On this week’s episode of She Thinks, we cover the ongoing situation in Hong Kong. The current crisis began in June when throngs of Hong Kongers took to the streets to protest the extradition bill. Millions have marched, many while carrying the American flag, asking for the same rights that you and I have. And their fight continues today. Jillian Melchior joins the podcast to explain the situation. She’s not only written extensively on this situation, but has spent time in Hong Kong and experienced firsthand the fight for freedom. Jillian Kay Melchior is Editorial page writer at The Wall Street Journal. She’s a former fellow at IWF and has previously reported for National Review, the Franklin Center, The Daily, Commentary, the Wall Street Journal Asia, with freelance writings appearing in Cosmopolitan, The Weekly Standard, the New York Post and other major publications. Her foreign correspondence has also taken her to China, Iraq, Ukraine and elsewhere in Europe and Asia.
Beverly Hallberg: Welcome to She Thinks, a podcast where you’re allowed to think for yourself. I’m your host, Beverly Halberg and on today’s episode we focus on the ongoing situation in Hong Kong. The current crisis began in June when throngs of Hong Kongers took to the streets to protest the extradition bill but their fight continues to this day. Millions have marched, many while carrying the American flag and asking for the same rights that you and I have.
It’s an important topic and I am excited to have with us Jillian Melchior. She has not only written extensively on the story but has spent time in Hong Kong and has seen firsthand what it’s like for people on the ground and before we bring her on a little bit about Jillian. Jillian Kay Melchior is the editorial page writer at the Wall Street Journal. She is a former fellow right here for our Independent Women’s Forum and she’s a journalist who has previously reported for National Review, The Franklin Center, The Daily Commentary, The Wall Street Journal Asia with freelance writings appearing in Cosmopolitan, The Weekly Standard, the New York Post and other major publications. Her foreign correspondence has also taken her to China, Iraq, Ukraine, and many other places in Europe and Asia including Hong Kong. Jillian it’s a pleasure to have you on today.
Jillian Melchior: Thank you so much for having me.
Beverly: I know you and I were talking about the fact that since June you have been to Hong Kong four times. I want to talk about what you’ve seen on the ground but I think a good place to start is why we see Hong Kong in the situation to begin with and not just the extradition bill but prior to that. So we’re talking about a city that is part of mainland China but hasn’t been part of the government in the same way as the rest of China. So why first of all was Hong Kong separate?
Jillian: Yeah, so Hong Kong used to be a British colony and then in 1984 under Margaret Thatcher as the British were trying to get out of the colonial business they decided to hand Hong Kong over to China, signed something called the Sino British Joint Declaration. It’s an international agreement and basically what happened is in 1997 Hong Kong was handed over to China, but the promise under the joint declaration was for the next 50 years Hong Kong would be governed under one country, two systems. That means it’s part of China but that Beijing promised in this international treaty that it was going to preserve everything from freedom of speech, freedom of the press, to religious freedom. So that’s where this story starts.
Unfortunately, in 2017 China’s foreign ministry came out of the blue without permission from great Britain much less the Hong Kong people and said that the joint declaration, this agreement no longer had any practical significance and that it wasn’t binding for the central governance management over Hong Kong. So I think what we’ve seen is particularly over the past decade a gradual erosion of Hong Kong’s rights, a more aggressive position from China toward Hong Kong and to Hong Kong people this is devastating. They grew up with a colonial legacy, all the best of great Britain, a system of rule of law, really strong courts, respect for their freedom. So I think it’s been really agonizing for many Hong Kongers to see this under a threat now.
Beverly: And has great Britain said much? Have you seen any of the leaders there speak about this and what the Hong Kongers are going through?
Jillian: Well, they’ve said that the world expects China to live up to its obligation and that the joint declaration remains as valid today as it did when it was signed 35 years ago. They say it’s legally binding but I always think it’s important for international leaders to speak out on this because it’s not just an issue of Hong Kong this gets to the core issue of whether China is a good faith actor, whether it respects its international agreements. So, Hong Kong is one of those places that’s a litmus test for China’s ability and its commitment to being a good actor internationally.
