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With Hong Kong crackdown, Xi Jinping signals he’ll pay a high price for power

Hong Kong is reeling from the impact of a new national security law imposed by the central government in Beijing. After nearly 25 years of relative freedom, residents are confronting a new reality in the semi-autonomous city. And the change has major implications for U.S. foreign policy. Nick Schifrin talks to Susan Shirk, a top State Department official for Asia during the Clinton administration.

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  • Judy Woodruff:

    And now to Hong Kong, where, today, the city reeled from the effect of a new national security law imposed yesterday by the central government in Beijing.

    After nearly a quarter-century of relative freedom, there is a new reality in Hong Kong. And there's a new reality, too, for the U.S., as it deals with the rising power of China.

    Here's Nick Schifrin.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Judy, there is not much that Republicans and Democrats in Congress agree on, but, in the last day, the House and the Senate both unanimously passed a piece of legislation.

    Take a listen to Republican Senator Pat Toomey and Democratic Senator Chris Van Hollen.

  • Sen. Pat Toomey, R-Pa.:

    Several years from now, we're going to look back on July 1 of 2020 as a milestone in the Chinese Communist Party's aggression and hostility towards Hong Kong.

  • Sen. Chris Van Hollen, D-Md.:

    I hope that President Trump will sign this immediately, immediately. As a country, Republicans and Democrats together need to send a strong signal.

    Those are the two senators who sponsored the Hong Kong Autonomy Act, which requires the administration to sanction individuals who have anything to do with, what Congress says, the crackdown on Hong Kong's economy, the erosion of Hong Kong's British era rule of law, as well as any kind of crackdown on the freedom of speech of Hong Kong residents.

    It also requires sanctions on any banks that actually do business with those individuals.

    To talk about the act, the recent Beijing national security act imposed on Hong Kong, as well as where this leaves U.S.-China relations, I'm joined by Susan Shirk, a former senior State Department official who chairs the 21st century China Center at the University of California, San Diego.

    Susan Shirk, welcome back to the "NewsHour."

    Bottom line, can this kind of act change Chinese behavior?

  • Susan Shirk:

    No, it won't.

    This — Xi Jinping will not reverse this act. I don't think anything that the world can do at this point will cause him to step down. He has been determined to stamp out any threats in what is China, because Hong Kong is part of China, any threats to Chinese Communist Party rule and to his rule.

    And he appears to be willing to pay a high price to do that. He will pay a high price in terms of his reputation, China's reputation as a responsible power. And I think he will spur a global coalition to condemn China, condemn this action. But I see no prospect of any flexibility on his part.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    The specific actions that senior administration officials I talk to that believe that they can somehow change Chinese behavior include two things, one, sanctioning senior Chinese officials and naming those officials and, two, some kind of reaching out to civil society in Hong Kong to, at the very least, give them access to the United States.

    Can either of those actions help?

  • Susan Shirk:


    I definitely favor the approach of sanctioning Chinese officials responsible for the end of the one country/two systems Hong Kong autonomy. That's a much better approach than changing our treatment of Hong Kong, which is what President Trump earlier said he would do, which is, for years, we have treated Hong Kong separately, as a separate customs territory, in our economic regulations, trade status, and various other types of cooperation.

    Even more, think we need to strengthen our ties with Hong Kong civil society, universities, NGOs. And I even think we ought to join with the U.K. and with Japan and Taiwan. These countries are offering to take in, basically, political refugees from Hong Kong.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Want to zoom out a little bit.

    The national security legislation that Beijing has imposed on Hong Kong is sweeping. Anyone can be arrested or jailed for talking about separating Hong Kong from Beijing, from anyone who gets any kind of support from foreign country, even — quote — "provokes hatred" of Beijing.

    What does the legislation itself say about the nature of the government in Beijing?

  • Susan Shirk:

    Well, it does give us — it is so heavy-handed, it is so vague, so poorly drafted, so expansive, including a kind of global scope.

    You don't have to be a Hong Kong citizen to be punished under this law. So, it is so over the top that what it really tells us is that Xi Jinping is a very different type of Chinese leader than his predecessors.

    Previous leaders were willing to tolerate Hong Kong autonomy because they had pragmatic interests in Hong Kong as an important place for global finance and trade to help the development of the Chinese economy.

    Now Xi Jinping has signaled to us he is willing to sacrifice all of that, in order to prevent any threat to the power of the party and to himself in China. And I think he may actually really believe that all of the pro-democracy sentiment, the millions of people who are out on the street in Hong Kong, the people who voted for pro-democracy legislators in the local elections a few months ago, are somehow doing that because of foreign subversion.

    I mean, that is a ludicrous idea, but it appears that Xi Jinping may actually believe it.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    If you don't mind my saying, some of the language you are using right now sounds a little different from what I have heard and read from you over the years.

    You have been a long advocate of more engagement with Beijing. Have you rethought that?

  • Susan Shirk:

    Well, I have to confess that, yesterday, I was questioning a lot of my prior assumptions about what kind of rising power China is.

    I had been an advocate of trying to compete with China, but also to engage diplomatically with China in order to resolve our most serious disputes. But I am not sure how you deal with Xi Jinping's regime. And I am rethinking a lot of my premises about what — how the United States should really deal with this type of regime.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Susan Shirk, thank you very much.

  • Susan Shirk:

    Thank you.

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