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Can China assuage Hong Kong’s discontent over autonomy?

July 1, 2014 at 6:21 PM EDT
Nearly two decades after China took control of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom, the rules governing the city-state’s autonomy remain undefined. The New Yorker ‘s Evan Osnos, author of "Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China," joins Jeffrey Brown to discuss the frustrations fueling the protests.

JEFFREY BROWN: With me to look further at what’s going on is Evan Osnos, a staff writer at The New Yorker. He served as its China correspondent from 2008 to 2013 and he is author of the new book “Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, and Faith in the New China.”

Evan, welcome back.

EVAN OSNOS, The New Yorker: Thanks.

JEFFREY BROWN: First, I think it would be useful to remind people for context here what is the legal status of Hong Kong vis-a-vis China now?

EVAN OSNOS: Hong Kong is a very unusual place.

It is part of China, but also a place unto itself. It’s called a special administrative region, which means that it relies on the Beijing government for national security, national defense, but it ultimately governs its own political affairs, and it has a political system that’s very unlike the political system in China.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, so as we heard, one of the triggers to the demonstration was this white paper by the Chinese government, asserting more central government control from Beijing.

Where’s that coming from, I mean, the sentiment, and why now?

EVAN OSNOS: Well, you have to remember, 17 years ago this summer, China regained control over Hong Kong after a century-and-a-half as a British colony.

And in that transition, that handover back to Chinese control, what they said was that Hong Kong would maintain a high degree of autonomy for the next 50 years. But they never actually worked out what the details would be on the ground.


JEFFREY BROWN: Never spelled it out?

EVAN OSNOS: They never spelled it out.

And so now, as we’re approaching 20 years on, they have to figure out, for instance, how are we going to select the highest ranking office in the land, the chief executive? And one of the things that’s become an issue is, can anybody run for that office or do they have to be vetted by the Beijing government?

These demonstrations that we have seen are really a request by the public to say, we want to have public nomination.

JEFFREY BROWN: And how much does this push from China reflect internal Chinese politics, as in, how much — how powerful will the central government be?

EVAN OSNOS: That’s a big part of this.

The new Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, when he took power at the end of 2012 made it clear and has since made it clear since then that he was less comfortable with political openness and the kind of Western democratic freedoms that Hong Kong has than his predecessors were.

And so he has over the course of the last 18 months sent a series of signals that says that, ultimately, Hong Kong’s autonomy is subject to control from Beijing. And when they said that formally in this white paper three weeks ago, that enraged people in Hong Kong and they went into the streets.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, in Hong Kong itself, how strong is this push for democratization or some kind of separation from China, and who’s behind it?

EVAN OSNOS: Well, so far, it’s been remarkable how strong the public reaction has been.

I mean, today, the estimates by the police were that there were about 90,000 people in the streets. The estimates by the organizers were that it was half-a-million — the point being that either number is the largest demonstration we have seen in a decade.

So there is clearly a dissatisfaction among the Chinese — among the Hong Kong public. There was an unofficial referendum last month in which 800,000 people voted, in effect, to take greater control over the process of electing their next leader.

So what they’re dealing with in Beijing is that the people of Hong Kong are afraid that the quality of life, the way of life which they have, which is so distinctive, and is this both Chinese but also Western composite, this hybrid, that that’s in doubt.

And so I think it’s going to be difficult as the Chinese government has to figure out, how do we reassure people in Hong Kong that there is a future for them in China, while at the same time not encouraging them to stake out greater…


JEFFREY BROWN: Have you seen a reaction yet from Beijing, to this demonstration, I mean?

EVAN OSNOS: Well, Beijing has said in advance of the demonstration that they consider any kind of demonstration illegitimate. They called this referendum a farce.

And the real pressure right now is on the leadership in Hong Kong. The chief executive there, C.Y. Leung, is in this position of having to, one, respond to his public and recognize that he takes this seriously, when you have half-a-million people in the streets, and at the same time not alienate the government in Beijing.


EVAN OSNOS: He’s walking a very tight…


JEFFREY BROWN: Who he is very beholden to.


He’s considered to be generally favorable to the government in Beijing, as has his predecessors over the course of the last century.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is there the possibility of intervention by the Chinese army? Because this of course has been — it’s never really been discussed, as far as I know. It’s sort of been off the table, but I see now, with these demonstrations growing and that vote, suddenly people are talking about it.

EVAN OSNOS: I think nobody wants to see that.

And even the government in Beijing recognizes that for them to put security forces into the streets of Hong Kong would represent a radical escalation of the confrontation, and I think it’s one that would have knock-on effects that they would seek to avoid.

What they’re trying to do at the moment is persuade the public of Hong Kong that it is more disruptive to their economic and political life to have these demonstrations than it would be to just allow things to go on.

JEFFREY BROWN: Let me just ask you finally. I’m curious, in your reporting over there and for your book, do citizens in mainland China look at Hong Kong as a potential model or as something so different, it’s over there, it’s nothing like what we experience on the mainland?

EVAN OSNOS: A little bit both, I think.


EVAN OSNOS: If you go back to the 1980s, the truth was China did actually learn from Hong Kong, things like local village elections. They really did borrow that from what Hong Kong had done.

On the other hand , Hong Kong is a city of seven million people. People in China will tell you, we’re a country of 1.3 billion and we have to do things more slowly than they have in Hong Kong.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Evan Osnos is the author of “Age of Ambition.”

Thank you so much.

EVAN OSNOS: Thanks for having me.