Declaration promises Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong. So we have to prepare for Hong Kong people to rule themselves and they try to introduce representative democracy. But a lot of those efforts were shut down by Beijing. And so it did happen, but in very, very baby steps, a very small percentage of seats up for election and just with very, very gradual progress over the years.
Speaker 1 [00:15:29] Hmm. Well, so tell me about the pro-democracy movement that arose in the last few years. This is decades after the joint declaration saying that there would be one country, two systems; where Hong Kong and mainland China would have separate political systems for 50 years. A few decades into that, this massive pro-democracy movement arises. Some really inspiring protests, I felt. What caused those protests to arise at that time?
Speaker 2 [00:16:03] A lot of people, especially the international observers, have really noticed the massive outpouring of resistance in the street in 2019. People were protesting against an extradition bill that would have allowed anyone who who happened to be in Hong Kong and Hong Kong territory to be extradited to China. At that time for a lot of people, the rule of law was the only pillar of freedom left standing to protect Hong Kong people from the mainland system. Now, the law was very scary to many people. So if you just happen to be transiting in the Hong Kong airport and somehow Beijing said ‘I want you,’ the Hong Kong police could then just take you across the border. And Hong Kong people were so fearful
Speaker 1 [00:17:02] And they would try you under a different legal system, right? Because if you were tried in Hong Kong, you’d be tried according to one set of laws and guidelines and judges. But then if you’re extradited to the mainland, it’s a completely different legal system.
Speaker 2 [00:17:15] Yes, exactly. By 2019, a lot of the judges had actually been bought up by Beijing because, some of them are loyalists and they got promoted, whereas those who insist on professional standards were sidelined or marginalized or dismissed or they were retired. Their positions were filled by loyalists. But for the most part, most of the judges by 2019 were still very professional. If you are subject to the mainland’s ‘justice system,’ then it’s just the party that calls the shot. Whoever the party was, essentially you can be detained without trial. You can be detained for a very long time. You are certain to be convicted. And why it’s also important and why 2019 was called the last stand, was because all these other pillars of freedom have actually been eroded over the previous two decades, since 1997. By that time there was still one print pro-democracy newspaper. But the main TV stations had been getting – people used the term ‘homogenized,’ in the way that the managers became very pro-Beijing or a lot of the ownership was just really bought by Chinese interests. And then at universities – professors tend to be very professional, and tend to insist on their independence. But then universities also began to hire lots of pro-Beijing scholars. And most of all, university councils were stacked by all of those loyalists because it is always the chief executive of Hong Kong who appoints members to these councils. And then we mentioned earlier about the very slow, gradual progress toward democracy. There were direct elections and then people did have some partial rights to vote. But the Legislative Council was designed in a way that pro-democracy voices would always be in the minority, that they could make a lot of noise but they would not be able to actually make any real changes, and they would not even have enough votes to block any kind of government bills. At the same time, we talked about civil society. We tend to think of civil society as these pockets of autonomy, the independence of government authority. They really can organize to make the society work better to advocate democratic norms, except that Beijing also was promoting a lot of these pro-regime, non-government organizations. And whenever there were pro-democracy protests, you would have counterprotests by these pro-regime groups. And so Hong Kong really was basically subject to (pretty early on) slow motion erosion. But then there was also this outbreak of the Umbrella Movement that also really made it to international news in 2014, and after that Beijing really stepped up its erosion of Hong Kong’s freedoms. So in 2019, everything just came to this boiling point. Thats why we saw so many people out in the street and why it was so explosive, why it lasted for so long.
Speaker 1 [00:20:56] Well, I can imagine that if you were a young person growing up in Hong Kong, this might be very frightening. I when I visited Hong Kong, I felt I really related to the city. It reminded me a lot of New York in many ways where it’s a very, very vibrant place. Really boisterous: civil society, media everywhere, people, businesses, et cetera. Capitalist hub, a big center of finance and also a huge number of educated people and a really strong civil society. And if that’s the society that you grow up in but you know, ‘Hold on a second in just a couple decades, we’re going to become part of this other country. Right now, I’ve got a Hong Kong passport but pretty soon I’m not going to have that. Right now, I was taught by a professor who taught me about, freedom of the press or things like that. Those values. But oh, that professor was just fired and they’re replaced with somebody else,’ that slow erosion. You’d be like, ‘I’m going to be living in a different country than I grew up in a couple of years.’ I imagine it feeling that way. And that’s a very Twilight Zone, strange, strange feeling. I can understand why one would protest but at the same time, I also know that the mainland government is not going to budge on those things. So that’s really a recipe for a huge conflagration.
