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Hong Kong's Leader Backpedaled, But Here's Why The Opposition Movement Continues

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Protesters demonstrate outside the Chief Executive Office on Monday in Hong Kong.
Anthony Kwan, Getty Images

Protesters demonstrate outside the Chief Executive Office on Monday in Hong Kong.

Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam has apologized publicly twice for proposing a bill to allow extraditions to mainland China, and now other senior officials have followed suit.

But a week after the legislation set off massive protests, the largely youth-driven opposition movement is keeping up its demands. Protest organizers are urging Lam to permanently withdraw the bill and resign.

Yet the issue has laid bare a broader crisis beyond the extradition bill. Hong Kong is reckoning with its tricky relationship with the Chinese authorities in Beijing, in a clash between two starkly different systems.

Britain returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, under an agreement — "one country, two systems" — that allows the city to keep its capitalist economy and common law system untouched until 2047.

Initially following the deal, China dealt with Hong Kong with a light touch because of the city's financial power. "You didn't want to kill the goose that laid the golden egg," says Jeffrey Wasserstrom, a historian of China at the University of California, Irvine.

A major appeal of doing business in Hong Kong is its special arrangement that connects it to the Chinese mainland and other Asian markets, but with its own legal protections. That includes forbidding the extradition of criminal suspects to other parts of China, a crucial part of what safeguards Hong Kong from the country's Communist Party-controlled judiciary.

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But, following a murder case in Taiwan, Lam attempted to change the rule by proposing the extradition bill — triggering some of Hong Kong's largest protests in decades. Under public pressure, the leader shelved the bill but did not kill it. Protest organizers say they will confer with pro-democracy lawmakers to plan their next moves.

Many Hong Kongers realize the territory's semi-autonomous system not only protects them but has contributed much to China's rapid economic growth.

"We have been providing the largest amount of foreign direct investment to China" for most of the past four decades, notes Hong Kong opposition lawmaker Alvin Yeung. He tried unsuccessfully to meet with Lam last week, to persuade her to scrap the extradition bill.

But a decade ago, as Western economies reeled from the 2008 financial crisis, other Chinese cities began catching up with Hong Kong. Hong Kong's economy, as a proportion of china's GDP, fell from 27% in 1993 to less than 3% in 2017.

Much of the flow of capital reversed: Money from the mainland started flooding into Hong Kong real estate and its stock market, one of the largest in the world.

Beijing has worked to integrate Hong Kong, Macau and the rest of the Pearl River Delta into an economic mega-region. Chinese leaders argued that, as demand from Western markets dried up, Hong Kong's best bet was to bind itself more closely to mainland Chinese markets.

These developments strengthened the hand of China's leader Xi Jinping, as he consolidated power, silenced dissenting voices, modernized the military and extended the country's global reach through diplomacy and infrastructure projects.

Under Xi, Beijing insisted on vetting candidates for Hong Kong's leadership. Hong Kong's government, meanwhile, jailed the leaders of 2014 pro-democracy protests, disqualified opposition lawmakers, banned a pro-independence party, and effectively expelled a Financial Times editor who hosted an independence advocate at a speaker luncheon.

Hong Kong's government also offered no explanation when five sellers of political books disappeared from Hong Kong and Thailand in 2016, only to resurface in Chinese custody.

Hong Kongers widely perceived Beijing's hand as being behind these moves, despite the lack of hard evidence.

China under Xi has emphasized the central government's authority while downplaying Hong Kong's autonomy. When the one country, two systems policy expires in 2047, it seems Beijing intends to take control of a city that has already been tamed and emptied of any serious resistance.

Beijing has long perceived Hong Kong as a base for anti-Communist subversives, and a haven for fugitives from the mainland who often abscond with large sums of money.

In a speech last November, a Chinese army general and National Defense University professor named Xu Yan warned fellow educators about what he viewed to be Hong Kong's threat. A video of Xu's speech has been widely viewed in Hong Kong, and interpreted as a sign of Beijing's intent to subjugate Hong Kong.

Citing military surveys, Xu said two-thirds of Hong Kong's population fled revolution, famine and poverty in mainland China, mostly during the 1950s and 1960s, and is therefore hostile to the Communist Party.

Edmund Cheng, an assistant professor at Hong Kong Baptist University, notes that Chinese have sought refuge in the city from authoritarian regimes in China for centuries, stretching back to the Song (960-1279) and Qin (221-206 B.C.) dynasties.

"They came here to the periphery to experience and enjoy a different path of life," he says. China has long considered Hong Kong to be on the periphery of the empire, and on the fringes of the civilized world, much like other borderlands, such as Tibet, Manchuria and Xinjiang.

Xu's prescription: replace British colonial-era textbooks with Chinese ones, to inculcate Hong Kong youth with Beijing's views. Xu asked his audience of educators in Chengdu, China: "How can we not decolonalize" Hong Kong?

Cheng thinks Xu has a point. "Unless you change the education system, you're not going to completely change Hong Kong," he says.

Rather than trying to win over Hong Kong people's hearts and minds, Beijing has largely accused foreign governments and media of inciting unrest in Hong Kong, in an effort to stymie China's growth — an argument that protesters against the extradition bill generally scoff at.

Besides, Cheng argues, the people of Hong Kong are not really intent on subverting the mainland.

Hong Kong people did "want to spread liberalism, maybe in the 1990s and early 2000s," he says, "but because of the shift in political and economic power between the mainland and Hong Kong, I think that most Hong Kong people think that is not going to be feasible."

Many young Hong Kong residents do not identify with the mainland or even as Chinese, according to polls. Some of them argue that mainland Chinese themselves show scant interest in democracy, so Hong Kongers should focus on defending their own endangered liberties — which is exactly what they have been doing in response to the extradition law.

In Cheng's view, Hong Kongers need no organizers or agitators to respond instinctively to Beijing's assault on their values. "People certainly know what they're fighting for, and why they need to fight for it," he says. "And that is precisely because [it is] embedded in Hong Kong people's culture and history."

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