Lessons From History Series: A Question of Autonomy—Hong Kong Then and Now
MAGISTAD: Thank you, and welcome to this Council on Foreign Relations Lessons from History Series conversation. Our topic is “A Question of Autonomy—Hong Kong Then and Now.”
I’m Mary Kay Magistad, associate director of the Center of U.S.-China Relations at the Asia Society and a former Beijing-based China correspondent for NPR and for PRX’s The World. I covered Hong Kong’s transition before, during, and after the handover, and I lived in Hong Kong briefly in the 1990s.
Joining me are these distinguished and deeply knowledgeable panelists.
Dennis Kwok is a lawyer and was an elected member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council from 2012 to 2020 during which time he engaged in international advocacy for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. He is now a senior fellow at Harvard’s Kennedy School.
Louisa Lim grew up in Hong Kong and spent some of her early years as a journalist there as well as stretches in more recent years. She is a former BBC and NPR Beijing correspondent; a senior lecturer in audio-visual journalism at the University of Melbourne; author of the new book, Indelible City: Dispossession and Defiance in Hong Kong; and host of a related, soon-to-be-released podcast, The King of Kowloon.
And Mark Clifford lived in Hong Kong for almost three decades during which time he was Asia regional editor for Businessweek, editor-in-chief back to back of the Hong Kong English language newspapers The Standard and the South China Morning Post, executive director of the Asia Business Council for almost fourteen years, and he is now president of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong. He is also author of the book Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow the World: What China’s Crackdown Reveals about Its Plans to End Freedom (Everywhere). And I should note that both Mark’s most recent book and Louisa’s were named by the Economist to be among the seven books that best explain Hong Kong’s history.
So speaking of Hong Kong’s history, July 2022 marks twenty-five years since the moment at midnight leading into July 1, 1997, when 150 years of British rule ended, the British flag came down, and the Chinese flag went up. And Hong Kong began what China’s leaders had promised would be a fifty-year transitional period of one country, two systems. The formulation was meant not just to sooth the fears of international investors in Hong Kong at a time when Hong Kong was rated by the Heritage Foundation as the world’s freest economy and was also important to China’s economic growth at the time, it was also meant to signal to Taiwan, which China’s leaders see as a renegade province, even though the People’s Republic of China has never controlled it—that there was a way to reunify it without Taiwan losing its way of life, its democracy.
So Hong Kong was supposed to be able to keep its own system for fifty years. At the time, that system included rule of law, freedom of the press, freedom of assembly—including the right to protest, which Hong Kong people did regularly and usually in a fairly peaceful way—and the right to directly elect at least some of their representatives. And to the surprise and relief of many Hong Kongers, much of those rights and freedoms did continue for a while after the handover, even for years. International human rights groups continued to operate freely in Hong Kong as did, for instance, Tiananmen protester Han Dongfang and his China Labour Bulletin, which advocated for workers’ rights in China; the annual vigil that commemorated those killed in the Tiananmen crackdown that usually drew tens of thousands of people if not more—continued right up to the months of the pro-democracy protest in 2019 and the national security law of 2020.
We’ll be talking about what led up to the one country, two systems promises being made and to the promise being broken, and what all of this means for Hong Kong and might mean for the world. But first, I’d like to do a quick lightning round. I’d like to ask each of you to just say quickly what were you doing when the handover happened? Where were you? And what were you feeling about it at the time?
Dennis, you first.
KWOK: OK, so I was having drinks with my friends just outside the Wan Chai Convention Center where the whole thing was taking place, so like a lot of young people at the time, I was I think around nineteen years old, so a young law student. I didn’t—I didn’t know what to make of one country, two systems. I wasn’t the type that was, you know, intending on having a political career. I never thought I would become a(n) elected politician later on in life, so at the time I was just having a good time. You know, Chris Patten’s family was lovely looking and, you know, very popular and, you know, there’s fireworks and, you know—I just hadn’t a clue what’s going on, and I just, you know, hoped that one country, two systems would work. Sadly, it didn’t.
MAGISTAD: Louisa? Louisa, how about you?
LIM: That night I was a journalist, and I was working at a Hong Kong television station called TVB. I was working in the English channel, and I was working in the newsroom, putting together reports about what was happening inside China at the time. And—I mean, because I was a journalist, because I was so busy, I was completely focused. It was the biggest—you know, the biggest night of our existence. And we didn’t really have time to think or to talk about what was actually happening.
But I do remember really distinctly the next day, the day after the handover because that—we had planned out all our coverage for the handover, minute by minute. You know, we were doing lives from all over the territory, and Dennis, you remarked on how nice Patten’s family looked. You know, that was a huge focus of our coverage, you know, the ship with Prince Charles and the Pattens sailing out of the harbor. And, you know, all of those things we covered with such detail.
I went into the office on the first day of Chinese rule, and it was almost empty. You know, we hadn’t really thought through what would happen next. We had no plan for coverage. There was almost no one there. No one had even really thought about the next step. So, you know, it was weird that we hadn’t really seemed to think past that moment of British departure. And that’s what sticks in my mind the most.
MAGISTAD: And Mark, how about you?
CLIFFORD: Yeah, I was moving around Hong Kong, so I saw Patten’s ship with Prince Charles on it, as well, going out of the harbor. I was there when Patten and Prince Charles were speaking in the rain—lashing down rain at Tamar, without umbrellas or anything. It was really incredible.