Speaker 2 [00:22:26] You are quite right. So for people in my generation, I was a teenager when I watched on TV, the signing of this British joint declaration in 1984. For us, 50 years (the year 2047) was so distant because we knew that we weren’t going to live to that date. But for young people who grew up after the handover, after 1997, they are fighting for the future. In 2047 means something to them, they would still be in their prime. This is why young people have been at the forefront of the first movement of 2014 and also the entire extradition protest of 2019. In fact, even before that, a lot of people are also familiar with, for example, Joshua Wong. There’s a documentary about him called Teenager vs. Superpower. He came of age and began his activism when he was barely 15, because the government wanted to impose patriotic education on Hong Kong. And he was like, ‘We have to fight for our future.’ And he got together with some other young people. Very sadly, today Joshua Wong and his other buddies (especially Alex Chow) are all in jail.
Speaker 1 [00:23:49] Wow. Well, tell me about what we’ve seen happen over the last year, because as much press as the protests got in 2019 (and like I said, very inspiring to see those protests happen and to see people take power that way), what’s happened over the last year has been very disheartening. And if you could tell me about those events?
Speaker 2 [00:24:16] Yes, such as this what you said earlier that for a lot of people, we grew up thinking that we live in a city that should enjoy its autonomy, that should have Hong Kong people ruling Hong Kong. There should be one country, two systems and that there should be all the pre-existing rights and freedoms that should continue. But no. Last year at 11pm on June 30th, Beijing promulgated a national security law and imposed it on Hong Kong. And from then on, people get arrested for speech, for just essentially criticizing the government. I mentioned earlier that Joshua Wong and Alex Chow, they have been arrested. They were actually arrested and detained and sentenced for ‘crimes’ that they ‘committed’ during the 2019 protests. Because in Hong Kong, if you want to protest, you have to get a ‘no objection’ permit from the police. The police can render any protest illegal by just not granting the permit. And so they are arrested and sentenced under those draconian, colonial era laws. But at the same time, they are also subject to the national security law. They have been charged with subversion of state power. And some people have also been charged with collusion with foreign forces. And under the national security law, essentially Hong Kong has just become like the rest of China. In all the other places, the independent judicial system that we talked about: people are entitled to presumption of innocence and innocent until proven guilty, that people should be given bail before they get their sentence, before they are convicted. That people are entitled to lawyers, that kind of thing. So a lot of these actually are denied. People who are charged under the national security law, many of them do not even get bail. Many of them have been just detained for months without knowing when they are even going to actually go through the judicial procedure. And also in that year, Hong Kong’s only pro-democracy print newspaper, the Apple Daily, was forced to shut down on June 24th.
Speaker 1 [00:26:51] That was the most shocking news to me. There had been plenty of shocking news: pro-democracy protesters being arrested, pro-democracy legislators resigning in protest. But then to have a newspaper shut down for being a pro-democracy newspaper, for the crime of having that point of view, and editorial writers and reporters being arrested. That is very dark. It’s a series of very, very dark events.
Speaker 2 [00:27:27] Yes, and the Apple Daily has always been a sore in Beijing’s eyes because through all those years, whenever there were protests, Apple Daily would have extensive coverage. And very often they would even have inserts that would be protest slogans. So you buy the Apple Daily and then you can go to protests and just open up the paper to the center page. At the same time, they were also a very effective mobilizer and because it was the only pro-democracy print paper – The owners of all these other media organizations all got smart and they sold their interest to Chinese interests, or they learned to self-censor. But the Apple Daily was the only one that refused to do so. So Jimmy Lai, the publisher, was arrested already last year and then recently the top executives were also arrested. And the first, they were granted bail, and now they’re denied bail. Another striking case of mass arrest, was that last year there was an effort to coordinate for a scheduled election, originally scheduled for early September 2020. And people were trying to coordinate their votes, they organized a ‘primary,’ basically, it’s just really coordination. It’s done by the government, but they essentially are the pro-democracy candidates. They were interested in for running in the elections, and they wanted to make sure that they would not run against each other so that they could actually win the most seats. They organized a primary in July and everyone involved got arrested. Or if they didn’t get arrested, they went into exile, and the government said that that amounted to subversion of state power. Now, if you tried to run for election (and those elections actually provided for in the Basic Law promulgated by Beijing) why is that subversion of state power? Essentially, this just tells us that Beijing does not tolerate any kind of dissent.
