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What Hong Kong’s backpedal on China extradition law means for Beijing

Huge demonstrations in Hong Kong protesting a proposed Chinese extradition law seem to have paid off, as the city’s chief executive has indefinitely suspended the controversial legislation. What does the backtracking mean for Hong Kong and Beijing? Nick Schifrin talks to Lee Cheuk Yan, a co-founder of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party, and Doug Paal of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    Hong Kong is in the middle of the most significant protests since a 2014 pro-democracy movement known as the Umbrella Revolution.

    This weekend, protesters gained a substantial win when the city's chief executive suspended controversial legislation that would allow for the extradition of suspected criminals to mainland China. But, on Sunday, they said that wasn't enough. And two million filled the streets to demand the permanent withdrawal of the legislation and the resignation of Chief Executive Carrie Lam.

    The demonstrators were out again today and say they are taking on not only the legislation, but also the Beijing government that is behind it.

    We begin our coverage with Matt Frei of Independent Television News, who is in Hong Kong.

  • Matt Frei:

    If the Umbrella Revolution had a recognizable figurehead, it is this young man who was released from jail this morning. Joshua Wong was only 17 when the protests started five years ago. He spent a month in prison for contempt of court. But as soon as he got out this morning, his contempt of the leadership was undimmed.

  • Joshua Wong:

    Unless the whole world lets the international communities to realize that how Hong Kong people will not keep silence under the suppression of President Xi and the chief executive, Carrie Lam. Carrie Lam must step found.

  • Matt Frei:

    So, in the hours after his release, and a quick change of shirt, from white to back, Joshua Wong was back, doubling down on message and microphones.

    In the cloud, Raki, an accountant, felt inspired.

  • Woman:

    Yes. He just got back like five hours ago, and he just came down here with us and doing our things to protect Hong Kong.

  • Matt Frei:

    If the government here thought the protests were exhausted, they were wrong once again. The millions of yesterday may have gone back to work, but the thousands who keep up the pressure now know they can count on the rest to come out if necessary, people power on demand summoned by WhatsApp.

  • Man:

    The whole world is watching!

  • Matt Frei:

    It is indeed. The whole world is watching, and China is recording it, too.

    These cameras are mounted on the Chinese army headquarters. What happens here matters because Hong Kong is the canary in China's gold mine. And China may dominate this century like America dominated the last.

    Do you think, in the end, you will change China or China change you?

  • Eddie Chu:

    I think we are building an international alliance to fight against a new type of authoritarian rule of China. We are not alone. A bigger enemy is coming.

  • Matt Frei:

    What is the bigger enemy?

  • Eddie Chu:

    The bigger enemy is the Communist Party in China trying to bridge capitalism with authoritarian rule, and do it with the latest A.I. technology.

  • Judy Woodruff:

    That report from Matt Frei of Independent Television News.

    So what is motivating the demonstrators in Hong Kong? And what do the actions of Hong Kong's chief administrator say about Beijing's motivations?

    Nick Schifrin has more.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Judy, for months, Hong Kong residents have been demonstrating in large numbers against that extradition law, but the estimated two million demonstrators for Sunday's march was unprecedented in recent memory.

    To talk about that, I'm joined by Lee Cheuk Yan, a former member of the Legislative Council of Hong Kong and co-founder of the Labor Party.

    Thank you very much for coming on the "NewsHour."

    Give us a sense, how momentous are these demonstrations?

  • Lee Cheuk Yan:

    This time, it's two million people marched.

    It all surprised everyone when the people so angry. We believe that the whole march is a turning point for Hong Kong. Our freedom space is being squeezed, and now we are coming back. And so, this march, one million, and in a week time, two million, is record-breaking, and it really shows that people of Hong Kong are determined to fight the bill.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Why do you say that people feel that their freedom is being squeezed? And why has this issue especially made people so angry?

  • Lee Cheuk Yan:

    Most of us do not trust the judicial system in China.

    And the stories about the China human rights defender spending four years in jail without going on trial, what if this China judicial system, they are trumping up charges, they are famous for torture, are going to get their claw into Hong Kong, and grab people out back to China to be on trial?

    So, people are really afraid. We thought we have a firewall. But now it's all broken. They want to break, break, break it, and grab people out back to China.

    What happened if some foreigner is in Hong Kong? They can grab any foreign investor back to China. And that would be also end of Hong Kong as a vibrant economic city, international city.

    So all the economic, political, everything together, and people want to fight back.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Hong Kong's chief executive, Carrie Lam, says she will postpone the extradition bill indefinitely. Is that good enough?

  • Lee Cheuk Yan:

    That's not good enough.

    We want total withdrawal, firstly, because postponing, people will read it as delaying tactics, and then she can revive it. It's no longer just about the bill. It's also about the arrogance of Carrie Lam not listening to the people, a kind of, you know, violence, police violence,, that we are really scared of the people and feel very angry that police are suppressing the people of Hong Kong.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Chief Executive Lam argues that the law wouldn't be used to prosecute anyone based on their race, religion, nationality or, to your point, political opinion. Does that reassure you at all?

  • Lee Cheuk Yan:

    Yes, China says that they didn't have any political prisoners. Does that reassure you?

    We are not talking about Hong Kong's judicial system. We are talking about Beijing's political, judicial system. In Hong Kong, the court cannot protect us. So, it only takes a witness statement in China. You cannot in a Hong Kong court sort of cross-examine the witness.