And I was up at the border when the Chinese troops also came in. It was pouring down rain.
But what I remember is coming back after being up all night, exhausted, and seeing the Chinese flag flying, you know, all over—Chinese flags all over Central, and it was a kind of gray, sultry, very hot, humid summer day after all this rain. And it was like, oh, right, the Chinese flag, this is for real. And that’s when it hit me after this being up all night and the rain.
MAGISTAD: Yeah, I was up there on the border, as well, as the PLA came over.
So Mark, let me stay with you. The terms of the handover and of Hong Kong’s future were decided without any real input from Hong Kong people—no referendum, very little say. You write about this in your book. Why was that? Why did—go ahead.
CLIFFORD: Yeah, and so does Louisa. I mean, you know—
MAGISTAD: Yeah, absolutely.
CLIFFORD: —the Hong Kong people were just completely excluded, which—you know, they had been excluded from so much for the previous hundred and fifty years, and I mean this is where I think we really have to fault the Brits. I mean, they didn’t bring Hong Kongers into particularly positions of political leadership and, I mean, if we sort of lead on to, you know, some of the problems.
Since then, I mean, this is one of the problems after 1997. You had very good bureaucrats in government, and you didn’t have political leaders. And we have political leaders in China, and we have political leaders in Britain, but in Hong Kong we had people who were great at being number two, great at following orders but who didn’t take positions of leadership. And, I mean, this goes back. I mean, the first Hong Kong Chinese civil servant was 1949. I mean, there were no Chinese in the civil service until then, and there were signs that said, “Europeans only,” for the bathrooms. I mean, it was like an apartheid situation. And the Hong Kong government was—sorry, the British government was embarrassed into taking a man, Paul Choi (sp), a war hero, because you had a revolution across the border, and they were afraid there was going to be a revolution in Hong Kong. But they were just way too slow about political reform and about involving Hong Kongers. It wasn’t an oversight—you know, a temporary oversight.
MAGISTAD: So I do have a question for Louisa, but the reason I started with you is because you wrote about how—you both wrote about how there was this narrative about how Hong Kong people don’t care about politics. But you particularly—having covered business and been involved with the Hong Kong business community for a couple of decades—at least a couple—it said that there was also some pushback from the business community about the idea that Hong Kong should have democracy, and also that there was this belief of, no, no, no, they’re not political; they don’t need to be involved in this conversation.
CLIFFORD: Yeah. I mean, Hong Kong lived in a funny time warp, and I mean, it was almost like mid-19th-century Britain. I mean, the kinds of discussions I heard in the 1990s when I first moved to Hong Kong reminded me of things around the 1832 reform bill in England. I mean, the thinking of particularly the Chinese business—the Hong Kong Chinese business community was really backwards and, I mean, they really hadn’t come into the modern era. And I mean, I think that—you know, was such a contrast between what we saw economically and, in some senses, socially, and what we didn’t see politically happening in Hong Kong. And it was an unholy alliance between the Chinese business community and, of course, the British business community, and the British colonial civil service, as well as the Chinese Community Party—all of them systematically, for decades, worked to thwart political aspirations, democratic aspirations.
MAGISTAD: So Louisa, you have deep roots in Hong Kong on both sides. Your Chinese grandpa on your dad’s side helped Sun Yat-sen come to power, turning imperial China into a republic, and of course, Sun Yat-sen studied medicine in Hong Kong. And on your British mother’s side, a great, great grandfather took part in the Second Opium War that helped Britain win control of Hong Kong. You even have a distant relative through marriage who was considered Hong Kong’s most racist British governor and the only one against whom there was an assassination attempt.
But in your book, you focus your—you focus on history in a really interesting and important way, looking at Hong Kong identity going back thousands of years, pushing back against the British narrative that Hong Kong had been a barren rock, that—and that in fact you are able to paint this history, this picture of a place that was long inhabited, that had been a refuge for rebels and refugees.
Tell us a little about that, and also why it’s important to remember that history, and how Hong Kong people feel about that identity, to better understand what happened over the last few years and what is happening now.
LIM: So, I mean, I think the question of Hong Kong’s history is a really interesting one because I do think it was something that was very consciously suppressed by the British, who decided not to teach Hong Kongers their own history—partly because the history of how Hong Kong had become British was so shameful that, you know, even the governor at the time, Sir Murray MacLehose, said that Hong Kongers might have some reservations about being under British sovereignty if they knew their own history.
But even from the 1840s, when Hong Kong first became British—the time of Lord Palmerston—there was this British narrative that was imposed on Hong Kong, and that of course was that Hong Kong was a barren rock with nary a house on it, you know—really nothing there or maybe even a tiny fishing village before the British arrived. But you know, even the—Britain’s own census showed that wasn’t true. They counted seven thousand residents in 1842. So there were people when the British arrived. That original part of that myth was untrue. And in fact, you know, Hong Kong’s history goes all the way back to the middle Neolithic era and, you know, appears in Chinese records. It was a place where rebels fled to; for example, a very famous Chinese general called Lu Xun fled there in the fifth century after fleeing—after battling central control. And there were rebellions, interestingly, in Hong Kong and particularly Lantau in the twelfth century which were against China’s salt monopoly because the villagers there wanted to harvest salt illegally.
