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Hello. Our colleague Vivian Wang helps you make sense of the Chinese crackdown on Hong Kong.
The Chinese crackdown on Hong Kong has unfolded quickly: a rising power has asserted his authority on a global financial capital, through a tough national security law enacted last summer.
It’s one of the most important stories in the world, but often overshadowed by the pandemic. This morning, I am focusing on Hong Kong, with the help of my colleague Vivian Wang, who is based there. Our conversation follows.
David: Britain ceded control of Hong Kong to China almost 25 years ago, and there has long been a pro-democracy movement there. Why did Xi Jinping and the rest of China’s leaders decide to act now?
Vivian: The short answer is the huge anti-government protests in 2019, in response to a government proposal that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China.
The scale of the protests has really shaken Beijing. All previous protests had lasted a few months at most. This time there was huge support, and it didn’t die out on its own.
Beijing officials also hated that foreign politicians, like those in the United States, had been so supportive of the protesters. Beijing is seriously concerned that Hong Kong could serve as a base for foreign powers to try to overthrow the Chinese government.
From Beijing’s point of view, has the crackdown worked? And has it created problems for the central government?
In many ways, it absolutely worked. There are no more street demonstrations. There is extensive self-censorship. Virtually all prominent pro-democracy activists are in exile, in prison, awaiting trial or have disappeared from public life.
But there is a lot of latent anger among Hong Kongers, even if they no longer dare to express it publicly. They continue to shop at stores and restaurants that they believe support the democracy movement. That’s why we see Beijing continuing to push. She clearly doesn’t think, and I rightly think, that the threat has passed.
As for the consequences, the crackdown has drawn international condemnation and the United States has imposed sanctions on Chinese and Hong Kong officials. The question is how much China cares. At the moment, he seems to think he’s ascendant enough to overcome this.
Is the goal to turn Hong Kong into another Chinese city – a city politically indistinguishable from, say, Shanghai – or do the leaders still want Hong Kong to be distinct?
The framework that has always been used to describe post-handover Hong Kong is “one country, two systems”. Many people understood that the “two systems” part was twofold: not only was Hong Kong capitalist while China was socialist, but Hong Kong was also relatively free politically, while the mainland was not.
Chinese officials always insist on their commitment to “one country, two systems”. But their goal appears to be to maintain Hong Kong as a separate hypercapitalist system, not to retain its separate political identity. Many Hong Kongers have long said they expected their city to eventually become another mainland metropolis.
I find it hard to see how this story ends with anything other than the victory of the Chinese leadership and the defeat of the pro-democracy movement. Do members of the movement see reason to be optimistic?
Since the promulgation of the security law, the atmosphere within the pro-democracy movement has been gloomy. I expected at least some people to offer a fiery challenge and remind people that there is still hope – if only a rallying cry, whether they believe it or not. But fairly regularly among people I talk to, the consensus is that there’s not much they can do to change the situation, at least for now.
That’s why you see a lot of people getting ready to go abroad. And not just wealthy Hong Kongers with dual citizenship – people with no experience outside of Hong Kong or who don’t speak much English do it too.
Chinese leaders also consider Taiwan part of their country. But Taiwan, unlike Hong Kong, has an independent government. How do you think Hong Kong affects Taiwan?
Many people see Beijing’s actions in Hong Kong as a harbinger or laboratory for more aggressive actions in Taiwan. It’s all part of an increasingly confident Chinese government that feels it can take those risks.
At the same time, the crackdown is likely driving Taiwanese public opinion away from Beijing. In the past, Beijing has also proposed reunification with Taiwan under a “one country, two systems” model. Many Taiwan residents can watch Hong Kong and see how it happened.
For more: Edward Wong, a Times correspondent who has spent nine years reporting on China and covering protests in Hong Kong, recommends two episodes of ‘This American Life’ – 2019’s ‘Umbrellas Up’ and ‘Umbrellas Down’ from 2020.
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