IRENE YOON: Good evening. On behalf of the Los Angeles Review of Books it’s my pleasure to welcome you to tonight’s discussion Hong Kong Against the Odds.
At a time when the sheer amount of news out there tempts us to reduce difficult situations to sound bytes and headlines just to make it through the day. I’d like to express our sincere gratitude to all of you for setting aside the next hour and a half to join us. While this is the first such event on Hong Kong that LARB has hosted, the practice of valuing nuanced, well-researched and time-intensive takes is, of course, essential to the work that we do as a book review magazine and nonprofit literary arts organization. So to those of you who are old friends of ours, thank you for your continued support of LARB. And to those of you who are new to us, we’re thrilled to have you and welcome you to learn more about us and our work at lareviewofbooks.org.
I’m Irene Yoon, the Executive Director here at LARB, and it’s my honor to introduce our guests this evening, Samuel Chu, Mary Kay Magistad, Jeff Wasserstrom, and Congressman Katie Porter, who will be joining us in a little while. First, a quick note regarding the format of the discussion. Tonight’s conversation will take place in two parts. For the first half hour Samuel, Mary Kay, and Jeff will discuss the origins and dimensions of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and its place within China’s domestic sphere. We’ll then open it up to some questions from you, the audience, followed by a second round of discussion, joined by Congresswoman Porter, about the protest movement’s international implications, US involvement, and the economic forces at play. The event will conclude with another round of questions from the audience. If you’d like to submit a question, please use the Zoom Q&A function or the YouTube Live Chat. We understand that this is a sensitive subject that may elicit strong sentiments, but we do request that all participants keep their discourse productive and respectful. So without further ado, it’s my pleasure to introduce this evening’s speakers.
Samuel Chu is the founding Managing Director of the Hong Kong Democracy Council, a DC based nonprofit organization dedicated to raising support and awareness in the US and abroad for democracy and human rights in Hong Kong. Samuel’s long career in activism started earlier than most when as an 11-year-old, he went with his father to visit Chinese political dissidents as they were helping to smuggle them out of Hong Kong in the aftermath of Tiananmen Square. Here in the US, Samuel was the founding president of OneLA Industrial Areas Foundation, a broad-based coalition mobilizing local communities in Los Angeles to take action on issues such as health care for all, criminal justice reform, and housing security, and he continues to lead local and national advocacy campaigns around issues of food insecurity as the National Organizer for the Jewish nonprofit MAZON. Because of his work with HKDC, Samuel was unfortunately one of the first activists the Chinese government issued an arrest warrant for shortly after the implementation of the Hong Kong national security law this summer, which I’m sure we’ll discuss further in tonight’s conversation.
Mary Kay Magistad is the creator and host of the podcast “On China’s New Silk Road” through the Global Reporting Center. In it, Mary Kay partners with local journalists on five continents to provide an in-depth examination of China’s sweeping global infrastructure initiative, and the impact its investments are having on the ground. It’s a truly fascinating podcast, and the fifth of nine episodes just dropped today. So if you haven’t listened to it yet, you have time to catch up before the sixth one comes out next week! Mary Kay brings to her podcast and tonight’s conversation over two decades of experience covering China and Southeast Asia as an award-winning foreign correspondent for The Washington Post, NPR, and PRX’s “The world.” During that time, Mary Kay opened the Beijing bureau of NPR and was on the ground to cover, among many other things, the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997.
Congresswoman Katie Porter some of you no doubt know as your house representative for California’s 45th district. Many others still may recognize her from her tough and effective questioning of administrative administration officials and bank executives on the hill, including one, I think, today. Before her election to Congress, Representative Porter spent nearly two decades advocating on behalf of consumers and families as a consumer protection attorney, law professor, and California’s independent watchdog against the banks in the aftermath of the housing crisis. And long before that, she had spent time living and teaching in Hong Kong. So we’re looking forward to having Congresswoman Porter join us later this evening.
Jeff Wasserstrom is Chancellor’s Professor of History at UC Irvine, where he also holds a joint appointment in Law and Literary Journalism. Jeff is the Advising Editor for China here at the Los Angeles Review of Books and the Founding Editor of The China Channel, a LARB affiliate dedicated to covering China’s culture, society and history and all the complexity. A historian of China and social movements, Jeff is the author of numerous books. His most recent Vigil, Hong Kong of the Brink, offers a thoughtful and compelling synthesis of the historical circumstances undergirding this most recent round of demonstrations in Hong Kong. But as 2020, in all of its whatever the opposite of glory is, has more fully unfolded since its publication, I’m sure there’s plenty more for him to help us tackle on this subject. And with that, I’ll turn it over to Jeff, who will be moderating tonight’s discussion. Thank you.