Beverly: So let’s talk about then what took place in June. As you said this came out of the blue but what exactly did China do about the Extradition bill, what does that mean and why were Hong Kongers so ready to protest, leave work, do whatever they could do to try to prevent this from happening?
Jillian: Yeah. This was quite remarkable. So the legislative council, which is like their Congress, came up with this bill they were very aggressively pushing forward and what it would do is anyone in Hong Kong, I’m not just talking about Hong Kongers but if you were an American businessmen if you even stopped down at the Hong Kong international airport, under the extradition legislation you would have been vulnerable to have the Chinese government basically put out a warrant for your arrest, take you up in Hong Kong, haul you off to mainland China where you’d be subjected to their courts, to their prisons, to potentially arbitrary detention, to all of these things that we know are problems within the Chinese legal system. So Hong Kongers rightly saw this as something that would totally negate rule of law in Hong Kong and it would basically subject them to a mainland China system of justice and they wanted to oppose this as hard as they could.
So in early June we thought a protest of about a million people. That’s when I knew that this was going to be a big story. So I talked to my editors the next morning, booked a flight and I was on the plane to [inaudible 00:05:53] the next night. Arrived early on the morning of June 12th was when they were going to try to push this forward, dropped my stuff off at the hotel, ran straight out to the protest. And I think that was another really important day because hong Kongers have a reputation for peaceful protests. That day I saw Hong Kong police respond to peaceful protests in a violent way. They started tear gassing protesters. People were running back into this upscale mall. It was just this surreal scene, a place where I used to go shopping and go to the movies all of the sudden was transformed into what felt a lot like a war zone. And from there it’s just escalated I think.
So Hong Kongers were able to get the chief executive to back down on the extradition bill. She said she wouldn’t pass it immediately and then eventually this fall she withdrew it but what we’ve seen since then is Hong Kongers greater anxiety. They don’t believe that the Chinese government intends to leave them alone, intends to allow them to preserve their freedoms. And at the same time some of what I saw on June 12th has gotten significantly worse. We’ve seen escalating levels of police violence, a lot of arrests of protesters who were behaving peaceful activity, arrests that seem arbitrary.
And so now, this movement that began with the extradition bill has expanded into something much greater. Hong Kongers want withdrawal of the extradition bill but at various points they’ve also demanded the right to universal suffrage. They don’t want to participate in a rigged system anymore. They want to be able to choose a chief executive and legislators that actually will fight for their rights and represent them. And then in addition to that they want, the people who’ve already been arrested, they want a pardon for them. So I think if you’re looking at their five demands what’s at the core of those is pushing back on mainland China’s encroachment into Hong Kong and also creating a system where there is accountability for police violence, where there’s an independent investigation into how the police have behaved themselves. Because Hong Kongers, they’ve grown up in a system that is very cosmopolitan, it’s a place known for its rule of law that’s why it’s an international financial capital and they’re terrified that this is the end of Hong Kong.
Beverly: Yeah and I know for years Hong Kong has been either number one or number two on the economic freedom of the world report. So as you were saying this is a place where there is a lot of financial investment. I personally went there about a year and a half ago, loved the city, thought it was wonderful and like you were saying to see it transform now I was not there on the ground like you were going through it but to just see the images it was just shocking to see it. Do you think that the people of Hong Kong when they started protesting, as you mentioned peaceful protests, do you think that they thought they were going to be met with the violence by the Chinese military that they were met with?
Jillian: Well, right now it’s the Hong Kong police and I think that’s something that China’s done learning from [inaudible 00:08:56] square. I think what we’re seeing right now is a situation where you’re not necessarily going to have the tanks roll into the street you’re going to have a much more slow mo crackdown. So we’ve seen now more than 6,000 arrests, people who participated in even peaceful protests now facing up to 10 years in prison. That’s the risk when you go out and show up for these protests. So, and then in addition to that there have been pro-democracy activists that have just been going about their daily lives and thugs which many people think are affiliated or are egged on by the government have jumped them and beat them up. So there are several reasons for people to be afraid I don’t think that it’s necessarily going to be the tanks rolling in.
