Richard Bush on Hong Kong Protest

Richard Bush is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, holds the Chen-Fu and Cecilia Yen Koo Chair in Taiwan Studies, and is director of its Center for East Asia Policy Studies (CEAP). He also holds a joint appointment as a senior fellow in the Brookings John L. Thornton China Center. CEAP is a center for research, analysis, and debate to enhance policy development on the pressing political, economic, and security issues facing East Asia and U.S. interests in the region. 

Cory Diamond CMC'2o interviewed Richard Bush on September 27th, 2019. 

Hong Kong has a history of pro-democracy protests. How are the 2019 protests different from ones in the past?

The 2019 protests are more violent and aggressive than ones in the past. The first major protest was in 2003, and it had to do with a national security law. It was a large protest, but it was conducted according to the rules that the police laid down. In Hong Kong, protesters are required to submit a plan in advance, in part so there's not too much traffic congestion. If the police do not have any objections to the plan, then everything moves forward and the police and the protesters work together.

In the Umbrella Movement of 2014, things broke down. The protesters who led the movement did not abide by the rules and they instead occupied important thoroughfares in Hong Kong and caused significant chaos. In those protests, at least at the beginning, there was also violence, which was a new occurrence. One interesting aspect of that protest was that because the protesters occupied major thoroughfares, it was possible for the authorities and the protesters to create a kind of peaceful coexistence. The police did not attempt to shut it down and the protesters stayed where they were, but did not engage in anything aggressive. There were a couple of exceptions to that, but everybody knew the new rules of the game. Ultimately, it was the courts that brought the protests to an end, and the protesters went along with it.

This time there is a lot more violence because the more radical protesters want to provoke the Hong Kong police into being overly violent, and they have succeeded in that. They probably would not mind provoking China into intervening in Hong Kong as well with the People's Armed Police.

Another new aspect of the current protests is that the protesters chose not to occupy a specific space, such as a thoroughfare or a park. The protesters moved around from one place to another, so it was not always possible for the police to figure out where they were going to be, which contributed to the difficulty of keeping the protests under control.

Finally, the 2014 and 2019 protests differ in terms of the protesters’ demands. In 2019, the protesters’ current demands exceed what the Hong Kong government can reasonably be expected to deliver or what China would reasonably be willing to accept. The demands in 2014 were all about the system for electing the chief executive. I thought the demands then were excessive. This time, the protesters first demand was that consideration of the extradition bill not only be suspended, but be withdrawn, which ultimately Carrie Lam did. The second demand was for Carrie Lam to resign. She would probably like to resign, but she serves at the sufferance of Beijing, and they don’t want her to resign. They want her to take care of this problem.

The protesters are also demanding an independent investigation into police violence, yet they are not calling for an investigation of the violence committed by the protesters. They want amnesty for anybody who was arrested or detained, even if they broke the law.

And finally, they want democratic elections through universal suffrage. That was the whole purpose of the 2014 exercise, which failed for very complicated reasons. This failure wasn't solely Beijing’s fault or the Hong Kong government’s fault. A lot of what has happened since 2014 would not have emerged if the opposition would have been willing to accept a compromise.

How would you assess China’s reaction to the protests in Hong Kong so far? What do you see as Beijing’s main constraints and dominant strategy in dealing with this crisis?

First of all, Beijing was outrageous in blaming the United States for inciting these protests. That said, it is still unclear whose idea it was to put forward the extradition bill in the first place. Carrie Lam says it was her idea, but maybe she is protecting people in Beijing. The law actually had a couple of different parts, and I suspect that Beijing supported only some of these parts. It would be nice to have better information on that.

The truly significant thing is that although Hong Kong has criticized the protests vehemently and threatened to send in the People’s Armed Police, they have not yet done so. This is the case even with the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. They may still send in troops if violence arises, but at least in that respect Beijing has shown restraint.

As to Beijing’s main constraint, the Chinese government doesn’t want to take over the governing of Hong Kong. It wants the Hong Kong government to remain and take care of the protest movement, because if Beijing steps in, it will probably make the situation worse. Apparently the Chinese government doesn’t want Carrie Lam to resign either; instead, they want her to take care of the situation that she helped create.

Finally, the Chinese don’t want the reputational damage in the international community if they intervene, including the damage to their reputation in the United States. From an external point of view this is a classic David versus Goliath struggle, and China is well aware that many in the international community root for David.

