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Ho-fung Hung is the Henry M. and Elizabeth P. Wiesenfeld Professor in Political Economy in the Department of Sociology and the Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at the Johns Hopkins University. Professor Hung researches on global capitalist transformation, nationalism, social movements, and Chinese development. He is the author of the award-winning Protest with Chinese Characteristics (2011) and The China Boom: Why China Will Not Rule the World (2015). His analyses of the Chinese political economy and Hong Kong politics have been featured or cited in The New York Times, The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg News, BBC News, The Guardian, the South China Morning Post (Hong Kong), Xinhua Monthly (China), and People’s Daily (China), among other publications.

In April 2020, the SAIS Europe Journal spoke with Professor Ho-fung Hung on the evolving situation in Hong Kong, where protests have taken place since last year.

The following transcript was edited for brevity and clarity.



SAIS Europe Journal:

Many recent protests around the world are tied to economic distress or inequality. This does not seem to be the case in Hong Kong, where demands have centered on political representation. Nevertheless - have economic or class-based grievances played some role in driving protests?



Ho-fung Hung:

The demands of the Hong Kong protesters are mostly political, including universal suffrage, investigation of police violence, or even broader appeal for self-determination of Hong Kong. There are also surveys showing protesters come from diverse socio-economic backgrounds. But it is generally believed that certain economic grievances are behind the protests. One of the grievances is about the increasing domination of Chinese capital in the local economy. Beginning in the fall of 2019, when some protesters turned to more disruptive tactics such as vandalizing shops and property, the storefronts of Chinese companies and Chinese state-owned banks were often the targets. Before the protests erupted, there was a lot of discussion about the expanding monopoly of Chinese companies in different realms of people’s everyday lives. This rising monopoly not only means diminished opportunity for local young people (for example, Chinese financial firms that now dominate Hong Kong’s financial sector tend to hire those with a mainland Chinese background), but it also helps to extend Beijing’s political control (a few state-owned bookstores and publishers now enjoy monopoly status in the local book business, and they have been openly exercising censorship of what books can be published and sold). To many young protesters, the expanding economic monopoly of Chinese companies is part of a "colonization" process that they are resisting.



SAIS Europe Journal:

How much support do you think other countries (the US or UK, for instance) can realistically provide to the protesters’ cause? Would this support be counterproductive?



Ho-fung Hung:

Verbal or moral support by foreign governments does not help most of the time. Some might think it is counterproductive, as the suspicion of "foreign intervention" would harden Beijing’s stance on protesters. But I don’t believe the "counterproductive" consideration is crucial, as Beijing has been constantly suspicious of foreign intervention behind any dissident voice and would crack down hard on dissenting acts anyway, as many protests in mainland China and in Hong Kong that had no foreign involvement and little foreign sympathy in the past show.

Even though Beijing invariably talks tough against "foreign intervention," international attention on the status of liberty and autonomy in Hong Kong does constrain Beijing’s options on how to crack down on the Hong Kong protests. Since the inception of protests last summer (and in the Occupy movement in 2014), there has been a lot of fear and speculation that Beijing would deploy the PLA [People’s Liberation Army] to enter Hong Kong for a bloody crackdown. But so far, the PLA has been remarkably restrained, and Beijing has been reliant on the Hong Kong police force to control the situation through less than lethal (though still brutal) forces. The head of the PLA garrison in Hong Kong even reportedly offered a guarantee to its US counterpart that PLA would not leave its barracks to intervene in the handling of the protest. Beijing worried a PLA mobilization over Hong Kong would create an unduly international reaction that would jeopardize Beijing’s interests in Hong Kong. After all, Hong Kong’s role as China’s offshore financial center hinges a lot on the international recognition of Hong Kong as a separate entity vis-à-vis mainland China on capital control, trade policy, and immigration. The US has specific laws – the US-Hong Kong Policy Act and now the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act – stating that the US would revoke its recognition of Hong Kong as a separate customs territory should Washington decide that Hong Kong is no longer sufficiently autonomous from Beijing. As such, Beijing’s crackdown has to be carried out without jeopardizing Hong Kong’s internationally recognized status. International attention and sympathy of Hong Kong protesters are,therefore,essential and do pose constraints on Beijing.



SAIS Europe Journal:

A constant issue in the confrontation between protesters and Hong Kong authorities has been police brutality. Anger over the police’s disproportionate use of force and unaccountability strengthens protesters’ claims. Do you think there will be moves to rein in the police or hold them accountable?