But yeah to Hong Kongers this is a complete shock. I mean, when I lived there in 2009 I remember people saying that their police department was their pride and joy, that they were just so proud of the rule of law about how safe and clean their city was. And so, it’s =completely surreal to be out there and to be watching as in my neighborhood of Wanchai Molotov cocktails are flying. You’ve got police firing tear gas and rubber bullets. There was one journalist who was actually shot in the eye and blinded in that eye. So, it is something completely unprecedented on the part of the Hong Kong police and unfortunately that sparked a sense of hopelessness among a lot of protesters. I really want to emphasize the vast majority of Hong Kongers who have participated in these protests have been peacefully, have been orderly.
I’ve even seen them at times going in and making sure they cleaned up the trash along the protest routes. But at the same time I think one reflection of this hopelessness is there’s a small portion of protesters who believe that peaceful protests won’t accomplish anything, that they can only protects their rights through the use of violence, vandalizing property that they affiliate with the Chinese government or Chinese businesses. It’s really sad to watch that happen because I think it muddies the water. It’s certainly a point that the Chinese government uses as propaganda against the protesters. It wants to portray all of them as rioters and as unruly, disorderly as violent people and that just hasn’t been the case from my experience. These are in many cases, 16, 17, 18, 19 year olds who are out protesting for their freedoms, they want what Americans have and they’ve been able to articulate why those freedoms are important in a way that’s just incredibly moving. They’re mature beyond their years.
Beverly: And to give us some context for it you talked about how many people have been involved in these protests or at least when you decided to fly out there in June you said about a million. How many people live in Hong Kong?
Jillian: So I think the biggest protest so far was about 2 million and there are about 7 million people living in Hong Kong.
Beverly: So you’re talking about a significant percentage of people who are stopping work, business as usual isn’t going on and willing to take the risk knowing that they could be physically harmed, they could be put in jail to go out there and fight for their rights.
Jillian: Yeah, it’s really from all across Hong Kong society and I think that’s been one of the remarkable things for me to see. So in 2016 there was the umbrella movement which was another protest movement in Hong Kong. This one people were occupying a downtown area fighting for universal suffrage. It wasn’t ultimately successful but that movement was really led by students, it was led by young people. What’s different about this movement is when you go out and see one of these protests it’s literally people from across Hong Kong society. You have the young people who are the heart and soul of the movement but I’ve been out and interviewed a bunch of grandmas and grandpas that were out there saying, “We need to fight for our next generation.” When I was out there recently there were people participating in the protest in wheelchairs, there were teachers, there were social workers, lawyers. I mean just about everyone you could possibly imagine, business people who are really concerned that if China destroys Hong Kong’s rule of law it will wreck the economy. I mean it’s quite literally everyone participating.
And I think you saw this reflected also in November, they had districts council elections. That’s one of the very few posts where Hong Kongers actually have the right to universal suffrage. They can elect these district counselors that are like your local city counselors. They have power over the bus stops and the parks. It’s not a huge political position, most of the power is symbolic but you saw Hong Kongers registering to vote in record numbers, you saw them shoot up outside the polls and pro-democracy candidates won in a landslide.
So I think what you’ve got here is a broad base of support for the democracy movement, for the freedom movement and a lot of Hong Kongers who realize that if they end up becoming more like China that they will lose their religious freedoms, that they will lose their freedom of speech, their freedom of assembly, and that they’ll essentially has to live in fear of an authoritarian regime. If you’re out there talking to them they’re very knowledgeable about what’s happening to the Uyghurs, the Muslim population in Xinjiang’s province that have, at least a million have been put in concentration camps and I think they’re really fearful of this. This is, a million, two million sounds like a lot of people but it’s not when you’re looking at the biggest authoritarian country in the world. I think what they’re doing is extraordinarily courageous and I’m very worried for them.