Speaker 1 [00:29:51] You can run for office. You can participate in an election, as long as you’re on the right side. That’s all it means.
Speaker 2 [00:29:57] Essentially. And what is really scary, is not just that a lot of people (I think about 130 people) are charged under the national security law; the subversion of state power, for collusion with foreign forces, for committing quote-unquote terrorism. And the definition of terrorism is so broad that it can include – For example, there’s this case on the courts now, that someone was just riding a motorbike and with liberation flag that said, ‘Liberate Hong Kong, Revolution of our times’ and because the police were throwing something to hit him and then he swerved and hit a few police officers and the Justice Department accused him of committing terrorism. So this is what terrorism means in Hong Kong. In addition, it’s not just that those who participated in the primaries were arrested and that most of them were denied bail. The government also ‘postponed’ the scheduled election. And now, when they said that they are going to allow the elections, they also completely changed the electoral rules so that you also have the national security unit of the Hong Kong police vetting every single candidate.
Speaker 1 [00:31:14] Wow.
Speaker 2 [00:31:16] And so, there’s no way that anyone with any slight at leaning toward the pretense of democracy could go through this vetting process. On top of the Legislative Council in November 2019, at the height of the entire extradition protest, the district council elections were held as scheduled. And all the pro-democracy candidates, most of them won and they won in a landslide, controlling most of the local district councils. It was in that background that the pro-democracy voices were optimistic that they could actually do better with the upcoming Legislative Council election. But that also meant that Beijing said, ‘Wait, we’re not going to allow any elections at all.’ So they changed the rules for the Legislative Council election, they arrested, detained and denied bail to all of those pro-democracy candidates. They also made district councilors make a pledge and say they are going to disqualify all of those who are not loyal, who are not patriotic enough and people were so scared. And they also spread this information that whoever gets disqualified, will have to pay back all the compensation and all the expenses from day one, which will amount to two million Hong Kong dollars. But a lot of these are just really young people, some of these united district councilors, are students with no money. So essentially forcing people to go bankrupt. With that, a massive wave of resignations took place, only in the last two weeks as well. So Hong Kong, in all aspects have been turning to just like the rest of China now.
Speaker 1 [00:33:12] And this is terribly sad, I think, because first of all, the idea of having a ‘election’ where if you run on the side of democracy, of wanting more democratic reforms, you’re literally arrested and thrown in jail. That’s not an election in any way, shape or form, but also to see so many people in Hong Kong take the risk of running, take the risk of protesting and be arrested for it and to say ‘This is important to us’ and to have a mass movement in the streets of so many people. I mean, how many people total protest were there? Are there figures?
Speaker 2 [00:33:53] So on June 9th, 2019, one million protested. Hong Kong’s population is about 7.4 million. Beyond that, so a week later, two million and then on August 18th, about 1.7 million protested. Now people say that organizers exaggerated these figures. We have a very concrete figure of people who voted in the district council elections in November 2019, and the number of people who voted for pro-democracy candidates is about 1.7 million (1.6. something like that) essentially more than one fifth of the population.
Speaker 1 [00:34:38] So those are people who are doing so knowing they’re taking a risk to their well-being to do so. So you can imagine how many people are in support, but didn’t feel that they could join the protests or make those votes. So that’s a mass movement. That’s an incredibly large mass movement, to have one fourth or one fifth of the population of any city do anything is an enormous mass movement. So to see that, and to still see it be so brutally repressed by the mainland government is very sad, especially when it sounds like there’s no justification for the actions that the mainland government took other than to simply squelch that political culture of freedom and democracy and let everyone know this is not welcome. This is not something they’re going to allow to exist. There’s no terrorism, there’s no other country asserting itself. This is an overt attempt to squash a democratic movement and nothing else, is it not?