    So Hong Kong court cannot do anything. And China judicial system can do — and good at trumping up charges.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    What do you think this weekend says about how Beijing considers and sees these protests? And how might they respond in the future?

  • Lee Cheuk Yan:

    We have come out. We have won, to certain extent, and international recognition. And lots of governments condemn Carrie Lam, and behind her, of course, Beijing. So Beijing loses face.

    What I worried now is maybe we have advance in the democracy movement, in the people movement, but then they will remember. They will step up their monitoring all the opposition figures in Hong Kong. And so — and also, in the future, they will do something to sort of suppress the opposition.

    So they will take the revenge, and that is what worries me. But we are good at fighting back, so I hope that we will be still OK in the future.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Lee Cheuk Yan joining us via Skype from Hong Kong, thank you very much.

  • Lee Cheuk Yan:

    Thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And to talk more about the end of that interview, Hong Kong's future and Beijing's possible actions, we turn to Doug Paal, a distinguished fellow at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace and former senior director for Asian affairs on the National Security Council staff and member of the State Department's policy planning staff.

    Welcome back to the "NewsHour." Thanks very much.

  • Doug Paal:

    Thank you.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Hong Kong demonstrators have achieved a bit of a short-term win right now, but what about median term, longer term? Do you expect tensions between these demonstrators and the government of Hong Kong to increase?

  • Doug Paal:

    I hope they don't increase in the short term.

    We have just bypassed a real tragedy in Hong Kong. And the retreat of the government, in the face of this overwhelming political support for the opposition, was a wise thing to.

    Beijing's long-term desire to control and to homogenize Hong Kong into the rest of China, however, is not going to be given up easily. It's temporarily not expedient for China to have a bloodbath on the streets of Hong Kong, or, even less than that, a real crackdown, but it would be in the long-term interests to continue the pressure and salami-slicing tactics they have used over the last years.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    To try and increase their control on Hong Kong?

  • Doug Paal:

    Increase control and reduce the amount of dissent that comes within Chinese body politic from Hong Kong.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So let's talk about the effect of Hong Kong on the Chinese politics.

    How embarrassing is this for Xi Jinping, the president of China, and are officials trying to pretend that they had nothing to do with it?

  • Doug Paal:

    Well, as Mr. Lee was just saying in your segment, he has lost face as a leader.

    Xi didn't put his personal stamp on all this, but nobody believes this would have gone forward without his at least tacit approval. And now that he's had to yield a little bit, people will say this as an opportunity to take him down a peg, to show he doesn't have the universal wisdom and the knowledge of the situation that he pretends to have.

    But this is not going to be short term. The Chinese think long term, especially the Communist Party.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    So, talk about, as you put it, the universal wisdom that is that Xi is perceived to have as president of China. There is a sense in this country that Xi Jinping is kind of all-powerful. Does he have opponents? And will they use this against him?

  • Doug Paal:

    It doesn't take much of a visit to China to encounter within and without of government widespread unhappiness with Xi Jinping's rule.

    And it really was accentuated when he extended his tenure to be lifelong tenure without limitation a year-plus ago. So there's a lot of latent opposition.

    Manifest opposition is tough in China, because Xi controls the public security and propaganda apparatuses. But people are really looking for opportunities to trip him up. Sometimes, the best opportunities are when he himself makes a mistake. And then people exploit that to say, he's not quite the leader we thought he was.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And so this will be seen as a mistake. And how will the people who are opposed to him use that, given the fear that so many people have in China of the surveillance state and Xi Jinping?

  • Doug Paal:

    Well, it's always complicated, because these are shadow games.

    Some of them will want Xi to make more mistakes, to push, for example, the U.S. trade war too far, to go too far on putting pressure on China's neighbors on territorial claims, because that might bring him to a downfall.

    Others might want him to moderate and make some more room for their own voices in the Chinese system. A whole class of people who are like Xi Jinping were there to help him when he first came to power. But he's now been shoving them aside. And they would like back in at the table.

    And I think they will have their own various means of trying to do that.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    You mentioned the trade war today. Here in Washington, there's discussion for another round of possible tariffs. The trade war goes on.

    What is the impact of something like Hong Kong on U.S.-China relations and on the trade talks?

  • Doug Paal:

    Well, it's a multilevel game right now.

    Xi Jinping is trying to strengthen his hand going into meeting with Donald Trump, if there is a formal meeting in Japan at the end of June, by visiting Putin twice in Central Asia and St. Petersburg. And now he is scheduled to visit later this week to North Korea.

    He wants to be the player that comes with lots of allies and lots of cards to put on the table before he meets with Trump. And at the same time, if he goes too far, he may alienate the U.S. and put China into a more difficult economic vice, as the trade tariffs are magnified by a large extent in the aftermath of a failed meeting.

    So he's kind of got to find a balancing point. It's been summarized in party official documents just this past weekend, where they say, on the one hand, we're not afraid to fight Ike, go to Korea, fight the Americans in the world, in the Korean War. On the other side — other hand, we're not afraid to bargain and to make the necessary compromises.

    So he's trying to strike a balanced position. And all of these elements come into it. Hong Kong blowing up wouldn't have been helpful for his purposes, and in these circumstances.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Absolutely.

    Doug Paal, distinguished fellow Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, thank you very much.

  • Doug Paal:

    You're welcome.

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