Protests Spotlight Hong Kong's 1 Country, 2 Systems Model With China Recent protests are a reminder that Hong Kong has long been considered a thorn in Beijing's side. NPR's Noel King talks to David Rennie of The Economist about Hong Kong's relationship with Beijing.

Protests Spotlight Hong Kong's 1 Country, 2 Systems Model With China

Protests Spotlight Hong Kong's 1 Country, 2 Systems Model With China

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Recent protests are a reminder that Hong Kong has long been considered a thorn in Beijing's side. NPR's Noel King talks to David Rennie of The Economist about Hong Kong's relationship with Beijing.


This morning, under pressure from demonstrators, Hong Kong's leader, Carrie Lam, apologized for how she's handled a debate over a recent bill on extradition. But she did not resign, which protesters had demanded. For the past two weeks, millions of people there have been out in the streets to protest this law that would allow Hong Kong residents to be extradited to mainland China. They say their freedom is at stake. And to understand why they say that, it helps to understand recent history. For more than a century, Hong Kong was a British colony. It was given back to China in 1997 with a promise that people in Hong Kong could enjoy political freedoms for another 50 years. And ever since then, Hong Kong has operated under a model called one country, two systems. But over the years, Beijing has tried to narrow the gap between those two systems, and this extradition bill is part of that.

David Rennie is with The Economist in Beijing. We reached him via Skype. David, how does Beijing - how does mainland China view Hong Kong and this one country, two systems deal?

DAVID RENNIE: So Beijing has basically made an offer to the people of Hong Kong that if they're willing to give up on dreams of greater democracy, they can be part of China's amazing economic rise, and they have offered them more integration with the kind of boom cities on the other side of the border in the mainland. The problem is that again and again and very dramatically over this extradition bill, the people of Hong Kong have said, no. They do not want that trade off. They actually are willing to protest and fight hard to maintain those freedoms that they still have.

KING: So it's not even as though these protesters in Hong Kong are fighting for additional freedom. They're just saying we want to keep things the way they are. We don't want to see an erosion of the freedoms we do have.

RENNIE: That's right. I think it's important to be realistic. I mean, this has been an absolutely extraordinary - at times, very moving - protest by over a million people - overwhelmingly peaceful, very civic-minded, lots of different generations coming together. That's a fantastic thing and utterly unthinkable where I'm sitting in Beijing on the mainland - could never happen. But they are not about to get more democracy. They're not even about to get more freedoms. This is a defensive set of protests to keep what they have.

KING: Interesting that you point out this would be very, very unlikely to happen in China. It makes me wonder, do the protests in Hong Kong pose any threat to China's leadership, to President Xi Jinping, to the Chinese Communist Party? Are they worried about this?

RENNIE: They're worried about all these things inasmuch as the censorship machine here has been making sure that most Chinese people have not seen images of these extraordinarily large protests unless you have a way of getting hold of the foreign Internet...


RENNIE: ...Had you wanted to see these images. You had to have heard about it. You're just seeing brief news reports saying that foreign powers, especially the United States, have been provoking riots and dangerous behavior in Hong Kong for their own selfish reasons - those kind of terse news bulletins. But on the social media that the Chinese exchange every day that they love on their smartphones, any hint of searching for news that Hong Kong is immediately shut down by the censors.

KING: So the U.S. is being blamed on mainland China. The U.S. does have a lot of financial interests in Hong Kong. The State Department has expressed grave concern over this extradition law. It says there are more than 1,300 U.S. firms with operations in Hong Kong, about $80 billion in U.S. investment, 85,000 American citizens. Are U.S. businesses operating in Hong Kong likely to be affected by all of this?

RENNIE: They certainly would have been if this law had gone through. I mean, in essence, what this proposal was was that for the first time ever people in Hong Kong, whether foreigners or locals, could be sent for trial by being extradited to the mainland, and the mainland's courts are explicitly under the control of the Communist Party. They are not independent courts. They're not meant to be independent courts. So that caused a gigantic backlash from even rather meek and mild business groups...


RENNIE: ...That hate getting involved in politics.

KING: These protests are happening as China and the U.S. fight a trade war. And I wonder, do you think it would help if the U.S. did openly support the protesters? Could they, should they?

RENNIE: They kind of did. And you saw, for example, the speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, who has a long track record of being pretty hawkish on human rights in China - she put out a statement saying that maybe it was time to review the special legal status that Hong Kong has had since 1992 that America basically treats Hong Kong as kind of a bit like Canada or Australia or Britain when it comes to things like trade and immigration - very different from the rest of China. She sent a kind of shot across Beijing's bows that if they keep chipping away at Hong Kong's freedoms, maybe that will have to be revisited. And I think that was one of the reasons that the powers that be in Beijing quietly told the government in Hong Kong to ditch this and move on.

KING: How do you see Beijing managing these protests internationally? How is it managing its international reputation? You mentioned that it backed off when the United States took notice. Is there any - are there any other countries that China is looking to take cues from?

RENNIE: I mean, tragically Britain, which is the former colonial power as you said in your intro, has been incredibly wet in terms of responding to this because Brexit Britain is not in a position to give lessons to anyone. In fact, it was just busy signing a trade agreement with China this week, hardly said a word about these protests. So really the reason that Beijing told Carrie Lam, the chief executive in Hong Kong, to ditch this is more or less because if you're sitting in Beijing looking at sort of the blinking red lights on their dashboard of trouble - they got a trade war with Donald Trump, they've got trouble in North Korea, they've got a slowing economy domestically - this is just one worry too many. That's why they decided to ditch it. But I would love to say that pressure from people like Britain and other European Western countries was part of their calculation, but really it was led by America.

KING: If Beijing could have its way, David, what do you think they would want to do with Hong Kong? What would they want from Hong Kong?

RENNIE: Well, we know they would like Hong Kong to basically focus on money and making money and not worry about politics at all. That was the model. I mean, it's a comparison that Beijing would hate. But the truth is they basically treat it like a colony. It used to be a British colony. It's now a colony of China. And like any well-behaved colony, you're meant to focus on getting rich, making money and not worry about politics.

KING: And David, just briefly, what happens in 2047, 50 years after Britain hands Hong Kong back to China? What happens then?

RENNIE: Well, then the promise of one country, two systems falls away, but the truth is they're going to try and chip away as in all kinds of small and subtle ways before then. We're also going to see probably more mainland immigration into Hong Kong - would be one way of diluting Hong Kong's kind of will to resist. But let's not underestimate an amazing thing that happened. There is a piece of China that gets free press, that knows what's happening, that is allowed to protest - not allowed where I'm sitting in Beijing - and they said, no, and the government backed off. And that's an absolutely extraordinary thing that can only happen in Hong Kong.

KING: David Rennie is the Beijing bureau chief for The Economist. Thanks, David.

RENNIE: Thank you.


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