Hong Kong’s Political Plight: An Interview with Hong Kong DPA Correspondent Erin Hale
I interviewed Erin Hale (@erinhale), an American freelance journalist who writes for Deutsche Presse-Agentur (DPA) in Hong Kong, as she has been covering the anti-extradition protests on a daily basis. She was previously based in Cambodia for three years, and her works have been featured in South China Morning Post, The Independent, Forbes, and many other news outlets.
While the demonstrations did not initially resort to violence, the police began using rubber bullets and tear-gas on June 12th, which has since incited protestors to vandalize governmental buildings, erect Lennon Walls, and create blockages to traffic-heavy locations like the Hong Kong International Airport. What makes these protests different from past demonstrations in Hong Kong such as the 2014 Umbrella Movement?
The Umbrella Movement began in 2014 following a decision of Beijing’s Standing Committee about universal suffrage in Hong Kong. That made people very angry, and so they came out and protested but ultimately it failed. A lot of those pro-democracy and anti-government feelings have been idling in the background as things have taken a worse turn. The entire city has watched leaders from the Umbrella Movement go on trial, and evidence suggests that there has been an increasing amount of Chinese interference in Hong Kong affairs, which includes booksellers from Causeway Bay getting abducted off the streets in late 2015 and Chinese security agents detaining Chinese tycoon Xiao Jinhua from a Hong Kong hotel room in January 2017.
In April, nine leaders from the Umbrella Movement finally went on trial; two were sentenced to prison. This really comes to show that even before June, the atmosphere in Hong Kong was depressing. Additionally, there had been a protest against the proposed extradition bill in April with over 120,000 people in attendance, which I went to, and at the time, it was big by Hong Kong standards. Residents saw the extradition bill– which was supposed to be passed this summer – as a final sign that they are losing their autonomy, which was promised to them until 2047 under the Sino-British Joint Declaration.
Something changed in these protests a few weeks later, and I was not surprised, because when I went to the Tiananmen Square commemoration on June 4th, many residents were already talking about how this would become a big show.
As of late, Carrie Lam has not been entirely vocal about these mass demonstrations, though she had indicated on multiple occasions that she would be willing to resign. If it were solely up to her, do you think that she would have resigned by now?
Carrie Lam would have probably resigned, and there was a Financial Times article that hinted that she tried to resign three times, but it cited unnamed sources. Her resignation would have gone a long way to diffusing the protests. The problem for Beijing is that there cannot be a direct link between the protests and the resignation of a Chief Executive, because it would show that democracy is effective, which to them, would be an unspeakable disaster. We say that Hong Kongers “vote with their feet.” For a short while, the thinking was that maybe Lam would wait for eight months, and then resign for health reasons. Some past executives have resorted to this. If you look at the 2003 case of residents marching against the national security legislation, the then Chief Executive Tung Chee-wah was so embarrassed by the outrage that he resigned for health reasons two years later. The other issue is that she has no clear successor, so if she were to resign, they would need to find someone to take her place.
Recently, China’s Ministry of Culture and Tourism has decided that it will no longer issue individual travel permits to Taiwan for leisure purposes. Additionally, Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen has been incredibly vocal about her solidarity with the Hong Kong protestors on her social media pages. While the upcoming election in Taiwan is several months away, do you think that the ongoing mass protests will help her get re-elected in January 2020?
I definitely think that these protests have been a huge win for Tsai-Ing wen. While people in the West really like her, my understanding is that a lot of young Taiwanese citizens are deeply concerned with Taiwan’s domestic economy because of low wages and the high percentage of youth unemployment. As a result, many prefer the Kuomintang, closer relations to Beijing, and economic opportunity over Tsai Ing-wen. That being said, the Hong Kong protestors have shown that China is not trustworthy, because when they came up with the “One Country, Two Systems” framework in the 1980s, the British and Deng Xiaopeng, were sort of talking to Hong Kong, but Beijing was really signaling a message to Taiwan. Beijing wanted to let Taipei know that if they reunited with the mainland, Taiwan could remain independent, and Beijing would not infringe on their political autonomy. Hong Kong got this deal, and through these demonstrations, we can see that Beijing is incapable of honoring this “promise.” I tweeted a photo of a protestor’s sign, which said “‘One Country, Two System’ is A Total Failure” in English, and a Taiwanese news outlet contacted me immediately, asking if they can use it, which to me, is pretty telling.
On June 13th, the co-chairs of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, Congressman Jim McGovern, and Senator Marco Rubio reintroduced the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. In your opinion, what are the chances of this bill becoming law, and how do Hong Kong residents feel about the U.S.’ response, or lack thereof, to their political plight?
Recently, a lot of Hong Kongers have been carrying the American flag while protesting, not necessarily because they particularly like Trump, but because they are trying to grab U.S. attention to get this law passed. I am not sure if it will become law, but I think this will become a bargaining chip for the ongoing U.S.-China trade war. On the one hand, you have U.S. congressional members, mostly Republicans, who are pushing to get this law passed, but on the other hand, Trump wants to finalize negotiations with Beijing. It’s quite possible that Trump may not sign this bill as a concession to Beijing, so I would say don’t hold your breath on that one.
At this point in time, it is quite clear that China will not capitulate in exerting hegemony over Hong Kong. If these demonstrations do not recede in the near future, do you think that the “One Country, Two System” agreement between the mainland and Hong Kong will become null and void before 2047?
Most protestors think that this system will die before 2047. I think that it will stay in place officially, but we will see more interference from Beijing’s liaison office unless of course, there is a monumental change in the mainland’s political system, which could happen. This and the trade war are Xi Jinping’s two main crises, and if he can’t resolve this, the CCP may find someone to replace him, but this is very speculative. In the next twenty years, we will see a lot of foreign businesses departing Hong Kong, and its place in the world will slowly decline. China already has Shanghai and Shenzhen, and Hong Kong was mainly important in the 1980s and 1990s when China initially opened up its markets. This is most likely the beginning of a long decline for Hong Kong.