Jerome A. Cohen discusses the escalating protests in Hong Kong and the response from China’s mainland authorities.
Adjunct Senior Fellow for Asia Studies, Council on Foreign Relations; Professor and Director, U.S.-Asia Law Institute, New York University School of Law; @jeromeacohen
MCMAHON: Well, hello, everyone, and welcome to this Council on Foreign Relations on-the-record conference call about the protests in Hong Kong. I’m Robert McMahon, managing editor of CFR.org, and I’ll be moderating this call with Jerome Cohen. Jerry is a CFR adjunct senior fellow, as well as director of the U.S.-Asia Law Institute at New York University’s School of Law. And Jerry is especially well-versed on the situation playing out in Hong Kong.
I’m going to kick off the discussion with him for about ten minutes before opening the call to your questions. I know there’s a lot of people on the call, and I want to get to as many questions as possible. Overall the call is set for about forty-five minutes. And we do expect a transcript to be up by tomorrow of the call.
So, Jerry, for starters, we appear to be in a momentary calm at the latest scene of the protests—Hong Kong International Airport. But there is a broader tension here playing out, for months now, and no one expects it to dissipate. Can you briefly touch on what is driving these protests and the response from the mainland?
COHEN: Well, the causes of the protest are many, and some long lasting and profound—like social inequality, the cost of living in Hong Kong, the difficulties of education. But we have immediate causes. Every time there is a new, more intense clash between police and some protesters this adds to the incentives. And what we’ve seen is a protest that started in June against the ill-fated extradition proposal that the Hong Kong government tried to speed through the LegCo has expanded into multiple—
MCMAHON: The LegCo is the Legislative Council that administers Hong Kong.
COHEN: Yes. And the Hong Kong government, instead of following the customary procedures, tried to fog one by the populace and the democratic members of the legislature by speeding up consideration of this bill using a phony excuse, saying they really needed it in order to extradite an alleged murderer from Hong Kong to Taiwan. Now, that was absolutely phony. Everybody knew—who paid attention to it—this was a long overdue effort to extradite people from Hong Kong to China.
The remarkable thing is, for twenty-two years there has been no agreement between Hong Kong and the mainland for extraditing people either way—just for the same reason that no commonwealth country has ever ratified an agreement to extradite anybody to China. Everybody knows about the Chinese legal system. And they’re all afraid to test their popularity with their own people by agreeing to extradite them back to a China where they face torture, coerced confession, no counsel, unfair trial. And even within China, its own SAR, Special Administrative Region, has been unable, because Hong Kong has emphasized the rule of law, to conclude an agreement with the mainland. And this was an attempt to do it.
The initial protest focused on that. But once, like many protests, you’ve got lots of people in the street and the police try to restrain them, that leads inevitably to violence. And so that becomes a second cause. And once that arouses popular ire because of police abuses then people start calling for the resignation of the chief executive and they want an independent investigation. And they don’t mean a police investigation of itself; they mean an investigation that people can feel is legitimate and free of government interference. So these demands start escalating, and of course, they’ve gone beyond that now.
This has revived all the resentments of previous protests—including the protest about can you have a free, universal suffrage, like election of the chief executive? Can you have free election of all members of the Legislative Council? These have been denied to the people of Hong Kong. And now in recent months, you even have some people who are obstreperous enough to say: Why aren’t we independent of China? Why do we need these people? And that, of course, goes beyond the pale. So these protesters now have all kinds of reasons. It’s not like it’s what the Chinese Communists like to call the United Front. These have no obvious leaders.
They believe in different things. They have different priorities. Some of them believe, like Chairman Mao said, if you’re going to have a revolution, it’s not a dinner party. Violence is inevitable. Some of them don’t believe in violence at all. Most of them, I think, would love to have a Gandhi-like, orderly, peaceful protest, nonviolent. That would have been more impressive, had they been able to carry that out—as they started to—in the airport. But things, like in all protest situations, tend to get out of hand. And what we don’t know is how will this come to an end?