Speaker 2 [00:35:41] You’re absolutely correct. And in a way that the brutality, the harshness of the crackdown, the national security law, the electoral changes, the massive arrest without bail; I think that it all amounts to the fact that Beijing is very worried, not just about the 130 who are already arrested under the national security law. And also on top of that, over 10,000 people were arrested during the anti extradition protest from the beginning of June 2019 to early 2020. So it’s not enough to just put all of these people behind bars: known front liners and known protesters and some of them actually got arrested just because they happened to be walking past a protest site. But once they know that the entire society, that a significant portion of the population supports the protest. This what I would call a war on the society, a war on the people. On top of arresting these people on top of arresting pretty much the entirety of the opposition camp, but also make sure that these 1.7/2 million people do not even have the right to choose whoever they want any more in the future. And more than that, because these people are pro democracy and therefore we are going to silence them: if you see anything on Facebook, if you see anything on social media, if you teach your students in classes anything that supports democracy and if the Hong Kong student union has expressed some support for the guy who who stabbed a police officer and then kill himself on July 1st is, a few weeks ago and just express some sympathy and all of these are not allowed. And just two days ago, they arrested even people who drew student cartoons explaining the entire extradition protest, using the wolf to represent Beijing and the sheep to represent the Hong Kong people. Beijing does not even allow any kind of dissent because they want to completely whitewash what happened and make sure Hong Kong, the majority of Hong Kong people, would then be turned to loving the motherland.
Speaker 1 [00:38:09] Wow. Well, I have so many more questions for you about this. I want to talk about the international response and I want to talk about where Hong Kong goes from here. But we have to take a really quick break. We’ll be right back with more of Victoria Hui. OK, we’re back with Victoria Hui. So we discussed how the mainland government’s repression of democratic culture in Hong Kong, how brutal and shocking it is. And this, to me, is the kind of issue that I think really animates people often in the United States. But I was surprised by how muted the response was, in my view. Certainly there were a lot of articles in the paper about it. But there weren’t a lot of American politicians out banging their fists saying, ‘We have to protect democracy. We have to encourage freedom.’ These are pretty basic American values, right? The values of a liberal, free civil society where whole large segment of the world claims to stand for those values. And you know, to me, the the response wasn’t what I expected. Why do you feel that is? And how does it speak to the relationship between the Chinese government and the other countries of the world?
Speaker 2 [00:39:45] There are two layers to that question. One is that in a way that China has a lot of economic clout. We have seen that all these different countries, especially European countries and Asian and Middle East and Latin American countries, they’re all beholden to Beijing because they are dependent on Chinese investment. And also, recently, Chinese vaccines. And so this is one reason why the international response has been muted. And even in the U.S.. Essentially a lot of U.S. businesses, they still think that China is still the future when it comes to making profits. But with that said, I do want to say that the U.S. response, especially from the top and with the media actually has not been that muted because the New York Times, The Washington Post, the CNN, BBC, Al-Jazeera and all these many international news organizations have had extensive coverage of what’s been going on in Hong Kong since 2019. And also with the terrible news that come out of Hong Kong every other day, every other week, there’s been actually ongoing international media attention to how events unfold in Hong Kong. Congress actually passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act in November 2019. It is a revision of the U.S. Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992. The 1992 law was a response to the Xiaoping’s promise that Hong Kong would be different. It was going to be a separate system, one country, two systems. And therefore, the US agreed to treat Hong Kong as separate from the rest of China for customs purposes and for all the economic and trade benefit purposes. And so for a long time, a lot of technologies that were banned from exporting from the U.S. to China could actually be imported to Hong Kong. But what happened is that Beijing has taken advantage of that. A lot of Chinese companies will set up their operations in Hong Kong. Imports do use technologies to Hong Kong, and they turn around and take them across the border. Hmm. And and then also last year, the U.S. State Department for the first time decertified Hong Kong’s autonomy after Beijing announced that it was going to impose a national security law in Hong Kong, even before the actual law was promulgated on June 30th.
Speaker 1 [00:42:30] And then the United States said, ‘According to our estimation, officially, Hong Kong is no longer an autonomous city because of all events that transpired there.’