Their strategy is to allow and hope that this situation plays itself out, with the protests fizzling out and Hong Kong returning to a more stable situation. However, even if the protests ended tomorrow, there are problems that need to be dealt with in Hong Kong, such as severe inequality, the lack of a good election system and so on. Those will have to be dealt with at some point.

What is the official U.S. policy toward Hong Kong? How have the recent events in Hong Kong affected this policy and American interests in the city?

Official U.S. policy towards Hong Kong is that the U.S. recognizes Hong Kong as a part of China. We accept the arrangements that China has set up. We favor an evolution towards competitive elections, and we were disappointed when that did not happen in 2014/2015. Under the current circumstances, the U.S. opposes violence and supports dialogue between the Hong Kong government and the protesters. I hope the Trump administration understands the subtleties of the situation, however, subtlety is not something the administration is known for.

We may also pass legislation through Congress, but it is not yet clear that legislation will be enacted. It is also not clear what the content of the bill would be, as it is likely to change during the legislative process so the potential impact is unclear. The main American interests in Hong Kong are economic and commercial. But the U.S. has an interest in Hong Kong remaining autonomous in those areas that are important to us, such as technology transfer, law enforcement, narcotics control, and of course liberty and human rights.

How can the U.S. influence the events unfolding in Hong Kong? The Chinese government has accused the U.S. of being a “black hand” in stoking unrest there. Are these accusations justified or supported by facts?

The U.S. has a difficulty in influencing the events because the Chinese propaganda apparatus blames the U.S. for causing all the problems in Hong Kong. This is totally untrue and their accusations are not supported by the facts. However, if we were to get more deeply involved in a way that China deems threatening, it would only serve to confirm their narrative. This is not a good thing, but the U.S. might decide that we have to do it anyway. We have to tread carefully, just like we did in 2014.

Our main weapon here is our rhetoric. Theoretically we might get involved by serving as a mediator between the Hong Kong government and the protesters; but one problem is that either side might not trust us to be fair and even handed. Another more serious problem is that the protest movement is leaderless, so who should we talk to in order to try and work out a compromise? And finally, any compromise will need to be established in a way that the U.S., the Hong Kong government, and the protesters can feel confident that the commitments would be kept.

It has been floated in Washington that the U.S. should threaten to suspend the 1992 Hong Kong Policy Act as deterrence, in case China plans to use force in Hong Kong. Is this a credible threat?

The Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act tightens up certain aspects of the 1992 act, but it really does not change the basic principle. The act is very careful in saying what can be suspended. It is written in such a way that a potential suspension applies to bilateral activities and programs that the U.S. does with Hong Kong, such as law enforcement activities. The standard for suspension relies on the Hong Kong government’s autonomy from Beijing; this is required to cooperate with us in these areas. So, if we discover that the Chinese security service is directing the actions of the Hong Kong police, Hong Kong is no longer autonomous. What gets suspended is that program, not the act as a whole. If you wanted to suspend the entire act you would have to repeal the law, or greatly amend it. The bill in question does not greatly amend it. I am not sure that actions like this would be a sufficient deterrent. In fact, they might validate the Chinese narrative that what the U.S. really wants to intervene and help separate Hong Kong from China.

The people who need to speak up are the leaders of the Hong Kong community, and they need to talk to the Chinese government about all that would be lost should China use force, and that it is in Beijing's best interest not to use force.

Another measure designed to pressure China–the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act–has attracted significant bipartisan support. Can you explain what this act is intended to accomplish?

The act is designed to show that the U.S. cares about Hong Kong, and that certain Chinese actions may trigger a U.S. response. But it’s not clear that parts of the act are enforceable, and some parts of the act are open to differing interpretations. Questions for the future are what content will actually emerge from the bill as it passes from Congress, if it passes at all. And what will President Trump do about it?

Is this act likely to pass Congress? 

One factor to consider is Senator Mitch McConnell, the Senate Majority leader. He usually does not bring bills to the floor that the president does not want him to bring to the floor. President Trump, due to his relationship with Xi Jinping, may decide that he doesn’t want to sign the bill, or, Trump may might not want to incur the criticism that would come from vetoing it. So another possible scenario involves Senator McConnell holding the bill without a vote.




Cory Diamond CMC'20Student Journalist

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