But Hong Kong had been this center of commerce, a massive salt farm for, you know, centuries. And then, you know, at the time when the British took over, it simply wasn’t true that Hong Kongers weren’t political. There were a whole series of, you know, rickshaw strikes, and various protests, and when the New Territories was leased to Britain in 1899, there was even a racial war called the Six-Day War when the villagers of the New Territories actually fought against being British.
So that kind of entire history of pre-British Hong Kong was really wiped away by the British, and I think that was a very clear and distinct act in order to avoid Hong Kongers from developing any sense of themselves, of their own identity, and in particular, of their own political identity.
MAGISTAD: Yeah. And yet, they did despite this sort of suppression of identity. And also, I mean, there had been this suppression of democracy and free expression. But in the last five years of British rule, Chris Patten comes in as governor—as the last British governor. He does walkabouts, he gets to know people. He listens to them, he starts to allow a greater degree of democracy. This was also a strategic objective for the British government. It of course infuriates China’s leaders. But it does seem to have a lasting effect for at least a few years after the handover. Pro-democracy legislators remained active, vocal, and often effective, and the Legislative Council, or LegCo, did not immediately become a rubber-stamp body for Beijing, even if its democratic powers were somewhat limited.
When the Hong Kong government tries to pass an anti-sedition law in 2003, half a million people come out in peaceful protest, seeing this as the biggest threat yet to their freedoms. The next year there is another protest, and again, the legislation—the proposed legislation is withdrawn. Any chance to have universal suffrage, though, is sort of—by 2007, which had been allowed for in the basic law, though not entirely guaranteed, that’s put on the shelf. All this is happening in the first decade after the handover.
And this is a preamble to me asking you, Dennis—all this had happened as you were going through law school, deciding what you were going to do next, and you decided to run for a legislative seat in 2012. Why?
KWOK: Because we belonged to a generation of Hong Kong people who really regard Hong Kong as our home. Unlike our parents—you know, my parent came from China, and it was really considered as the temporary place for many Chinese people, like a transitory place.
But for my generation of politicians, our biggest task—unlike people like Martin Lee; my predecessor, Margaret Ng, their political lives were centered on the handover, on the negotiations, on the—you know, how British government treated the Hong Kong people and, you know, the handover after ’97. Our generation of politicians was about making one country, two systems work. That—at least for the mainstream democrats like myself, we really hoped and worked towards one country, two systems being a success. So that’s why, you know, a lot of us got into politics because we really hoped that it would work out. So, you know, I think that’s the biggest difference between my generation and the older generations of politicians.
MAGISTAD: So during the eight years you were in LegCo, there were big protests in 2012 against PRC plans to impose patriotic education in the schools to make students more patriotic toward the People’s Republic of China. There was the bigger pro-democracy umbrella movement in 2014 that lasted almost two months. There was also the growth of a Hong Kong localist movement that gained strength and became more vocal. And these were young people in particular who considered themselves—who considered their identity to be a Hong Kong identity, not a Chinese identity, even China writ large necessarily—certainly not a PRC identity, which also really infuriated the Chinese government because they thought, you know, after all we’ve done for you, why are you so ungrateful?
And I’m just wondering how this affected you as a legislator in terms of what you felt you needed to represent and respond to, and how it was from that time on as there started to be more of a squeeze from Beijing in trying to do that—in trying to represent your constituency.
KWOK: Yeah, that’s a great question, Mary. I mean, but one of the biggest struggle that we had was actually our relationship with the localists, you know, because starting from 2014, one of the biggest event which is often overlooked is the State Council white paper that was issued in 2014 saying that Beijing has comprehensive jurisdiction over Hong Kong. Remember that? I mean, that was actually—looking back—the turning point for Hong Kong was not actually 2019; it was really 2014 that was the true turning point.
Now I remember at the time I represented the legal profession, and I looked at that document and said, hang on a minute, that was not the deal. The deal was that the Hong Kong people were supposed to have a high degree of autonomy, eventually we would have a democratic governance, universal suffrage, as promised by the Basic Law. It did not say anywhere in that document called the Basic Law or the Sino-British Joint Declaration that Beijing is to exercise comprehensive jurisdiction over every aspect of Hong Kong life almost. This is what the white paper was saying, that somehow Beijing—all the power came from Beijing, and then all the powers then eventually flow back to Beijing. And then they added this comprehensive jurisdiction concept, which is completely alien.
Now at the time we protested. If you remember, I, together with thousands of lawyers, we marched on the streets of Central and Admiralty to the Court of Final Appeal. That was, I think, the highest number of turnout of a lawyers’ march. We have a tradition where, you know, when there is something big, the legal profession will come out, in black, and then we will do a silent march. I remember thousands of lawyers came out.
But looking back, I think too many people simply dismissed the significance of that white paper. A lot of people, they either deliberately or they, you know, just believing that it was just communist rhetoric, you know. Even a lot of people in the—in the judiciary—I spoke to some in the legal profession—say to me, look, Dennis, you know, they say these things. They issue these documents, and they say these things, but they don’t really mean it because they know how important Hong Kong is. If they start running the place like there is no one country, two system, oh, it will destroy Hong Kong. But, you know, they won’t do that.