And I’ve got my own ideas, that I think have gotten too little play in Hong Kong and in the media, et cetera. But otherwise, I see, lest you have popular leaders come forward—not government officials, but highly respected people in Hong Kong from the business community, the political community, the human rights community, the educational community—if they can’t forge themselves a group, a commission, a committee to independently investigate, start negotiations, make recommendations—if they don’t take their future in their own hands, they can’t leave it to Carrie. Carrie Lam said yesterday, incredibly, she’s not responsible for the police operations. She only knows how to cry and warn about falling into the abyss if this goes on. That’s not leadership. That’s irresponsible.
MCMAHON: So, Jerry, the—so, Jerry, we’ve got a situation then with this, as I said, momentary calm. Then the situation at the airport, as you alluded to, went beyond sort of civil disobedience to something that turned more violent. There doesn’t seem to be any sort of centralized or organized opposition figures leading this opposition—leading these protests—and the local government seems to be completely unresponsive. So the mainland is dangling, it appears to be, some sort of a military response, as a warning. Do you see that continuing the play out, or how should we regard what we’re seeing from Shenzhen, and what President Trump was talking about on his Twitter feed the other day?
COHEN: Xi Jinping is a tough guy. He’s a high-stakes gambler. He doesn’t believe in the wisdom of his father, whom he’s always praising. The father’s ultimate lesson, after sixteen years of exile caused by Chairman Mao, came back. The father said, the Party must allow differences of opinion at the mass level and at the leadership level. And it will never succeed if it doesn’t allow differences of opinion. And that’s the one thing Xi Jinping can’t tolerate. And he knows the dangers, of course, of repeating a June 4, 1989, Tiananmen-type massacre. He doesn’t want to do that. It would be a disaster for him personally, perhaps, and his leadership, his people, and certainly for Hong Kong and international security. But if push comes to shove, he’ll use force. But that’s not—he doesn’t want to do it.
And he certainly doesn’t want to mar the seventieth anniversary celebration of the PRC’s founding on October 1. And of course, beyond that we see the hundredth anniversary coming along next summer of the establishment of—well, it’ll be the hundredth-year next summer, 2020, of the party’s birth. As these anniversaries pile up, and he wants increasing prestige and show the world he’s achieving the Chinese dream, using force would show the Chinese dream is a nightmare. But he wants to do it. He’ll do it if he has to. But in the intermediate, there are lots of different possibilities—intermediate possibilities even for increasing PRC influence in Hong Kong through a variety of less-dramatic methods.
MCMAHON: So is there—sorry, to interrupt, Jerry. So is there a scenario in which this gets dialed back, but China still ends up exerting more control?
COHEN: How are they going to dial back if they have a government in Hong Kong, that they control increasingly, that’s unresponsive? That isn’t dialing back. That really is an attrition strategy. They are trying to do what they successfully did in 2014 with the Umbrella Movement. You wait it out. You minimize the disruption to public functions. You try to wear down the opposition. You mobilize public support by giving an adverse portrait of the reasons for the protest. And that worked before. And that’s the only formula they have now.
But the thing is, you have, five years later, a new echelon, a new group of mostly young people—some highly educated, some not—and they’re different from the Benny Tai academics who started the Umbrella Movement, or from the Joshua Wong younger people who succeeded them—some of whom—(inaudible)—have gone to jail—(inaudible). These guys are different, at least a relatively small corps. Are they one hundred thousand rather than a million or two million? They probably aren’t even one hundred thousand. The problem is how to deal with them. Somebody’s got to reason with them. Somebody’s got to use symbols that will cause them to lose face by excessive violence that they’re increasingly engaging in, and by giving them some opportunities, some incentive to stop these protests—take part in the political process that Hong Kong has been frustrating under PRC influence.
MCMAHON: And you mentioned in your previous comments about the role, potentially, of community leaders in stepping in. Could you talk briefly about who that might be? And then we’ll open up the call to our—to those on the call.
COHEN: I’m not sure I understood what you just said, Bob.
MCMAHON: Sorry. If you could talk about the community leaders in Hong Kong that might play a role in helping to, you know, negotiate or navigate through it?
COHEN: Yes, well, you know, since you published the interview with me yesterday, we’ve had a very interesting development. Yesterday I finished the interview by saying the legal profession in Hong Kong, the law society, the barristers and the bar association, they could be an example of some of the prominent people in the community—not officials—who could put together the kind of community effort that would defuse the situation. And lo and behold, today we get news of the establishment of a neutral lawyers observation group. This has been a product of an eloquent appeal that was just voiced, but this doesn’t go far enough. It is an example of the beginnings of a community response. But these lawyers aren’t saying they’re going to knock heads together and put together an imaginative political effort to work out some kind of compromise, et cetera. They’re saying: We’ll monitor, neutrally, all the abuses that are now being committed on both sides.