Speaker 2 [00:42:41] Right. And we should also add that the Secretary of State Blinken, in his first ever diplomatic meeting with his counterparts in Anchorage, he brought up Hong Kong and brought up Tibet and Xinjiang. And that got into a shouting match. And then Congress is also looking into a safe harbor act to give asylum and refugee status to the Hong Kong people. Already in the 1980s, Hong Kong people were lobbying for the UK to grant Hong Kong people citizenship in the UK. The UK refused to do that. They agreed to grant only 50,000 passports to basically Hong Kong’s elite and top civil servants. But. Again, once Beijing announced that it was going to impose a national security law in Hong Kong, Britain open this door to up to 3 million Hong Kong people with the British National Overseas passport, which until that moment was merely a transit travel document without any right of abode. But Britain said that ‘We’re going to change our policy. Whoever is entitled to the British National Overseas Passport could just come to the UK. You have five years to find a job, to settle down and then apply for full citizenship.’ So the world and Canada is also opening it’s doors. Australia is also opening its doors, so I think the world is responding. What’s happens is that there’s just very little the world can do to stop Beijing’s very, very increasingly brutal crackdown on Hong Kong.
Speaker 1 [00:44:23] Yeah, I mean, if you’re not going to start a war, it’s a difficult, it’s a difficult thing to intervene in. And the amount of power that the mainland government has can be seen in -I think one of the that this made the most press in the United States is when we saw American companies bending to the government’s narrative on this. There was this huge controversy with the NBA when an NBA executive tweeted ‘Fight for freedom. We stand with Hong Kong.’ And while a bunch of young players were there in China at the time, and you could see the response that some of the players, were not willing to voice support for him or voice support for Hong Kong because some of them had movies that we’re going to come out in China, that they needed to do well. We’ve seen example after example like this, that’s been very, very disheartening; people and organizations not standing up or in fact, helping do the the mainland government’s job for economic reasons because of the immense power economically that the government has. That’s been disheartening to see.
Speaker 2 [00:45:58] Exactly. Essentially, Beijing has been really using its economic clout to coerce other countries and also coerce multinational companies. But things are changing. So what I’ve also been arguing is that Beijing’s ideal model for Hong Kong is capitalism without freedom. Beijing wants to take advantage of Hong Kong’s status as an international financial center on par with (as you mentioned earlier) New York and London, and at the same time stifling all their freedoms. But it seems that very harsh crackdown is going to really hurt this model. Just a few days ago, the US government’s Defense Department issued a joint advisory to U.S. businesses in Hong Kong that you have to be very careful because the national security law will require that you hand over data. If there are sanctions on certain entities, then the employees would be subject to sanctions, will be subject to arrest. Even their family members could be arrested. Beijing has been trying to use its economic clout by forcing a lot of these multinationals companies to choose: you either silence yourself and stand with China, or you stand up for your principles and criticize China. Now that the US government and maybe, hopefully some other Western democratic governments will also say, ‘These companies, you cannot have it both ways. You have to follow our laws as well.’ The globalized world is really going to get more and more decoupled because Beijing is making people choose. And at the same time, the U.S. government is also responding by making companies choose. So it seems that Beijing, with this very harsh crackdown, is really eroding its financial status. And I would say that Hong Kong was once on par with London and New York City, but now it’s just going to be like Shanghai and Shenzhen and these other Chinese cities.
Speaker 1 [00:48:13] That’s really fascinating, because I had wondered, ‘As soon as the joint declaration was signed, why didn’t the mainland government come in and do all this on day one, right? Why wait a couple of decades?’ My understanding was partially that it’s a hub of capitalism, there’s all these banks, and Hong Kong is the place where Western multinationals come to China, and one of the reasons they do that is because of the more liberalized atmosphere and culture. And it’s a little bit more understandable place for their western (for their European or American employees, et cetera, et cetera) and they didn’t want to disrupt that system. But it sounds like they’ve said, ‘OK, well, I guess we just need to disrupt it.We’ll take the consequences of the crackdown’ and there will be consequences.