Beverly: When we first saw the images of them waving the American flag I think those of us here in the states watching it, it hits your heart in a certain way to see them doing that. Do you think of the reason they did that not just to show we want the same rights as Americans have but to also speak to us here too so that we can also use our voices to speak for them? Was that a calling card by them for us to speak out?
Jillian: It was it absolutely was. And one thing that’s been somewhat helpful is Congress passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. What that does is the United States acknowledges that Hong Kong is legally and politically different than mainland China and as a result of that for decades we’ve given them special privileges on everything from trade, to banking, to aviation. And that piece of legislation basically says that if China erases those differences, if it blurs the legal lines between Hong Kong and mainland China, that those privileges won’t be afforded anymore. Now that’s important because a lot of Chinese communist cadres have their money socked away in Hong Kong. So that’s one source of political leverage.
But yeah, what I hear from Hong Kongers they were really encouraged that that passed, they think it’ll make a difference. But more than that what they tell me is that we’re on the frontline here against China. Today China is our problem, tomorrow it’s going to be the world’s problem. So look at Hong Kong, look at whether Beijing is willing to respect its international agreements, look how it treats us and that’s evidence of what the Chinese communist party is. If you want to know what China looks like under this authoritarian regime look to Hong Kong and I think they really see themselves not only on the front line of an increasingly dangerous protest movement but on the frontline of a geopolitical problem that’s relevant to everyone.
Beverly: And there has been criticism of president Trump, many who think he hasn’t spoken out in favor or in support of Hong Kong enough, now some are saying he has to do this for political reasons because he’s working on trade deals with China. You mentioned Congress and what they did, obviously the president had to sign that and be supportive of it. Do you think that the president is having to tow the line between economically working on trade deals with China but also showing he supports the rights that Hong Kongers have? Do you think that he’s thread that needle well or has it been muddied?
Jillian: I think it’s been muddied but I think the big takeaway is if you’re looking at the Chinese state run media, they were wailing and gnashing their teeth about the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. They were so upset you would’ve thought it was the end of the world. I mean it was really hyperbolic condemnation of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. But right after that we saw extraordinary progress on trade. So I think the takeaway for the Trump administration here is that China may moan about this, they may be quite upset about it, but at the end of the day Xi Jinping is going to make these decisions based on real politics calculations.
And the thing to understand about China is, and this is something Hong Kongers understand very well, that the government in Beijing does not derive its legitimacy from the consent of the governed. Any claims to legitimacy it has, its whole social contract is based on the promise that it will provide economic prosperity for its citizens. So anytime you see something hoarding the economy it’s putting Chinese communists partying in jeopardy. I think it’s weakening their grip on power. So I think that the United States have much more leverage than it has used to speak out assertively on human rights. I really think Xi Jinping and a lot of those cadres know that their grip on power is on the line here, that they need to have a strong economy.
Beverly: What is day to day life right now for most Hong Kongers? We haven’t seen as much coverage in the past couple of weeks now that could be the holidays on our part but what is the day to day conflict like with the police and with the citizens?
Jillian: It’s bad, to be honest it’s really bad. So, on Christmas, on Christmas Eve, on New Year’s, you saw these protests where people showed up where the police responded with a great deal of violence, were firing tear gas in crowds. It’s completely unpredictable right now. If you’re in Hong Kong you don’t know if the subways are going to be shut down, everything is completely disrupted and we’re seeing these protest stretch on to, they’re now in their seventh month. So, and this is not just a weekend phenomenon. When it started people would go out and protest on Saturday or Sunday and have a sense of peaceful over the city during the work week. That’s no longer the case. You see protests happening constantly and some of it’s happening, if you go to a shopping mall a protest might pop up there, the police might come in and start firing tear gas indoors.
So I think there’s a sense of fear but also a real sense of determination. A lot of the people that I talk to say that if we don’t fight for these freedoms now we’re going to lose them for good. And so, there’s a determination and also a weariness. I think there’s also a little bit of fear setting in because in the early months of the protests there was some optimism. There was some sense that they had won withdrawal with the extradition bill. But I think there’s definitely a sense of there’s no going back now and what that means is it could potentially be quite frightening.