Well, that’s good. But lawyers aren’t dentists. I admire dentists. They have high technical skill and they operate literally in our faces. But we don’t look to dentists to do more than be technicians. And it’s not enough here for these lawyers to be rule of law technicians, because we see the rule of law as a technical matter, and Hong Kong sees too many political leaders who are fine people going to jail. What we need lawyers to do now—and they can be gadflies to the business leaders, and the educational leaders, and others in the community that put together an imaginative coalition—that could start to resolve these tensions. That’s what I’d like to see. Occasionally you’ve heard a few people make hints or suggestions, but nobody’s got the guts to come forward.
As I said yesterday, the unofficial leaders of Hong Kong are like deer in the headlights. And some of them have said—since communicated with me to say—they agree. But I don’t hear them say now they’re willing to take the lead. They’d lose their positions in the Chinese political consultative conference, or other preferred advantages in dealing with the Hong Kong government. It’s too risky. And yet, what is the risk of doing nothing? We see doing nothing—you’re getting an argument now on various listservs among China specialists—is this going to lead to a train crash? Or is it really the Hong Kong people are lying on the railroad track and the train is going to crush them? They’re beginning a debate what metaphor is appropriate to illustrate what lies ahead if people don’t take some enlightened action.
MCMAHON: All right. Well, you’ve set the table for this discussion, Jerry. Thanks very much. And I want to open up the call now to those on the line. A reminder, this is an on-the-record CFR conference call on the Hong Kong protests with CFR’s Jerry Cohen. Operator, could you please open up the call?
OPERATOR: Yes. Thank you…We’ll pause for just a moment to allow parties to signal for questions.
MCMAHON: And while those are queuing up, I wanted to ask Jerry—if you could quickly rundown Jeremy—Jerry—excuse me—why the importance of Hong Kong to China, economically and otherwise, what’s at stake if it does end up enduring a harsh crackdown from the mainland.
COHEN: You know, Hong Kong is obviously still of important significance—huge significance to the mainland. Its economic significance has been dropping relatively because of the rise of Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and now Shenzhen and other places as financial and economic centers. But Hong Kong still has the cache and the reality of being the principal vehicle for China interacting with the world in terms of financial business transactions. And it has, of course, a special status in the world.
Of course, the United States is now—at least, people in the Congress and some in the executive—are talking about should Hong Kong continue to enjoy special status? Hong Kong is even under the protection of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, which Beijing has been threatening to ratify for over twenty years but hasn’t done it. So Hong Kong is special in a business, economic way. And although Singapore is always trying to benefit, and does to some extent from Hong Kong’s difficulties, Hong Kong is of huge economic importance—and certainly to American, and Western, Japanese, and other business entities.
But Hong Kong is more than that to Beijing. Hong Kong is the leading symbol of the Communist Party’s vindication of China’s rise and China’s reintegration of the country, completing the reunification of the mainland against the long depredations of Western colonialism and Japanese colonialism. And that was Deng Xiaoping’s brilliance in bringing Hong Kong back, showing the flexibility of one country, two systems. Hong Kong is a symbol politically of China’s territorial integrity. And this, of course, has evolved, with the Xinjiang problem, Tibet problem, and especially now Taiwan. And a failure to resolve the situation successfully in Hong Kong will put to an end, for all time—certainly our lifetime—any thought people in Taiwan might have of reintegration with the mainland under one country, two systems—the formula originally devised to reincorporate Taiwan.
So there are many political symbolic nationalist sovereignty questions. And there’s a huge amount at stake that goes far beyond economics for the leadership in Beijing. And they’ve got to be careful, because if they reassert real control through the use of force, that’s a terrible result. If they don’t use force and you get freedom in Hong Kong, that’s a terrible result. So—
MCMAHON: Damned if you do and damned if you don’t, yeah. Well, Jerry, I think we have a number of people in the queue. I want to just turn it over to the operator to open up for questions and we’ll take it from there. Operator, do we have a question, please?
