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How will Beijing respond to Hong Kong election results and leaked Uighur documents?

Sunday’s Hong Kong election proved grassroots protesters there have overwhelming support. Although the positions pro-democracy forces won have little power, Chief Executive Carrie Lam vowed to “seriously reflect” on the results. Meanwhile, leaked Communist Party documents shed new light on Chinese persecution of Uighur Muslims. Amna Nawaz talks to University of California San Diego’s Susan Shirk.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    After months of protests in Hong Kong, yesterday brought an extraordinary rebuke of Chinese authority by Hong Kong's voters in local elections, and another startling revelation about Chinese government persecution of Uyghur Muslims.

    Amna Nawaz takes a look at both stories.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Newly elected pro-democracy legislators walking today through debris from last week's fiery clashes at Hong Kong's Polytechnic University.

    Sunday's landslide election made clear the grassroots protesters have the overwhelming support of Hong Kong voters. Pro-democracy forces won control of 17 of 18 district councils in the first election since the unrest began six months ago.

  • Lee Wing-Tat:

    It is a genuine referendum of the people in Hong Kong. The candidates from the Democratic government allies won this election. Democratic Party hope our chief executive, Mrs. Carrie Lam, receives the message, because the votes make a clear voice of the Hong Kong people.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    The increasingly-unpopular Lam is backed by Beijing. She said in a statement that the government will — quote — "seriously reflect on the results."

    The district councils have little power, but Hong Kongers calling for democracy say the outcome is a turning point.

  • Kelvin Wong (through translator):

    I am happy about the election result. A victory in the district council election is the first step for Hong Kong democracy. I am still reasonably optimistic about Hong Kong's future.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    But, in Beijing, China's communist government insisted today that its one country/two systems policy remains firm.

  • Geng Shaung (through translator):

    Stopping the violence and restoring order is the paramount task for Hong Kong at the moment. Hong Kong is China's Hong Kong. Hong Kong's affair is purely China's domestic affair. The Chinese government's resolution of protecting China's sovereignty, security, development and interests is firm.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Hong Kong activists say the election, with record voter turnout exceeding 70 percent, was a resounding rejection of that policy.

  • Joshua Wong:

    People orderly and peacefully lining up outside the voting station early in the morning just because they hope to get the vote, which represented we deserve democracy.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Meanwhile, in Washington, the bipartisan Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act awaits action on President Trump's desk, after easily passing both the House and Senate. The bill would impose sanctions on Hong Kong officials who abuse human rights. But the president has suggested it could also affect trade talks with China.

    Let's explore the stakes in Hong Kong with Susan Shirk. She's the chair of the 21st Century China Program at the University of California, San Diego. She returned from a trip to China this week.

    Susan, thank you very much for being with us.

    I want to ask you about what we just saw. There's now no doubt, we heard, about where the public sentiment in Hong Kong lies.

    So, from the perspective of the Hong Kong government and from the Chinese government in Beijing, how does this change the calculus for what they do next?

  • Susan Shirk:

    Right before I came to the studio, the official media in China had not yet reported the outcome of the election. They did finally report there was the election, but they really haven't reported the results.

    And there's some indication from people on the ground I have heard from that they have been talking to journalists, Chinese journalists, who say that, in fact, the Chinese leadership was surprised by the outcome of the election, and then they are now scrambling to figure out what to do about it.

    It's really remarkable that, despite these large-scale protests that have gone on for months, they still were surprised by the outcome of the election.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    So how do you think these election results changed the dynamic?

  • Susan Shirk:

    If Carrie Lam resigns to kind of take responsibility for the outcome, that might defuse the protests for a while, as people wait and see what more Beijing will do to meet the other demands, including some progress toward more direct elections.

    And, of course, if Carrie Lam has to be replaced, then that also raises the issue of how you select the chief executive.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Susan, you heard in the piece there some people were referring to this as a turning point. Do you believe that it could be that, this could bring about some real change?

  • Susan Shirk:

    Well, you know, it's a test of Xi Jinping's pragmatism.