Ho-fung Hung:

Back in the colonial days before the 1970s, the Royal Hong Kong Police Force used to be very brutal and corrupt. It took spontaneous riots by youngsters in 1966 and a CCP-instigated insurgency in 1967 to force the colonial government to take serious action and reform the police force in the 1970s. By the 1980s, the police had become a clean, law-abiding, and professional body widely respected and admired by Hong Kong citizens. The Police Force after 1997 inherited this late colonial legacy. But scandals in recent years and the disproportionate brutality, as well as alleged collaboration between the police and gangster organizations which employed mob violence against protesters, have swiftly destroyed the reputation of the police force, as public opinion surveys repeatedly show. This is undoubtedly reversible, and reform and restoration of that reputation are definitely doable, as was the case in the late colonial period. But I’m not optimistic. With the deployment of the PLA out of the question, the HKSAR government, as well as Beijing, have only the police force to rely on in repressing local dissent, which will surely grow. The authorities are likely to give the police a free hand to do whatever they see necessary to root out protest, which has resulted in escalating use of confrontational and even violent tactics. A vicious cycle is already happening. 



SAIS Europe Journal:

The media entrepreneur Jimmy Lai and two Hong Kong politicians were arrested during what was considered a peaceful protest. This seems to break with the past practice of arresting only activist leaders or those in obvious breach of the city’s ordinances. What does this reveal about the Hong Kong and central government’s evolving strategy?



Ho-fung Hung:

Beijing's policy on Hong Kong is becoming increasingly hardline. It is not only about Hong Kong. Beijing’s postures in Xinjiang, toward Taiwan, over the South China Sea, and toward the US and other countries, are all becoming more aggressive and confrontational. It is a shift across the board under Xi Jinping. In Hong Kong, radical, confrontational protests used to be quite marginal. Still, with the crackdown on the moderates and on advocates of peaceful protest, Beijing is making the radical and confrontational voice more mainstream. Polarization and escalating conflict will be the consequence, and this is worrying.



SAIS Europe Journal:

To what extent have Hong Kong protests been about Chief Executive Carrie Lam (protests began in response to her proposed extradition bill in February 2019 but have continued after the formal withdrawal of the bill in October)? Her administration’s slow and initially lax response to the coronavirus outbreak has been seen as more evidence of Lam’s inability to act in the public interest. 



Ho-fung Hung:

The protest's initial concern was the Bill, but the way Carrie Lam handled it and her unconditional support of the police force made her and police brutality the central focus. It is why the rally went on even after the Bill was withdrawn. Opinion surveys show a vast majority of Hong Kong residents are angry with her and the police force. Now even many establishment figures and business tycoons, who are supposed to be very conservative, openly express their dissatisfaction with her. Her tone-deaf approach to handling crisis – including both the protest and the coronavirus outbreak – makes her the target of widespread discontent. It doesn’t change even when the epidemic appears to be decreasing in Hong Kong.



SAIS Europe Journal:

The coronavirus epidemic has meant demonstrations are smaller and less frequent. Is this a sign that they will peter out, or a testament to their endurance?



Ho-fung Hung:

As I speak, protests are resurfacing while the epidemic is abating. Rallies and demonstrations are being planned in the upcoming weeks and months as the anniversary of the protests approaches. And the outcry over the last two weeks shows the police force has not stepped back from its tough approach, as even peaceful singing rallies in shopping malls invoke full-scale crackdown and arrests by the police. After a hiatus during the epidemic, protest and confrontation appear to be escalating again.



SAIS Europe Journal:

Are there specific ways in which the virus is being politicized in Hong Kong, by the government, the protesters or both?



Ho-fung Hung:

As containment of epidemics always involves the governing capability of the authorities, it inevitably becomes a political issue. At the beginning of the outbreak, the government was slow in responding, and it took a medical workers and other essential workers’ strike to force the government to adopt specific policies (such as restriction of cross-border traffic along Hong Kong’s border with the mainland) in fighting the disease. Fortunately, the memory of SARS motivated many Hong Kong people to adopt social distancing and other necessary measures voluntarily, so the epidemic never got as bad as people feared. But few people would attribute this success to the Carrie Lam government. 



SAIS Europe Journal:

What overall political impact is the epidemic having on public opinion in Hong Kong? In mainland China there was anger over the silencing of coronavirus whistleblowers, but as the number of infected people flattened, opinions shifted.



Ho-fung Hung:

As mentioned, the epidemic was not as bad as feared, but people generally did not think the government deserved much credit for that. The fact that the government was taking advantage of the crisis and people’s inability to protest in order to tighten its grip infuriated people. Some of the grip-tightening measures included the arrest of moderate democrats and Jimmy Lai, a discussion on reintroducing national security legislation, and an official statement that the Beijing office in Hong Kong (the Liaison Office) is not bound by the Basic Law and enjoys supervisory power over Hong Kong politics. As soon as the epidemic is gone, the protests will flare up again. The discontent will continue to grow when the economic repercussions of the epidemic become more apparent. The Chinese economy has been contracting and it is likely to get worse as the global economy is battered. Hong Kong’s economy, which has been reliant on financial speculation and real estate bubbles for so long, might undergo a more painful adjustment than many other places. A deep economic downturn will only aggravate existing grievances and conflicts.



SAIS Europe Journal:

The death of Dr. Li Wenliang in February 2020, who had tried to warn of an emerging virus last year, sparked widespread online criticism on China’s social media platforms of the government’s mishandling of the situation, rare in a censored society where people usually refrain from expressing anger toward the government. Do you see online dissent as playing any significant role in Chinese society’s call for political change?