Beverly: And that is really how I wanted to round out this conversation is to talk about where you think things go from here. I think many of us watching this horrified by what’s taking place but also understand the reality of how brutal the Chinese government is and how they likely are not going to go away quietly and will continue even if they are biding their time and doing of course violence through the Hong Kong police but who knows what happens in the future. I’m sure you don’t want to give a prediction but do you see, are you optimistic? Do you think that they have hope?
Jillian: I am not incredibly optimistic and here’s why. So I think you’ve got the protesters laying out five demands. They’ve got the withdrawal of the extradition bill but we have not seen an investigation into alleged police brutality or misconduct. We haven’t seen the release of those who are arrested. Authorities are still designating the protestors as rioters which is something that can carry a 10 year sentence. And we still don’t have any promise that there’s going to be universal suffrage in Hong Kong. So I think that as the protests go on and as the level of police violence escalates you’re going to see more protesters taking to the streets, you’re going to see more unfortunately engaging in disruptive behavior and that’s going to, it’s a vicious cycle where the more violent the police get the more out of control the protests feel and those things are just escalating with no end in sight.
Now, if Beijing wanted compromise I think it could find a compromise that would be starting this independent investigation into the police violence and then with an amnesty potentially saying that look there were some protesters who engaged in illegal behavior, there were also some police that engaged in illegal behavior. So doing a maybe like a blanket amnesty I think would be a path out of that but there has been no sign right now that Beijing is going to compromise. In fact, what we’ve seen is increasingly harsh rhetoric, state run media saying that these protesters are essentially behaving as terrorists that, “You guys need to stop taking to the streets because this can’t go on forever and things might get worse.” So I think on both sides rather than searching for compromise there’s a real doubling down and I’m not sure where that’s going to end.
Beverly: Final question for you for those listening and I think many people feel this way we wish we could do something is there anything that can be done? I know there is, you have gone, you’ve written about it, you’ve written about it beautifully trying to, I think capturing the fear and the heart of the people who are worried about losing their rights. What do you think whether it’s government or individual citizens is there a call to action? Is there anything that we can do?
Jillian: Well, I think passing the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act was an important first step but I would say it’s really important for elected officials to keep Hong Kong in the forefront, to keep watching and to not sacrifice our values of standing up for people who want the same freedom that we have. It’s easy to make the argument I think that if we’re too harsh against China that it’s going to jeopardize chances on a trade deal but that’s not what we’ve seen so far. So if anything I would hope that our elected officials, President Trump in particular, continues to take a strong line and say that what happens in Hong Kong matters to the world.
When it happens Hong Kongers notice, it’s quite remarkable if Trump tweets out something in support of Hong Kong protesters or if a politician does the response on Twitter they really take heart. And that’s the same thing that I’ve seen on the ground. They’re watching what the United States is doing. They want what we have. And every time we do that, every time we speak out on their behalf I think it reinforces our commitment to the free people of the world.
Beverly: Well, Jillian thank you so much for joining us and also your writing on this issue, even the security risks you take by going to Hong Kong and being on the ground and getting the real story and telling us what’s really going on. So thank you for your work and I appreciate your time today.
Jillian: Thank you so much for having me
Beverly: And thank you all for joining us today. Before you go I did want to let you know of another great podcast you should subscribe to in addition to She Thinks it’s called Problematic Women and it’s hosted by Kelsey Bolar and Lauren Evans where they both sort through the news to bring stories and interviews that are of particular interest to conservative leaning or problematic women, that is women whose views and opinions are often excluded or mocked by those on the so called feminist left. Every Thursday hear them talk about everything from pop culture to policy and politics by searching for Problematic Women wherever you get your podcasts. Last, if you enjoyed this episode of She Thinks do leave us a rating or a review on iTunes it does help and we’d love it if you shared this episode so your friends know where they can find more She Thinks episodes. From all of us here at Independent Women’s Forum thanks for listening.