OPERATOR: Yes, sir. Our first question comes from Benjamin Naimark-Rowse, with the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy.
NAIMARK-ROWSE: Thanks so much for the—
MCMAHON: Yes, hello. Go ahead.
NAIMARK-ROWSE: Yep. So to succeed, these kind of popular mobilizations require leadership and they require an endgame strategy, right? And on average, these sort of popular mobilizations take about three years to run their course. So I’m wondering if you could say more about the leadership of this uprising, and in particular their interest and ability to cooperate, for example, with the law society, business leaders, et cetera, to create a unified and diverse front, and a clear endgame strategy.
COHEN: Yeah. I like that question because it focuses on what can be done. On the other hand, it also reveals the difficulty, because how do we identify these leaders? Are there going to be votes within their various groups? Will people volunteer? Remember, when the question arose before June 4, 1989, which leaders from the Tiananmen Square protests would meet with Prime Minister Li Peng, how would they come forward and what would they say, how would they behave, and would it be public? There are just all these questions. The hardest is to identify who the leaders really would be, or who would speak for the diverse groups and how would they come up with any sort of coherent front.
But some effort has to be made. And there are some—we see there are some students, even at the airport, who are willing to come forward and explain to the Wall Street Journal and the New York Times, and the Washington Post why they’re there. They give different reasons and they have different views about what procedures they should follow, and how violent they should be. I think we’d have to have a diverse group. And I think the mobilization of community leaders and the opportunity to hear the views of the students, not expressed while fighting the police, this would be a healing process. And it certainly would take time. And it would cool things down. And it might lead to some detailed progress. So I like the question, because it focuses on the problems that would be confronted by trying to do something, rather than passively await the train crash.
MCMAHON: But to this point, Jerry, you’re not seeing a kind of a centralized leadership of the opposition—of the protesters, who have sort of an endgame in mind, or anything like that?
COHEN: You are a master of understatement, Bob. (Laughter.)
MCMAHON: OK. Operator, can we have the next question, please?
OPERATOR: Yes. Our next question comes from Trudy Rubin with the Philadelphia Inquirer.
RUBIN: Hi. Thanks to both of you.
Jerry, just a quick follow up on the last question. What has happened to that generation of Joshua Wong, Nathan Law, the liberal members of LegCo—both the ones who were not allowed to stay in and whoever survived? Do they have any role to play? And then also, I wonder if you could elaborate a little bit on how the Taiwan situation will affect Beijing’s decision, especially since the Taiwan election is coming up in a few months?
COHEN: Yeah. Well, the first one is the key to this discussion. Trudy, as always, you’re on the ball. The—Nathan Law is active. He’s turned up in the United States. I think he may be studying at Yale at this point. But Joshua has just been released after serving some time in jail. Some of the others are certainly around. They have varying differences of views, but I think there’s some resentment among the current protesters that Joshua might come back and try to take over the movement. Of course, you’ve got personal considerations here. One of the sad things in every human rights movement is sometimes there’s internecine disputes among all the good guys, but sometimes for personal reasons of gratification, ego, whatever, sometimes for reasons of policy.
But I think certainly if we could get some commission organized in the next couple of weeks, Joshua, Nathan, these would be people who would come forth. But there would be others who would say: They no longer have the right to represent us. We’ve been out there doing this and that while they’re giving speeches or serving time in jail. But they should be heard too. I think this can be managed. I think a couple of these people have appeared in the United States recently. You have some—and, by the way, we shouldn’t discredit people like Dennis Kwok, who still is in the LegCo and is a terrific person, who is trying to give this movement some coherence.
I think what you’d have is you’d have several days of testimony from a variety of witnesses who would make their suggestions, not only about the past but the future. I feel, in a way, it’s understandable. There’s so much focus on police abuses and so much public concern in support of the police—because every community needs the police, and many of these police themselves are internally torn, apparently: they don’t want to be out there. It’s like the June 4 situation. Even some of these soldiers who were picked to come in and do the dirty job, they were unhappy about killing their own people. So I think you can find representatives—and you’ve identified a few of them—who could give this a legitimate launch.