    Is he really very dogmatic? Did he really believe his own propaganda? Did the internal channels from the liaison office in Hong Kong actually, fearing to give him bad news, give him an unrealistic view of what was happening in Hong Kong?

    If he's pragmatic, then it to seems to me he's likely to do — try to find a way to respond to some of the protesters' demands, at least by getting rid of the very unpopular Carrie Lam.

    Really, this is kind of a fork in the road for Xi Jinping. Is he going to double down on control and indoctrination, or is he going to be flexible and give a little bit in the direction of more direct democratic election of Hong Kong political leaders?

  • Amna Nawaz:

    And, Susan, that is the latest from Hong Kong, but I do want to get your take on a different topic we're also covering today.

    I would like to shift now to mainland China, where leaked Communist Party documents show the internal workings of internment and reeducation camps used to detain a million people.

    The China cables are the first official glimpse into the structure and ideology behind these camps in Northwest China's Xinjiang province, where at least one million Muslim Uyghurs and members of other minority groups are detained on industrial scale.

    The documents show that the Chinese government officials designed the camps as brainwashing centers on a massive scale, with multiple layers of security. Among the other revelations: Camp inmates could be held indefinitely. Camps are run on a points system where inmates earn credits for compliance. Weekly phone calls or monthly video calls are the only contact allowed. And preventing escape is paramount.

    The Chinese foreign minister said documents leaked earlier this month to The New York Times were fabricated.

  • Geng Shuang (through translator):

    They are also sensationalizing these internal documents by using poor tactics, like taking them out of context and grafting them onto another, to undermine and tarnish China's efforts on anti-terrorism and depolarization in Xinjiang.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Foreign affairs correspondent Nick Schifrin sat down with National Security Adviser Robert O'Brien over the weekend at the Halifax Security Forum.

  • Robert O’Brien:

    We have over a million people in concentration examples in Xinjiang. I mean, that's an outrage.

    President Xi has the power of writ in China. What he says goes. And those camps should be closed. They should be dismantled. But it's not just the camps. It's the surveillance infrastructure that's been built in the region.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    Susan Shirk, as we reported, that is the second trove of leaked documents to be published in just over a week, the previous batch by The New York Times.

    Going through the documents, what do we learn in terms of the involvement of President Xi Jinping in these camps and these efforts?

  • Susan Shirk:

    Well, The New York Times' story makes explicit that there's no evidence, no statement in these documents that Xi Jinping actually ordered the establishment of the camps.

    What he did is start a campaign to try to crack down on terrorism in 2014, after a number of terrorist attacks in Xinjiang and, of course, terrorist attacks outside of China as well.

    And he — so, he launched this very harsh campaign of indoctrination to try to undertake thought reform of Uyghurs and other ethnic groups in Xinjiang.

    So, he himself — we don't have the document yet in which he ordered the camps, but, certainly, the establishment of the camps, which was done by provincial officials — at least, that's what the documents tell us — was a response to this campaign launched by Xi Jinping.

    And what's really remarkable about the campaign is it shows that Xi Jinping still believes in this Maoist notion of thought reform. He really believes that this kind of intensive brainwashing can change the way people think.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    What does it say to you that these documents are even being leaked at all, the fact that these are seeing the light of day?

  • Susan Shirk:

    Well, it shows that not everybody in the Chinese bureaucracy and the party and government bureaucracy agrees with this very heavy-handed, repressive police state approach to governing China.

    In fact, the documents, from the standpoint of a China watcher, are really fascinating, because they show that some of the local officials objected to this approach. And, in fact, some officials released people from the camps because they wanted to make sure that they met their economic growth targets.

    And without the labor power, they weren't going to be able to do that. So I think, you know, from outside, China looks so monolithic, but, in fact, I think there are a lot of different points of view, and not everybody agrees with the direction Xi is taking the country.

  • Amna Nawaz:

    That is Susan Shirk of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California, San Diego.

    Thank you for being with us.

  • Susan Shirk:

    My pleasure.

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