Speaker 2 [00:49:06] Also what happened in the 1980’s, was that Beijing needed Hong Kong at the time. At the time, Beijing was basically just trying to catch up with the U.S. and then but now, 30 years later in China has caught up with the U.S.. Economically, militarily, even in terms of importance in their standing with international organizations. China controls a number of U.N. organizations and commissions, and so therefore Beijing feels that they can kill Hong Kong but people actually want to do business in Shanghai and Shenzhen. And in fact, the interim American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, the latest survey they did was that 42 percent of the respondents said that they were thinking of moving out of Hong Kong. Now this is a very high percentage. But what is also striking is that 58 percent continue to think that they wanted to continue business in Hong Kong. Several days ago, after the US government issued this advisory, the AmCham and a lot of US businesses in Hong Kong were like, ‘Well, we don’t really need this advisory, you’re making things harder for us.’
Speaker 1 [00:50:25] Hmm. Wow. So there’s a lot of businesses that are still willing to look the other way or not speak up and say, ‘OK, we don’t really care about the repression. We’re just going to continue making some money here.’
Speaker 2 [00:50:40] Mm hmm. Or they tried to have the cake and eat it, too. ‘We do want to stand the for the good cause but at the same time, making money but at the same time being accountable to our shareholders is just as important.’
Speaker 1 [00:50:54] Yeah. Well, let’s talk about the future because that’s certainly something that I have a lot of questions about. When I visited Hong Kong, I went to (I forget the name of the museum) a museum. I think it’s called the Hong Kong Museum or something. It’s a museum about the city, and it was one of the most remarkable museums I’ve ever been to because it was a museum about the history of the place from prehistory to now. Like, ‘Before humans Hong Kong had dinosaurs or whatever, and then there were prehistoric humans.’ I’ve never been to a museum that went all the way from prehistory to today of a single spot. And it gave me such a view of how special a place it is, that because of the history of British rule (which I’m sure there are many negative things that you could say about) and because of that very unique history, a completely unique culture sprung up in the place. I really loved experiencing it and have thought a lot about it since. And it’s very saddening to see this happen. Do you think that very unique culture will persist? Or do you think that Hong Kong is going to be fundamentally changed now, as a place? What do you think about the future of the democracy movement?
Speaker 2 [00:52:17] Hong Kong’s status as an international financial center on par with New York City in London, that’s going to be gone. Hong Kong as a place that used to have its own separate judicial system and it’s pillars of freedom, that’s just gone. Hong Kong is just going to be incorporated. People already call Hong Kong ‘The Southern Shenzhen,’ because Beijing also has this policy to incorporate Hong Kong into the Greater Bay Area. So Hong Kong as the place that we used to know it is going to be gone. Hong Kong as a place is just going down the drain. But Hong Kong as a set of values; Hong Kong as this idea that we fight for freedom and democracy, that persists. So even if teachers cannot really talk about the protests or anything that is critical of the government anymore in the classroom, parents continue to talk to their kids at home and people continue to light to fire in their heart in their own homes. I remember talking to people from the former Czechoslovakia, and I said, ‘How did you know about all of these things about the Prague Spring, [for example]?’ They said, ‘Because our parents, relatives and family would always just keep the fire alight,’ so as long as people inside Hong Kong and outside keeping the fire alight, I think that there is a future. And at the same time, we’re also seeing a lot of people who can afford to leave. They are leaving. There’s so many sad, teary goodbyes at the airport and farewell dinners. So Hong Kong people also carrying and spreading this message. So the Hong Kong diaspora is really growing exponentially and they are not keeping quiet. Unlike previous migrants, that would just get a job and make money and shut up. ‘We don’t care about anything,’ but these people are very active in in Diaspora politics, lobbying their respective governments. So, for example, I myself co-founded the Hong Kong Democracy Council, and we are very active in lobbying Congress when it comes to when the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act and the Safe Harbor Act to provide refugees and asylum status to Hong Kongers. So this is one layer, another layer that you talk about is the museum. I think this is a great thing. I’m so glad that you went to the museum because one thing that the Chinese like to say is that ‘We Chinese have 5,000 years of history.’ This is what they go back to. It’s built in, this idea that they have this long history. But most importantly, the last exhibits in the museum still retain a lot of information on the diversity and the uniqueness of Hong Kong’s culture, and also as a crossroads between China and the rest of the world. This hybrid cultural piece of land that was simultaneously Chinese and British. What is happening now is that the museum is closed and before it was closed, people stood in long lines to try to see the last glimpse of this basic, latest version of Hong Kong history because everyone knows that when they reopen the Museum of Hong Kong history, everything is going to be changed. It’s going to be a glorification of the Communist Party. Hong Kong used to be this site where, for example, Dr. Sun Yat Sen, who launched his revolution against the last Ching Dynasty. Hong Kong was always this refuge of revolutionaries. People are fearful that all those different chapters of history that today’s Beijing doesn’t like will be erased. This is part of this imposition of patriotic education and the ratio of Hong Kong’s uniqueness
Speaker 1 [00:56:52] That makes me so sad. I hate to be the white American guy who’s like, ‘I visited a place once and I feel like I understand it.’ But that museum really had a really strong impact on me. The fact that it is closed now and isn’t going to reopen the same way, I didn’t know that until you said that. That’s terribly sad because it was a very beautiful thing. I love your optimism about how the fire will stay lit. And I believe that. But this story contradicts the story that we like to tell in America about democracy and freedom. Our version of the story is that when people rise up and you have a mass movement, that’s how democracy starts. That’s how freedom flourishes. Around the world, that story has not gone the way that we think it should. If you think about the Arab Spring and there’s other examples around the world. I think this is one of them. I don’t know. It’s it’s it’s hard to it’s hard to feel heartened by it. It’s easy to be depressed by it.