The Taiwan thing is much more complex. But in simplistic terms, it’s clear that although we still don’t know who all the candidates will be and all the parties in the Taiwan election, I think the events in Hong Kong are forcing even the KMT candidate, Mayor Han, now to be much more cautious in his gestures toward reconciliation with the mainland. And we’ll see if Mayor Ko of Taiwan—of Taipei starts to make an impact as he makes another effort to become president. He’ll also be condemned for his efforts in the past to reach out to the mainland.
I think it’s going to make—unless Beijing succeeds in having so many candidates, minority parties, et cetera, that will cut into the DPP, so there’ll be a plurality not a majority outcome, I think the DPP and President Tsai are—they’re going to get reelected. Because most people in Taiwan are horrified about what’s going on, and many are outraged that the Hong Kong SAR government is using Taiwan as an excuse for starting this by saying we need this extradition bill so we can send back one alleged murderer for trial in Taiwan. That could have been arranged without any of this.
MCMAHON: Thanks a lot, Jerry. And thanks for that question, Trudy.
Next question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Roberta Cohen with Committee for Human Rights in North Korea.
R. COHEN: Hello, Jerry. Thank you so much for your comments.
How do you find the United States and Western response to the struggle in Hong Kong? Is there anything you would think important to be done internationally by governments, by NGOs?
COHEN: Well, in view of your good work with human rights in North Korea, Roberta, the first thing I would say is, like other major Chinese Communist violations of human rights, one cost by worrying about them is we fail to give enough attention to the suppression of human rights in North Korea. And similarly now, what we’re fighting, Hong Kong gets the attention it deserves now, even though we don’t have a suitable response yet. But it’s taking popular attention away from the horrors of what China, the PRC, is doing in Xinjiang to millions of people there. And in a way, they’re lucky, because the American and other liberal democracy publics, they were beginning to get that Xinjiang message and beginning to see how horrific the Communist Chinese behavior to those people is. And by focusing on Hong Kong, we’re not focusing on another equally serious, but less dramatic problem.
So in terms of the United States, of course, we have a president who seems to be giving the license to Xi Jinping to do whatever you have to do to bring peace and stability back to Hong Kong. He seems to be saying we don’t have to worry about the human rights of the people in Hong Kong. He isn’t worried generally about human rights, except occasionally to contradict himself. And he seems to be not recognizing the importance of Hong Kong to the United States and to retaining its special status. And it’s difficult for us because Beijing is trying to neutralize him by claiming falsely that everything in Hong Kong is really the product of a CIA-sponsored color revolution. And that, of course, is nonsense. And it would be good if we had a public hearing of a legitimate type in Hong Kong, and the lack of foreign sponsorship for what’s going on in Hong Kong could be brought out, the lack of evidence.
So I think the U.S. has a lot to do in terms of forging an appropriate response to this. And we see in our primaries now, the candidates should be speaking out more on this. But they’re aware of the fact the American people are now overwhelmingly going against the PRC for a whole range of reasons—largely preoccupied daily about the headlines over the trade negotiations and its impact. And I think people are afraid now to come out. You’d think that this anti-Chinese Communist wave that’s taking over America would make it easier for politicians to come out and say we should have some enlightened defense of Hong Kong.
But the last thing we want to do is give them the Hungarian Revolution treatment, where in 1956 Dulles, and Ike, and the Republican Party there encouraged the Hungarian Revolution against the Soviets, and then let them down. They falsely inspired these people to think we were going to come to their assistance. But the U.S. is not going to come to Hong Kong’s assistance in any military way. But we at least should show—not only by what we say about Hong Kong but by improving our own behavior at home—that we stand on the right side in terms of freedom, rule of law, due process, and all that.
MCMAHON: Thank you. Thanks for that question.
And, Operator, we’ll take another question, please.
OPERATOR: Thank you. Our next question comes from Gary Ross with Black Gold Investors.
ROSS: Yes. Thank you, Professor Cohen, for a very insightful talk.
And I apologize for the difficulty of the question I’m about to ask, but we’ve all seen the recent Chinese military movements nearby Hong Kong. What would you place the probability of a military action against Hong Kong before the October 1 seventieth anniversary?