But looking back, 2014 was the true turning point. And I remember as a legislator, I was thinking to myself, look, there really is starting to be changes in the mainland because after Xi Jinping took the power in 2012, you remember there was all these kind of pushback that you are seeing in China that—you know, I used to go teach at Beijing University and Wuhan University. We talk about the rule of law, we talk about judicial independence and human rights. All those visits were banned soon after 2012. The last time that I taught at a Chinese university was 2013, and in 2014 they came out with the white paper, and that’s when you sensed things are beginning to change; that there seems to be a policy decision that was coming out of Beijing that—really looking at one country, two system very differently. And then the Greater Bay Area idea start floating in 2016, 2017, and I was one of the few democrats who actually went up to Beijing to talk to officials there.
MAGISTAD: So this was the idea that Hong Kong was just one city, and this cluster of cities with Shenzhen and Guangzhou—
MAGISTAD: —in southern China.
KWOK: That Hong Kong was—that, you know, that was supposed to be integrated into the Greater Bay Area, which is supposed to be the Guangdong province, basically all the major cities plus Hong Kong. And I remember very clearly at the time, in Beijing, a very high up official told me, Dennis, you’d better get used to this because as we implement Greater Bay Area, there will be more sort of differences from the one country, two system concept to the one that we wish to implement in Hong Kong. And that was 2017.
MAGISTAD: Ah. So Mark, meanwhile, while all this was going on in the rule of law and legislative side, and one country, two systems side, it was obviously affecting freedom of expression, freedom of the press.
I wonder if you could sort of gallop through, you know, what it was like working at first—in the first decade after the handover, but then also about your experience with Jimmy Lai and Apple Daily in, you know, just in the last couple of years—two to three years.
CLIFFORD: Yeah, sure. I’ll try to gallop through. (Laughter.)
So I was at the Standard and the Post in sort of 2004, ’(0)5, ’(0)6, ’(0)7 area, so, you know—so, you know, during the march—the first big march of a half a million people in 2003—sorry, I came right after that. So look, things were still fairly open, but people looked over their shoulder. And by the way, the foreign sub-editors and people working on the desks, they looked over their shoulders all the time, and as much over their shoulders about their bosses as about the CCP or the Hong Kong government.
But yeah, there was always a real self-censorship in newsrooms, and I found it quite sad because I felt my job as editor-in-chief was to—you know, they did their job and I protect them from any problems from the boss. But, you know, look, there was always this culture there.
And another thing that’s not good in Hong Kong media is almost all of the media is owned by people who have many other business interests, and the newspaper or the TV station is usually a small part of their empire. And that’s a problem, right, because if you want to get—if you are a proprietor and you want to be invited up to these big meetings in Beijing, and you have a lot of other business interests, you’re not going to let a newspaper jeopardize that. And so there definitely was a lot of pressure.
But on the other hand, even among the people who owned the papers where I worked, there was optimism that China was changing. I remember one of them saying, oh, it’s going to be a social democracy, just wait a while. I said, how long? Oh, twenty years or something. By 2020 it will be like France, you know; it will be a kind of social democratic place. And this is what the elite—the business elite in Hong Kong were saying at that time because, I mean, businesspeople are not—they don’t have any crystal ball; in fact, they have to be almost unnaturally optimistic. They have to believe that things are going to work out. And the business community would say, we’ll have universal suffrage, things will get better—sort of what Dennis was saying—oh, they say this stuff, but they don’t really mean it. It’s not a communist country, really, and OK, everybody was really, really wrong.
And by the time—I’ll fast forward to 2018 when I joined the Next Digital Board, and Next, of course, published Apple Daily, the pro-democracy newspaper. And I was not involved with the day-to-day operations; I was involved with making—above all at the board level, strategically, with making the transition from a print newspaper to a digital subscription model. And people said—you know, just like they say Hong Kong people didn’t care about politics, they said Hong Kong people never pay for digital news. Well, it happened to be that we made the transition completely coincidentally in 2019, and we had a million paying subscribers within a few months of start in a city of seven-and-a-half million people. So Hong Kong people would pay for news, just like they care about politics.
Unfortunately, things didn’t quite turn out the way we would have liked in 2019, and we had—our newspaper was raided by the police on national security law charges, about five or six weeks after the law came into effect. Two hundred and fifty police, if I remember correctly, came in, took away Jimmy Lai from his house, who is the owner, took away the editor-in-chief, took away the chief operating officer and, you know, detained them on national security law charges. And that was really just a warmup.
A year—less than a year later, John Lee—who is about to become the chief executive of Hong Kong—sent the board a letter saying that he had reason to believe—those three words—reason to believe—he didn’t go to a court, he didn’t have anything other than this national security law behind him to say he had reason to believe that the newspaper had violated the national security law, so he was freezing the bank accounts. That effectively put us out of business. I mean, we had six hundred journalists we couldn’t pay. We had suppliers, you know—the phone company, the electricity company, the water, the print, the paper—we had to shut down. And it’s outrageous. Seven people from Apple Daily, seven of my former colleagues are in jail as we talk. Jimmy Lai has been convicted on some spurious minor charges; the other six—it’s been a year now. They haven’t even been tried. I mean, there’s no sign, really, when the trials are going to happen.