Ho-fung Hung:

Definitely. Signs point to many Chinese citizens’ anger over the initial government cover-up that caused the epidemic. The anger is likely to linger as the economic impact of the epidemic deepens. On the other hand, nationalism fueled by government misinformation and mutual finger-pointing by the US and China could rally some support around the government.



SAIS Europe Journal:

Looking at the long term, is there the possibility that Hong Kong’s more democratic system of governance will influence mainland China? Or is it more likely that Hong Kong itself will be governed like the mainland? Can the "One country, two systems" principle hold?



Ho-fung Hung:

This is the most difficult question to answer. From a broader, longer-term perspective, how the Hong Kong question is resolved is related to how US-China relations will evolve. One of the strongest factors in helping to maintain Hong Kong’s status quo has been the sufficient autonomy certification under the US-Hong Kong Policy Act. Beijing has made the calculation that a creeping increase in control over Hong Kong without a drastic crossing of "red lines" in the view of the international community (such as deployment of the PLA) can keep Washington from revoking its recognition of Hong Kong as a separate customs territory. This balance hinges on an amicable US-China relationship, which has been deteriorating rapidly in recent years. 

What is most important is what will happen to Hong Kong after 2047. The Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law designate the maintenance of the "One Country, Two Systems" arrangement until then, 50 years after the handover. It is uncertain what will be the official status of Hong Kong beyond 2047 and how this is going to be determined. The question has not been on the minds of the older, moderate democrats who will not be around when the time comes. And many of them expected, back in the 1980s, that China would become a democracy by 2047, so it was never seen as that important. With the hope becoming ever dimmer that China will democratize anytime soon, younger democrats in Hong Kong have finally put this on the agenda. The recent rise of localist radicals who call for self-determination or even independence of Hong Kong shows new attention being placed on the territory’s status beyond 2047. Though people now worry Hong Kong’s "One Country, Two Systems" will become "One Country, One System" long before 2047, at least the Basic Law and the Sino-British Joint Declaration are still valid as a foundation on which the opposition can make demands for autonomy and universal suffrage. As the two documents will become irrelevant after 2047, the constitutional status of Hong Kong beyond then is the biggest unknown. How this is resolved will have a profound impact on the unfolding battle between different socio-political forces in Hong Kong in the years to come.





Update: On May 22, the National People’s Congress [Chinese parliament] proposed a National Security Law for Hong Kong that will almost certainly pass and is set to take effect in July 2020. The SAIS Europe Journal asked Professor Hung what this new legislation spells out for the territory.

Many said the National Security Law, which could be used to persecute Hong Kong citizens for their speech, opinions, and personal connections, is an endgame for Hong Kong. I would say it is not. Rather it will foment the beginning of a new round of turmoil. For one thing, Beijing’s need to take this drastic step to bypass any pretention of "one country two systems" to legislate on the NSL directly shows it has run out of options for tightening control of Hong Kong without risking the loss of Hong Kong’s economic use to China. Now the world is reacting to the NSL by revoking recognition of Hong Kong’s autonomy from Beijing. The US has started dismantling the special statuses that it has granted Hong Kong since the handover, concerning visas, the tech industry and finance. China is going to lose Hong Kong as its backdoor to gain access to sensitive high-tech equipment and software with US components. Financial sanctions against banks complicit in destroying Hong Kong’s freedom are in the making. The business community in Hong Kong, including foreign investors, fear Beijing will heighten its effort to bully them into showing their political loyalty. Businesses will become vulnerable to political revenge (like fabricated allegations of spying or supporting subversive elements) by their politically well-connected Chinese competitors. Associations representing foreign businesses in Hong Kong have voiced their concerns. Talk of relocating to safer places for business is in the air. 

Therefore, the NSL will incur great economic costs for Beijing. Yet, the will of the Hong Kong people to defy Beijing’s control, as shown in the 2019 protest, suggests that the resistance will not easily die down because of the NSL. The US, UK, Taiwan, and other governments are going to offer an exit option like political asylum for persecuted Hong Kong citizens. This would keep the resistance alive. The movement might go underground, waiting for new opportunities to flare up again, but it won’t go away easily. More worrying is that with the imposition of yet another structure of control, including Chinese public security officials stationing in Hong Kong, Beijing is injecting another source of instability among the establishment elite. Local business elite and pro-establishment politicians, whom Beijing has relied on in the governance of Hong Kong, were sidelined and even kept in the dark in the NSL legislative process. They now would need to fear whether they could be potential victims of the NSL themselves. Infighting behind closed doors between elite factions linked to competing vested interests in Beijing has been becoming more and more apparent in recent years. It is likely to intensify in the years to come.  

In sum, the NSL is not likely to make Hong Kong more stable. It may tranquilize the city for a short while, but in the long run, it will be a recipe for more unrest.



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