Speaker 2 [00:58:20] I think you’re quite right that a lot of Hong Kongers, whether they’re still in Hong Kong or outside. I think Hong Kong people as a whole experience post-traumatic syndrome and many people actually suffer from depression. A lot of my friends are like this. And so it is definitely true. But what is interesting is that I think not just in Hong Kong (in the rest of the world but also in the U.S. as well) which is the struggle for democracy. One thing is that it’s not just about bottom up pressures, it’s also matters what regime leaders choose to do and how they react to Bottom-Up pressures, because change always basically is both top down and bottom up. And again, this is something that we actually have witnessed in American politics as well. And therefore, we should be a bit more more sober about the prospect of democracy. This also means that why a lot of people are kind of shocked about the state of democracy in the United States is because, very often that people take for granted that if you have a lot of people with the right to vote then of course democracy is stable and it is going to be solid and safe. But no. Change can come from the bottom up and change can come from the top down.
Speaker 1 [00:59:42] It’s a fair example that, the United States is becoming and has become less democratic over my lifetime. According to objective measures, that’s the case and certainly over the events of the last few years. And it’s not something that we can take for granted. The movie version, where people go pump their fists in the air and then everything is OK because we all raised our voices is too simple and you can’t just expect that it’s going to work and take it for granted. You have to actually pay attention to the specific systems, to the real systems that we build and to what leaders do. But you still remain optimistic despite despite all that backsliding that we’ve seen, not just in Hong Kong but also in the United States, you’re still optimistic.
Speaker 2 [01:00:36] I’m optimistic about American politics, because it seems to be self-correcting, in the sense that if people are willing to defend it then I think it is self-correcting. When it comes to Hong Kong, this is why sometimes I wear two hats. One is that I am a political scientist, and so I see the writing on the wall. As a political scientist, it is really hard to be optimistic. But I’m also from Hong Kong. I need to believe that we just have to keep up with the fight and keep up with the struggle and then one of these days, things are going to get better. If you have no hope and whatever you do is going to be futile, then you’re not going to try. Now San Suu Kyi is a controversial figure. But I remember her saying something before that so long as we do not give up, we haven’t failed.
Speaker 1 [01:01:38] Yeah. The thing that is so inspiring about the people of Hong Kong is how many people have not given up, how many people stood up to fight for their future. As many laws are being passed about what those people can and cannot say and what newspapers they can and cannot read, in their hearts they still are not giving up. And that’s a very, very beautiful thing.
Speaker 2 [01:02:14] Yeah. As someone from Hong Kong and also because I’ve been criticizing the national security law and because I have formed a lobby group – Just today, the Hong Kong Democracy Council was formally sanctioned by Beijing
Speaker 1 [01:02:31] You’re group was?
Speaker 2 [01:02:31] In an issued statement, yes.
Speaker 1 [01:02:33] Congratulations. That’s a great honor.