And so we go from a kind of really free-wheeling environment that I saw in the early 2000s to having a newspaper—probably the most popular pro-democracy outlet in Hong Kong—not only being shut down, but having seven people being held, you know, without a trial. I mean, it’s just—it’s just outrageous. And I think it summarizes, you know, kind of exemplifies, you know, the sad and tragic fate of Hong Kong under the Chinese Communist Party.
MAGISTAD: So I’m going to be going to your questions—or will be going to your questions shortly, but I do have a couple more questions. I just want to give you time to think about what you might want to ask if you are not already thinking about it.
And one of the questions is about the protests themselves in 2019—for anyone who would like to take it—and that is basically what you think the protesters had hoped and expected that they would accomplish. These protests lasted for months. There was unprecedented police violence. I was actually there the first day they used rubber bullets, and then the protesters grew violent as well. There was a slogan at one point that was something like, if we burn, you’ll burn with us. There was certainly anger at the police violence—rightfully so. But was this just anger and despair, or was there still a belief that fighting back could have some positive outcome?
KWOK: Can I try to answer that one?
MAGISTAD: Please, yeah.
KWOK: Because, you know, the turning point of the extradition bill, you know, was—I remember in April I was talking to all the consul generals in Hong Kong including AmCham, you know, early on in late March in 2019, telling them there is this thing coming. And at the time, no one knew about this extradition bill. There was supposed to be a consultation, but no one knew anything about it. It was, you know, very covertly done.
I remember calling John Lee to the Legislative Council office because I was the deputy leader of the House committee at the time, and all the, you know, trouble kind of issues that the government would bring to LegCo, they would approach me to talk about it, and I remember calling John Lee up after having read that document where—you know, the ten-page document where there’s one paragraph buried in it that talks about this anti-extradition bill. I remember telling John in that private meeting, on the 16th of February, that you cannot do this; this is crazy; this is a crazy idea and the political repercussions would be just unthinkable. But he just dismissed it. He just said, you know, you guys always say that about anything that has to do with China. And they were riding very high on the political wind at the time because they just passed a co-location, remember, that was very controversial. Barely one hundred people show up to the protests outside the Legislative Council when the bill, the co-location bill, was passed. And they were winning by-elections as well, which has never happened before.
So Carrie Lam and John Lee thought this would be a great time to do Beijing another favor by passing on this anti-extradition bill, and by May we were scratching our heads because there were scuffles in the Legislative Council, there were—you know, my colleagues and I, we were doing everything we can to raise the attention of the Hong Kong people to this thing. And I remember that things start to change late May when people on the streets start coming up to me and say, see you on the 9th of June, and this has almost never happened before. And you’re talking about people in Central, people in admiralty, businesspeople coming up to me, see you on the 9th of June because this is ridiculous. And I never expected a million people would turn out on the 9th of June; it surprised everyone.
And I remember going to work on the 12th of June, you know, because after the 9th of June protests, Carrie Lam issued a statement two hours later saying, sorry guys, we’re going ahead with this. Remember that? And on the 12th of June, in the morning, I remember saying to my wife, I don’t know what the heck I’m going to do when I go to work today when they table that bill and we’re supposed to have the vote on it. What can I possibly do when I go there? And when I arrived at work, there were already tens of thousands of young people. I could barely drive my car into the carpark. There were tens of thousands of young people already and all they wanted was to stop that bill from getting through and they did everything they could, just standing outside of the Legislative Council.
Some of my colleagues went to talk to them and all they want was to stop them. And their pro-establishment colleagues were so scared; they didn’t even turn up to work. And that was what really stopped it from happening on that day. They were hiding in the police station, you know, the pro-Beijing lawmakers; they were too scared to go to work, and whereas us, you know, we were in the Legislative Council wondering what’s going to happen.
But on the 12th of June, Mary, to answer your question, it was very clear: It was to stop the extradition bill from passing because there was such an outrage that the young people and the rest of Hong Kong were so against it that they did actually stop it, but that’s when the shooting happened, the rubber bullets and all. And on the 15th of June, one day before the 2 million march, all the Democrats, including myself, we went to see Carrie Lam in a private meeting at her office, and I remember that leaders of the Civic Party, the Democratic Party, everyone was pleading with her, Carrie—you know, in a very calm manner—Carrie, you’ve got to stop this by withdrawing the bill and promise a judge-led inquiry into what happened on the 12th of June, OK? That was all that we demanded. I said, Carrie, there is still a chance to pull Hong Kong back from the brink in that meeting, and she just dismissed it. She said, you know, you guys can go to hell. And then on the 16th of June, 2 million people turn up.
And the rest was kind of—you know, the thing after the 16th of June, there is no turning back. It was the government refusing to back down and the Hong Kong people has been pushed across the tipping point. And of course, there are things that happened along the way that made it worse, like on the 21st of July, in Yuen Long, you know, the massive attack. That was, again—to a lot of my friends, that was just there’s no turning back after the 21st of July, after what happened and the police just kind of let that happen and allow the attack to be coordinated by the triads. It was just—after that point, I think the Hong Kong people have lost it. From a civilized society and looking at how the government treated the Hong Kong people, the anger level has basically boiled over.