COHEN: Most observers—yeah, it’s a good question. Of course, that’s one of the key ones now everyone’s focusing on. Most knowledgeable observers who I respect say it’s a low probability. Now, of course, that’s a prediction based on many events here. As I indicated earlier, if the provocation is seen to be great enough, it will happen before October 1 no matter what. But there’s a very low likelihood. And I think even the protesters at the airport have got that message. And I think that may be why there now is this sudden lull after a terrible Monday and Tuesday, that Wednesday—despite the violence—it looks a little more possible for the airport to function. So I think overall—and that’s making a very general guess, because people know the reluctance of the Chinese leadership, not because they’re great humanitarians but because they’re realistic, political, military people—very low possibility, I think, before October 1.
Q: Thank you.
MCMAHON: Great. Thanks for that question.
Also, just a reminder, this is a CFR on-the-record conference call on the Hong Kong protests, with our expert Jerome Cohen. We’ve got ten more minutes on the call, and I wanted to go back to those waiting to ask questions.
Operator, can I have another question, please?
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Joel Gehrke with Washington Examiner.
GEHRKE: Hello, Professor. Thank you for doing this.
I wondered, to return to the issue of blaming the United States for fomenting these protests, accusing us—you know, describing it as a color revolution—who’s the target audience for that kind of message? Who is Beijing trying to persuade? Is it to drive a wedge—or attempt to drive a wedge—between the protesters and some portion of the Hong Kong population? Are they talking more to mainland Chinese people, and if so, what are they trying to prepare them for?
COHEN: You know, the key audience is always the domestic mainland Chinese people. In the beginning, as you know, they tried to deal with the Hong Kong difficulties by saying nothing to the local people. And it was hard for local people to know what’s going on. They have trouble finding out even what’s going on in an honest way within their own mainland jurisdiction, as with Xinjiang repression of the Muslims. But when it became impossible to keep this thing under wraps, then, of course, Beijing shifted to mobilization of public opinion by still trying to restrict access to news of what’s happening and to impose their own interpretation on the news, and even creating fake news, even on CCTV. So they are now preparing their own people to understand the government’s reluctance and to support any radical military intervention in Hong Kong. So that’s the main audience.
They would like [us]—a second audience would be the outside world, beyond Hong Kong—to think that this is like what the CIA did in Italy after World War II, et cetera, or another Mosaddeq regime suffering from CIA plotting, et cetera, in Iran in the 1950s. They would like [us] to think this is a repetition. And they can build on that. That’s one of the costs we pay for the CIA’s record in certain places at certain times. So they’re trying to get that through. Most people still don’t know what’s going on in Hong Kong, although I think the American reporting I’ve been exposed to, and the British, Australian, French, has been good on this. A lot of people in the developing world don’t have access easily to all that stuff.
A third audience is obviously the people in Hong Kong. And I don’t think they’re very successful in that. We all tend to reinforce our own convictions as we take in the news, but I think most people in Hong Kong who see their children, grandchildren, themselves out there, they know they’re not being foils of the CIA. So you have different audiences. But the main audience, of course, is the people at home. And they seem to be believing it. There’s always the regional divisions of people in China—Shanghai people against Beijing, Cantonese people against (inaudible)—et cetera. You have those traditional tensions and dislikes. Hong Kong has suffered from some of that in dealing with the Chinese population that increasingly has liked to visit Hong Kong. But—and there are, of course, political resentments that are fanned now by the government to intensify these traditional resentments of Hong Kong.
So I think they’re succeeding still, just like the PRC government seems to have succeeded in persuading most Han people in the mainland that what they’re doing in Xinjiang is required in order to repress terrorism. And indeed, we’ve just seen they’re beginning to play the terrorist card in characterizing what’s going on in Hong Kong. And once you say “terrorism,” then that’s the basis for real hostile action—military action. And of course, in Hong Kong, they’re upping the ante of how you characterize what the protests are. Are you going to prosecute these people? And hundreds may be locked up soon if this goes on. The new police authority in Hong Kong, I think he’ll be taking his guidance from his previous successes. And they’ll be arresting lots of people.
And the question then will be, what do you charge them with? You see, Benny Tai, Professor Chan, these academics who were going to jail now and are just appealing—the Benny Tai’s appeal’s coming up, I think, tomorrow in the court. They’re being charged with creating nuisances. That’s a minor offense. Benny got sixteen months for that, which is very hard time. But now they’re going to charge them under the new court injunction with obstruction of justice. And that’s more than a popular nuisance. So we’re going to see an escalation of punishment here. And that in turn, unless you have some community response coming between the obdurate government and the protesters, that’s going to get worse. And that will intensify opposition.