Speaker 2 [01:02:34] Yes. This is how we know we’re doing the right thing. Even if the situation in Hong Kong is going to continue to go downhill and I think that it is, especially because Hong Kong has become just a police state. We have the police who are in command. They basically control the government and at the same time, they are persecuting all the opposition leaders while sheltering people who are pro-regime. But yet at the same time, there are still things that we could do: providing shelter to people who want to be in Hong Kong and keeping a close watch. Like this podcast; as you said the more Americans and the rest of the world pay attention to Hong Kong, the more Beijing will think twice. The reason Beijing could do such horrible things in Xinjiang was that the world just kept looking the other way. So if the world refuses to look the other way and continues to support Hong Kong, I think that things may continue to go bad. But at the same time, there is still hope there.
Speaker 1 [01:03:39] Yeah. And we haven’t even been talking about the things that happened in Xinjiang, but because that’s an entirely different podcast episode and I don’t want to omit that, but I love that message. So for folks listening who want to – Look, it’s very difficult to be able to have an effect sitting in America on events like these. But for folks who want to be supportive or at the very least, want to learn more, what what are some next steps that they can take?
Speaker 2 [01:04:10] I do talk a lot and get interviewed a lot. So if people could just follow me on Twitter.
Speaker 1 [01:04:23] We’ll put the link in the show description.
Speaker 2 [01:04:25] OK. And then also follow the work of the Hong Kong Democracy Council. We got this, you know, as you said, seal of approval.
Speaker 1 [01:04:34] And also when an American company looks the other way or doesn’t stand up for the values of democracy, you can yell at them. I think you should yell at them on social media. I try to yell at them and I appreciate it when other people do too. That is a line that we have. Companies that are in America and do business in America, are doing business in China as well. They respond to pressure from people here. That’s at least some way that we can make our voices heard to some degree, I think.
Speaker 2 [01:05:09] I think this is a very, very excellent point because a lot of these companies, like Nike just recently said that they love the China market. American consumers make a point that you either make money in China or you make money from Americans and the rest of the democratic world. You have to make this choice. And then I think Nike will make the right choice.
Speaker 1 [01:05:34] Yeah. And I agree, and the same goes for American movie stars. We can’t have it both ways, people have to take a stand. We need to take a stand individually and we need to ask those who we look up to to take a stand as well. Well, Victoria, I can’t thank you enough for coming on to talk about it and for the good work that you do and for giving us all this overview. This has been wonderful. I can’t thank you enough.
Speaker 2 [01:06:07] Thank you.
Speaker 1 [01:06:13] Well, thank you once again to Professor Hui for coming on the show. I can’t thank her enough and I hope you got as much out of that interview as I did. It was really moving and I think you could tell I got actually a little emotional at a couple of points. So yeah, thank you again to her. Wow. That is it for us this week on Factually. I want to thank our producers, Chelsea Jacobson and Sam Roudman. Our engineer, Ryan Connor. Andrew W.K. for our theme song. The fine folks at Falcon Northwest for building me the incredible custom gaming PC that I’m recording this very episode for you on. You can find me online at AdamConover.Net or @AdamConover wherever you get your social media. Thank you so much for listening, and we’ll see you next time on Factually.
July 26, 2022
How can we best help animals, when it’s we humans who cause their suffering? Animal Crisis authors Alice Crary and Lori Gruen join Adam to explain how the same systems that hurt and kill animals also harm humans. They discuss the human rights abuses that happen in industrial slaughterhouses and how palm oil monocrops are devastating the world’s rainforests. They also share how we can have solidarity with animals in our daily lives. You can purchase their book at http://factuallypod.com/books
July 19, 2022
In times of turmoil, it can be useful to take a longer view of history. Like, a LOT longer. Paleontologist and author of “The Rise and Reign of the Mammals” Stephen Brusatte joins Adam to explain how mammals took over the Earth hundreds of millions of years ago, and why we survived and achieve sentience when dinosaurs died out. Stephen goes on to discuss why taking a deep look at our history can help prepare us for the crises of the near future. You can purchase Stephen’s book at http://factuallypod.com/books
July 13, 2022
Trans people have existed as long as, you know, people have. But the barriers to legal inclusion and equality are still higher than most people realize. “Sex is as Sex Does” author Paisley Currah joins Adam to discuss why institutions have been slow to give legal recognition to trans identities, why Republicans have shifted their attacks from bathroom policies to trans youth in sports, and why the struggle for trans equality is tied to feminism and women’s liberation. You can purchase Paisley’s book at http://factuallypod.com/books