MAGISTAD: One last question. I’m going to hold the question and reserve for the very end. So one last question for you, Louisa, because you spent a decade-plus, I think, in China, based in Beijing covering China, as well as having your roots in Hong Kong and your experience in Hong Kong. Once it reached the point where everything boiled over, were you kind of putting yourself in like both positions, like this must be how they’re seeing this, the luàn, the chaos? Like, you know, when the Tiananmen protests happened and there wasn’t a level of violence, the government already was seeing it as chaos, the Chinese government, in this case. It almost seemed to me, having, you know, been based in China for a while and having heard the rhetoric and heard the fear about, like, what happens when things get out of hand, we need to make sure that things don’t get out of hand. You know, while the protesters were desperate to hang on to the rights that Hongkongers had had for so long, you know, that that very action was probably pushing the Chinese government to take a more extreme action itself.
LIM: Yeah, I mean, I was in Hong Kong at the time and I did find it particularly interesting to sort of watch what was happening—particularly alarming, actually, to watch what was happening sort of through the lens of the Tiananmen playbook, and I really think that in many ways that’s what played out in Hong Kong and it happened really early on. As Dennis commented, on June the 12th, the day that the protests were declared to be riots, that kind of label, that act really was an echo of what happened back in 1989 when the student protests were declared as turmoil; I mean, that was kind of the turning point from the point of the governing of, you know, of the Communist Party. The moment when a movement is labeled, everything stems from that moment because that’s—you know, the decision, in a way, has already been made. And I think—and that label became one of the demands of the movement.
I would say also I think the fact that we forget when we say what did the protesters want—and you know, there’s all this talk about how they were pro-democracy protests. It is the case that these were very discrete, distinct protests with five demands that were related to the anti-extradition movement right at the very beginning, and, you know, although there were one or 2 million people marching in June, it took until September for the government to withdraw the bill. So, you know, there was a very long period of time when the protests continued quite peacefully, but government action against them was always building, from teargas to rubber bullets to, you know, real, live ammunition, and all this time, I think the rhetoric—especially the rhetoric from the Communist Party—was really significant because it was, you know, the kind of language which was being used against Uighur extremists in Xinjiang, kind of talk of cockroaches, this very, very dehumanizing language which really pointed towards a really hardline solution, and that is, of course, what we saw.
So I do think that all along one of the problems has been that the government’s playbook was a playbook that would not work, could not work for Hong Kong people because it was a Tiananmen playbook which dated back and didn’t account for this very highly educated, very technologically connected, very internationalized population that was—and I think that, you know, projecting forward this same playbook is now in place because after Tiananmen Deng Xiaoping said the thing that went wrong was that people did not understand what the Communist Party had done for them, they didn’t understand their own history, and so he started this massive patriotic education campaign and this is now what we see rolling out in Hong Kong, this immense ideological campaign which is focusing on national security and patriotic education, and that is remaking the whole of Hong Kong. It’s, you know, remade the legal system; education is being—all the curricula are being retooled with a national security focus. You know, the whole of society is really being changed by this, and the national sort of patriotic education that students protested again back in 2012, now that’s back with a vengeance. So I think that same playbook was used by the Communist Party.
MAGISTAD: Yeah, and just as a kicker, with the patriotic education it includes, you know, basically erasing British colonial rule of Hong Kong.
So we have a number of questions. I’m going to go to our operator Kayla to remind you how to ask your questions, and please remember we’re on the record.
OPERATOR: Thank you.
(Gives queuing instructions.)
We’ll take the first question from Joseph Bower.
Q: First let me thank you. This has been extraordinarily interesting.
What I was wondering is—I guess it follows on Louisa Lim’s point about Tiananmen. To what extent is this—do you think what happened, and it hasn’t played out—it was simply a function of the Communist Party doing what they would always want to do in Hong Kong, as opposed to really a change in approach that comes with Xi, because 2012—Xi comes in 2013 and the style, for sure, has changed. But a number of people who had a feeling—I mean, Chinese people feel that there was really a dramatic change in the way things were proceeding, and I think some of the Hong Kong people were quite surprised at the break in the way China was being governed. But that’s a question: To what extent is this really CCP going all the way back to Tiananmen Square, and to what extent is there actually a break in 2013?
MAGISTAD: And would you like to ask that to a particular person or—Louisa?
Q: Well, actually, all three—
MAGISTAD: OK, but let’s make it quick so we can get a few questions in. Louisa, why don’t you go first since you were in Beijing when Xi came into office and have some—you’ve covered that as well as Hong Kong. Go ahead.
LIM: It’s a really good question and it’s really also hard to answer. I guess what I would say is that I don’t—it’s unlikely that it was in Deng Xiaoping’s original vision for Hong Kong that it would end up this way, I think. You know, I think there’s a sort of tendency to say, to sort of track back and say, well, it was always going to happen that way, but at so many stages along the way there were possibilities for different outcomes in this, and, you know, choices were made by the Communist Party that ended up with this outcome. Whether this was something that had been planned before Xi Jinping, I don’t know, but I mean, I would say that, as Dennis has said, the kind of signs of China’s ultimate intent have been there from quite early on. Particularly the Greater Bay Area plan in 2016 was, you know, signaled and telegraphed very, very clearly, it’s just that people didn’t pay enough attention at the time.
