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How Beijing is likely to respond to escalating Hong Kong protest violence

Police in Hong Kong have tightened their siege on the campus of the Polytechnic University, where hundreds of protesters are trapped inside. It’s the latest bout of violence in nearly six months of demonstrations -- one China is warning it won't let go too far. Nick Schifrin reports and talks to Kurt Tong, former U.S. consul general to Hong Kong, about the protesters’ strategy and U.S. response.

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  • Amna Nawaz:

    Police in Hong Kong tightened their siege of a university campus tonight, where hundreds of protesters remain trapped inside.

    It's the latest bout of violence the city has seen in nearly six months of protests. In other parts of the city, protests fueled by the stand-off continue.

    Nick Schifrin has the latest.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Overnight and through the morning darkness, the streets of Hong Kong remained a battlefield. The police pushed to retake the campus of Hong Kong's Polytechnic University. And students used any means necessary to hold their ground. Through masks that protect them from tear gas, they plead for help.

  • Woman:

    I really hope that someone could give a helping hand.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In a predawn raid, Hong Kong police arrested a student journalist and repeatedly asked the student to stop recording.

    Some protesters fled on motorcycles. The police arrested more than 400 trying to flee. Protesters tripped over barricades and were tackled to the ground. This is the crescendo of six months of protests that started against the law that would have extradited criminal suspects to mainland China.

    But, today, demonstrators are calling for fundamental reform. And mainland China is threatening to escalate. For the first time since the protest began, this weekend, Chinese soldiers left their Hong Kong barracks and cleaned up debris wearing T-shirts and shorts.

    And, today, China's ambassador to the United Kingdom blamed the West for instigating the protests and warned the protesters.

  • Liu Xiaoming:

    To restore law and order, violence must end, and the violent perpetrators must be brought to justice. This is the only way to safeguard the interests of the public and secure a better future for Hong Kong and cement the foundation of one country, two systems.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The two sides are on a cycle of escalation. Police say they're defending themselves and warned they could begin using live ammunition.

    But protesters say they are responding to police brutality and demand the city give in to their demands.

  • Olivia:

    We want a peaceful Hong Kong to be back, but I think, before that, the government has to listen to the people, and the police has to stop whatever they're doing. And I hope that Hong Kong can go back to the previous Hong Kong as soon as possible.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For more on what this standoff means for Hong Kong, and mainland China, we're joined by Kurt Tong, who just finished a 29-year-career in the State Department. He was the most recent U.S. consul general to Hong Kong, who served there from 2016 to July 2019. He's now a partner at the Asia Group, an international business consulting firm.

    And welcome to "NewsHour." Thanks very much.

  • Kurt Tong:

    Thanks, Nick. It's a pleasure to be here.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What is the significance of this we're looking at right now, this standoff in this university, one of the first times where we have seen protesters actually try and hold a little bit of ground?

  • Kurt Tong:

    Well, I think that's right.

    It's a departure in strategy by the protesters to establish, essentially, a situation where they're under siege, rather than using their old philosophy of move like water, have a protest, and then leave before they could get arrested.

    So I think it creates some new risks, both for the protesters, but also for how the police handle it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So the police handling of not only this moment, but throughout this process, the protesters have talked about things like police brutality. That's the language that they use.

    And we do see videos of police beating up protesters, for sure. Do you believe that some of the police actions over the last few months have fueled the protests?

  • Kurt Tong:

    I think that's right.

    I think that the police have been under intense pressure. Personally, I don't think that they were particularly well-trained for this kind of circumstance. And so they're having an emotional response to people coming at them violently and, in some instances, responding inappropriately.

    Inappropriate is a such a weasel word. I mean responding violently in ways that they shouldn't have. That is something that the protesters are now calling for an investigation of. And that probably makes sense to do that.

    It is important to remember, at the same time, that the protesters have, if you will, taken first blood in terms of making this a violent situation.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Of course, behind the police, literally in a garrison in the middle of Hong Kong are PLA soldiers, or Chinese soldiers, and we saw them out in T-shirts and shorts…

  • Kurt Tong:


  • Nick Schifrin:

    … in response to this in the last day or so.

    Talked to some people who fear that it could be some kind of test run of some sort. Do you share that fear, that the Chinese military could respond in some way, if this violence continues?

  • Kurt Tong:

    The fact of the matter is that there is a significant military presence in Hong Kong, which is not designed for crowd control or for police activity.

    China, of course, has immense police resources across the border that are not, again, prepared for working in the Hong Kong environment under Hong Kong law.

    So I think that the options for the mainland in terms of direct intervention are limited and bad. And so I don't anticipate that happening. But they have from time to time — for example, earlier this fall, they released a video of them practicing this kind of activity.

    And I think that was — that was intended…

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And we have seen the rhetoric increase from Chinese officials, including Xi Jinping.

  • Kurt Tong:

    And that's intended to scare people.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Scare people as a level of deterrence. You don't think it will go beyond that?

  • Kurt Tong:

    I certainly hope not. And I think it would be a mistake if it did.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Which brings us to the U.S. response.

    The U.S. has, in fact, warned China not to go further than it has gone. And we have saw Secretary of State Mike Pompeo today in the State Department say two things. One, he endorsed the idea of that police investigation. And he also gave a little bit of a reference to some — one of the protesters' key demands.

    Let's take a listen.

  • Mike Pompeo:

    We call on Chief Executive Carrie Lam to promote accountability by supplementing the Independent Police Complaints Council review with an independent investigation into the protest-related incidents.

    As the United States government has said repeatedly, the Chinese Communist Party must honor its promises to the Hong Kong people, who only want the freedoms and liberties that they have been promised in the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Must honor its promises and police investigation.

    Is that an adequate U.S. response?

  • Kurt Tong:

    I think that's a good response. Certainly, I think what Secretary Pompeo said is right.

    And that — we need to keep in mind that there is some limits to the reach of the United States to influence events within Hong Kong. But, certainly, calling for a thorough investigation of what has taken place is a natural thing to do in this circumstance and an important thing to do.

    And the reference to the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, I think, is spot on. It's really important for everyone in this circumstance to really think carefully about, what are we trying to achieve? What are they trying to achieve? What are the protesters trying to achieve? What does China want? What does Hong Kong? What does the United States want?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And quickly, in the time we have left, U.S. officials are weighing even more drastic options, for example, even removing some diplomats from Hong Kong, some kind of sanctions.

    Would those moves be positive, do you think?

  • Kurt Tong:

    I think that it depends on who the sanctions are on.

    Removing diplomats, I don't think, is necessary unless it's unsafe. The — I would…

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Could it send a signal, though, to remove diplomats?

  • Kurt Tong:

    It could. But it — would it be effective? I would question that.

    I think that the bigger question here is, whatever the U.S. does, a matter of U.S. policy should be carefully designed to really have an impact on the situation in a positive way, not an emotional response to short-term exigencies, but, rather, how do we reinforce this idea of a Hong Kong that's part of China, but is very different from the rest of China?

    To be specific on that, it's important that the United States not do something that actually ends up hurting the Hong Kong people more than the intended target, which would — in the case of a bad situation there would be the Beijing government.

    If Hong Kong is — no longer has autonomy, then we should treat it like it no longer has autonomy. But if it has autonomy, I don't think we should take away our recognition of that autonomy because of a short-term situation, because Hong Kong serves the United States' interests, being a great place to do business and a communication point for dealing with China.

    And it's also a place where seven million people live, that — most of whom we like. And we don't want to take away their livelihood just to spite Beijing.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Kurt Tong, until July consul general in Hong Kong, thank you very much.

  • Kurt Tong:

    Thank you.

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