MCMAHON: Great. Thank you. I’m going to see if I can fit in a couple more questions.
So, Operator, another question, please.
OPERATOR: Our next question comes from Daniel Ahn with BNP Paribas.
AHN: Hi. Thank you, Professor.
I have another question which may be a little unfair. But in light of not just what’s happening in Hong Kong, but also the U.S.-China trade tensions that you alluded to earlier, we are seeing the possibility of significant economic weakness in China. You might have seen this morning, industrial production in China fell to its lowest level since 2002. So stepping back from Hong Kong to more just the general economic conditions in China, would you say that the overall weakness in the economy is narrowing maneuvering room on Hong Kong, as in they may feel a need to be softer in light of potential negative economic repercussions if they hold a hard line? Or are they—or might they adopt a more conciliatory approach in the trade talks with the U.S., again, because of the fragility of the U.S.—of the economy? And, third, would they—might they introduce some kind of more stimulatory—more economic stimulus in light of all of these pressures?
COHEN: That’s a terrific question toward the end of our conversation because I really have been among those who think that despite China’s vaunted prominence in the world politically, economically, militarily, it’s a much weaker regime than the world realizes. When Xi Jinping came to Washington in 2015, I greeted him that day with an op-ed in the Washington Post. And they put the right title on it, something like: “China’s Fragile Leader.” And I feel the situation has gotten worse in the last four years. That’s why he’s imposed this absurd dictatorship on people that has altered life for even good supporters of the regime, among academics, bureaucrats, et cetera, in the last few years.
He’s sitting on a hot tin roof. And he—this is—this situation of the declining economy and the consciously mobilized administration—Trump administration pressure to worsen China’s economic situation, that’s really putting him into some difficulty. At the same time, there’s lots of silent—necessarily silent—opposition to his rule, even among the party elite. So he’s in a difficult position. And of course, he’s got all these other problems he has to deal with, ranging from pollution to corruption. Just—there are a lot of causes for the daily protests within China that we are usually unable to read about.
But, you see, your analysis may well be right. In our terms, a leader faced with these problems should try to show some flexibility. This was the brilliance of Deng Xiaoping. Deng Xiaoping I didn’t like at all, because he was a Soviet-type repressor. He presided as party secretary-general over the anti-rightist movement of 1957–58 that crushed the liberal intellectuals trying to transform the Chinese Communist Party into a more humane organization. Deng was the guy who authorized the slaughter on June 4, 1989.
But he was on diplomatic, political matters I think not only very bright, but courageous in moving forward. And he felt he had the power to do it. That’s how Hong Kong came back to the motherland, because of the compromise he was willing to make on one country, two systems. That’s why Japan and China were able to reconcile in 1979—1978–1979*—because he postponed things like the Senkaku-Diaoyutai thing. Deng showed flexibility. If Xi Jinping now could summon that kind of flexibility, this could be resolved without the PLA in a way that could bolster Xi’s insecure status at home.
But Xi Jinping has shown none of that. He has made a big deal out of saying: We will not give an inch on any of these questions, whether you talk about dealing with Japan or Taiwan or Hong Kong. His stock in trade is don’t give an inch. We are the leaders. We will do this. And he doesn’t show the kind of flexibility that his predecessors did in order to make over twenty agreements with Taiwan, even though they said we’ll never treat with Taiwan in negotiations as an equal. They found a way to do it, thanks to Ma Ying-jeou and his relations with the mainland. But today, this is the test for Xi Jinping. Is he going to try to carry on as an absolute military leader or is he going to show the wisdom of political concessions?
MCMAHON: And that is an appropriate broad note to end this call on. I want to thank our expert Professor Jerome Cohen for navigating us through this crisis moment for Hong Kong and China more broadly. I also want to thank those on the call for superb questions and for taking part in this CFR on-the-record conference call. This now concludes the call. And, again, thanks to all for taking part.
*CORRECTION: Please note that Jerome A. Cohen has since noted that the correct years are “1971—1971–1972.”