MAGISTAD: Yeah, I’ll add to that. I actually went on a reporting trip in 2004 that the foreign minister in China put together going to the Greater Bay Area, including to Hong Kong, and they were talking then about, we’re going to build this bridge and we’re going to build this, you know, rapid express train, and so forth. And I’ll also just say that, you know, back before the hand-over, the Chinese government had been talking about having a through train; we’re just going to keep the same, you know, system, non-democratic system you have and we’ll just go right on through and businesspeople can go—doing their thing and the Hong Kong economy can continue to thrive. And it was when Patten started to say, no, we’re going to allow some reforms that the Chinese government was like, well, wait a minute, that’s different from what we thought we were doing. So yeah, there were other ways that this could have played out, but it wouldn’t have been futures in which Hong Kong people had the kind of rights that they grew to expect and to cherish.
CLIFFORD: If I can quickly add, I think that the Chinese deluded themselves into thinking that Hongkongers are going to welcome the return to the motherland—you know, they gave all the flags out and people waved them at the hand-over—and that if they had ten years, which is when democracy could start to be more fully implemented, universal suffrage, that by then everybody would be voting for the CCP freely, and when that plan didn’t turn out, I mean, then they had to turn to their alternate, their harsher plan.
KWOK: I’ll just throw this out there. My theory is that they all along have been very pragmatic about one country, two systems. Remember, in the early 2000s, their only most important goal was to join the WTO, and that happened in 2001. And remember at the time, China needed to gain the international respectability as a, you know, rising nation. It needed to do that and it needed strategically to honor one country, two systems, and that was the context at the time, and they managed—got into WTO, and then they did a very successful Olympics in 2008 and then the global financial crisis happened. And that was when Chinese leader—I mean, you look at the wordings they used very carefully since 2008. That was the turning point when they think that, you know, that this Western system, liberal democracy, capitalism, it doesn’t work, the whole thing stinks, and our system is actually better. And that’s when Xi Jinping started to talk about—(speaks in Chinese)—having confidence in our system in China and not having to be subordinate to the, you know, Western values, of course, which is what Hong Kong, you know, represent, which is the international, liberal Western values as embedded in Hong Kong. You know, that was beginning to—seen as a negative, so I think we have to understand that historically the needs of China in the very stages of this development.
MAGISTAD: Yeah, important point.
Kayla, could we get the next question, please?
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from John Rogers.
Q: Thank you very much. I’m a judge here in Kentucky.
The last time I was in Hong Kong was before the hand-over. My question goes to the middle level, as it were, of the civil service and the prosecutors, maybe the police chiefs. Those people, I’m assuming, were not raised with PRC values in the PRC but rather are Hongkongers, for the most part, and presumably, many of them would be sympathetic with the two million people that Dennis was talking about. To what extent is that the case, and if it’s not the case, why not? Does the question make sense?
KWOK: It makes a lot of sense. I’ve been thinking about the same question myself. But the fact of the matter is about 40 percent of the Hong Kong people were very much in favor of pro-Beijing—what we call the blue camp, you know, the blue being pro-Beijing, the yellow camp being the democrats. And the fact of the matter is, if you look at the legal profession and the judiciary, it was, you know, divided pretty much on the same—I would say, those who joined the establishment are actually more pro-Beijing than the general society is, and they have been working on the legal profession as part of the United Front tactic for a very long time. So it is a small pool and they kind of know everyone and where people stand politically, and there is, I’m afraid, too many people in Hong Kong are actually pro-Beijing and they are very much in favor of, you know, seeing what happened in Hong Kong
You know, having the national security law for them is the greatest news of the century. And you’ve got to understand that Hong Kong is no Ukraine. Hong Kong, when people came out in 2019, it was in a way far too late because they have infiltrated the society for many decades by then, that the Hong Kong people were too innocent or naïve, in a way, believing that Beijing wouldn’t do it, but in fact they have been infiltrating society for a long time, including the police, especially the police system, and the judicial system was, in many ways, undermined because of that effort. So the Hong Kong people were not united enough because a lot of people actually were actively pro-Beijing.
LIM: I would also add that—I mean, you know, when you have so many people coming out on the streets, 2 million people, there were still a lot of civil servants who were part of that, at the same time, and, you know, there were protests that were organized specifically by civil servants, and one of the things that has happened since is that civil servants who have for decades had—you know, been neutral, politically neutral, since the protests they’ve been forced to take a pledge of allegiance and it is interesting that a number of government workers would rather quit than take that pledge of allegiance. And they just announced some figures. I think it was 130 civil servants would rather resign from their positions, and civil servant jobs in Hong Kong are quite plum positions, very well paid, a job for life, and I think around five (hundred) to six hundred other government workers also resigned because even down to kind of government cleaners in hospitals are being required to take these pledges of loyalty and, you know, there are people who would rather quit their jobs than take them, and that is happening. So although, as Dennis has said, opinion was split, I think that there are still a fair number of civil servants and mid-level government workers who, you know, have really taken a stand against these new demands being placed upon them.
MAGISTAD: Kayla, could we take one more question? And then I have one question in reserve.
OPERATOR: We’ll take the next question from Laurie Garrett.
Q: Hi. Thanks to everybody.
I was in Hong Kong in 2018 and 2019, saw a lot of this building, but obviously, once COVID hit, I’ve been watching from far away. And it seems like in the mainland, the Chinese are really using COVID to be another instrument of repression and to introduce a range of artificial intelligence technologies and surveillance technologies that are far beyond anything being used anywhere else in the world. Have you seen this going on in Hong Kong, and how would you describe the relationship between the lockdowns for COVID and rising repression in Hong Kong? Thank you.
CLIFFORD: Could I just jump in quickly? I want other people to have a chance to talk, but I mean, it’s clearly been used not as in quite the kind of techno-surveillance sense to the extent it has in the mainland, but I just wanted to mention a small example.
Jimmy Lai, who as I mentioned before is the founder and was the chairman of Apple Daily, is in jail in part because he was convicted of incitement to riot. What did that consist of? Lighting a single candle without saying a word outside Victoria Park in June 2020 at a time when the commemoration of June 4th was prohibited because of COVID. So COVID has been used systematically, comprehensively. There’s a whole range of technology issues. But I mean, it’s been—it was used to stop the Tiananmen Square commemorations.
This year, because civil society has been so, you know, repressed, nobody even applied to hold a vigil on June 4th. But here was a time—in 2019, I was there at the vigil. There were 180,000, 200,000 people some people say. It was packed. There were not many people the following year, but COVID was the reason they couldn’t hold it and it’s the reason Jimmy Lai—that excuse was used to put Jimmy Lai in jail on spurious incitement to riot charges.
MAGISTAD: I’ll also add to that just in terms of COVID and surveillance in general—and surveillance in general in China, for those of you who haven’t seen it, Asia Society collaborated with the New York Times on a video that’s now up just today on how the surveillance system in China works. And Laurie is absolutely right; it’s incredibly advanced, more so than anywhere else. And the video very elegantly lays out what’s possible, right down to taking, you know, genetic material from the, you know, basically men throughout China so that they can track different generations. So it’s not just about surveillance now, but surveillance far into the future.
My last question—sorry. Go ahead, Louisa.
LIM: Oh, I was also just going to add that the—that the curbs on gathering that have been introduced under—using COVID as an excuse stopped groups—first groups of four and then groups of two. That was the maximum number of people that could meet outside in the streets. And so I think there was both that and these quarantine camps that have been introduced in Hong Kong where even close contacts of people with COVID are being sent to quarantine camps. And you know, I think there is an argument that all of these have shut down Hong Kong’s possibility of existing as a global financial center and led to this sort of massive outflow of business from Hong Kong, which would kind of accord with China’s vision of Hong Kong as just another part of the greater bay area rather than the preeminent city on the South China coast.
So we have three minutes left, probably two and a half actually, so this is a real lightning round. But my question is, basically, it’s a pretty bleak time for Hong Kong. Rights are severely curtailed. Mark’s book title talks about what this means for the world. And if this is a sign of a future to come for other parts of the world, it’s also a bleak one indeed. I’m just wondering if we could end on a potentially positive note. Is there—you know, what can people do now that could potentially move the trajectory in at least a slightly better direction?
CLIFFORD: Let me—let me—
KWOK: I don’t think there’s—
CLIFFORD: Go ahead, Dennis.
KWOK: Go ahead, Mark. You go ahead.
CLIFFORD: Yeah. No, look, I think, I mean, those of us who are old enough to remember the Berlin Wall going up, visiting Berlin, and then seeing no more wall realize that a lot of things are possible. There are still 7 million people in Hong Kong. Sixty percent of them—40 percent of them might be pro-Beijing; 60 percent are pro-democracy. And those people aren’t all leaving. So we can’t forget them. We can’t forget the ten thousand political people—political prisoners, maybe a thousand are in jail.
So let’s keep the spotlight on Hong Kong. Let’s remember Hong Kong. Let’s remember that it’s still a vibrant city with 7 million people who want to—most of whom want to be part of a global, cosmopolitan, liberal international world.
KWOK: Yeah. So my prediction for Hong Kong is that this is just the beginning of the social transformation. They are talking about enacting even more laws on national security probably within this year that will focus on foreign espionage, foreign organizations, fake news, cybersecurity law. They’re all coming in. And I think that they will start targeting foreign organizations and foreigners because their official narrative is that, oh, foreign espionage is rampant in Hong Kong, we must do something to, you know, reel it in. Remember, their official narrative is still that 2019 protests were started by foreign forces, and they need to, you know, fulfill their own narrative. So new laws will be coming in, which I think will further transform Hong Kong into more like China.
And I’m worried about Taiwan. This is how I’m going to end, because I think—I’ve always said that after Hong Kong has fallen, which clearly it has, the next is Taiwan. And you’re seeing all the developments over the Taiwan Strait. It is extremely worrying.
Louisa, last word from you in a minute or less, please. (Laughs.)
LIM: I would say it’s really important at this moment to keep the spotlight on Hong Kong, to remember Hong Kongers both inside Hong Kong and in exile, and you know, not let things that are happening elsewhere in the world obscure or pass over what’s happening in Hong Kong. Because what we’ve seen in Hong Kong has been just such a dramatic reduction of freedoms, and I really think it is a warning for the rest of the world as to what is possible and what the sort of extent of China’s ambitions for the future are.
MAGISTAD: I am truly sorry we don’t have more time because I think this conversation could go on for a good while longer. But many thanks to our speakers, Dennis Kwok, Louisa Lim, and Mark Clifford, for giving us so much to think about. Thanks for your own great questions. The video and transcript of this meeting will be posted on the Council on Foreign Relations website. Thanks for joining.