JEFF WASSERSTROM: Thanks so much, Irene. It’s really been a pleasure working with you to put this together. And it’s a great pleasure for me to be reunited with Samuel and Mary Kay, both of whom I’ve done events with about Hong Kong earlier in the period. Samuel and I were on a panel for a Pacific Council for International Policy event. We met a couple of years ago, at a very different stage in the Hong Kong story. And Mary Kay moderated an event with me early in this year, one of those, which now seems very, very long ago, because it was when we could have live events up in San Francisco with the World Affairs Council. So I thought to get things going, maybe, Samuel, if you could talk about what’s going on, a quick sense of what you think the key things happening in the last year have been, and then we’ll scale back in time and place that into a larger perspective. What do you think is key for people to know about what’s been happening in Hong Kong in the last year?
SAMUEL CHU: Thank you, Jeff. And, and thank you, LA Review of Books and Irene and Mary Kay, for joining and being part of this. I’ve often been asked to try to do this, you know, in two minutes or less, to get to an explanation about what is actually happening there. I am still not great at it! But I’ll give my best shot. I think for most of you, when you see the headlines about Hong Kong, you see pictures of these mass marches and protests or confrontations between protesters and police and arrests and other things. I think that it is very hard sometimes, particularly for the American public and media, to be able to get deeper into the historic, underlying causes. So I’ll put it this way. I think that, you know, in the more global sense, Hong Kong was promised and guaranteed when it was handed back from British rule to China that it would have autonomy, basic rights, its own set of laws, and all the freedom that it has enjoyed, for 50 years, until 2047. Alongside that, there were reforms that were promised. So there’s not just the guarantee of existing rights, but political reforms, like an open election that was promised when the handover took place in 97. What happened this past year is really a coming to head of a complete breakdown of Hong Kongers’ sense of trust that any of those guarantees, the rule of law, or promised reforms are going to come about or become a reality at all.
A little over a year and a half ago, I was actually in Hong Kong for my father who was on trial last year, for the role that he played as one of the leaders of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, right around this time six years ago. The Hong Kong government quietly proposed an extradition bill that would essentially say that they would have an agreement with mainland China to transfer those who are charged under Chinese law or, you know, sought for whatever reason, and allow them to be extradited, to be tried in mainland China under mainland Chinese law. And this is not the first time that the Chinese government tried to do this. This happened in 2003. Half a million people showed up on the street and beat it back. This really came to a head in June when it became clear that this [extradition law] could be used essentially as a method of cracking down on and silencing opposition.
And so what we saw in the western or American news media, as one and two million people took to the street in June, was really a reaction: You promised us autonomy, to give us this separate rule of law, this violates that. The only real concession that was made by the government was that they suspended it. I think it’s key to remember that we did get a concession, at least partially, that they suspended that bill. But what became clear as the protests continued, and they’ve lasted almost 18 months now, is that there is a complete breakdown of the trust that the people in Hong Kong have in their own government. And so even as the government comes out and says that they’re going to suspend, now ban, large assembly, protesters have continued to take to the street, because they see that if the government isn’t representing them, there’s a fundamental breakdown and a fundamental lack of accountability in the government. So the five demands that emerged from the protests in June were about how the government treated protesters, about the 10,000 or so protesters who’ve been arrested, about the extradition bill not just being suspended, but being withdrawn, and this promised political reform that is supposed to come.
And I think that because of the way that this persisted, the Chinese government in May actually suggested that they would impose arbitrarily-- and just on their own, bypassing the Hong Kong legislature and constitution--a natural security measure that is actually even worse than the extradition bill that they had proposed. And that national security law essentially has outlawed any sort of dissent. So what you’ve seen in the last three months since the implementation of that law--the law was actually passed by the Chinese legislature, without being made public at all until it went into effect in Hong Kong--you’ve seen the outlawing of protest slogans: you can’t wear a t-shirt that says “Liberate Hong Kong,” which has been a popular slogan. You have teenagers who have been arrested based on their social media posting, because they were accused of being separatists. The largest opposition newspaper’s newsroom was raided by 200 police and the founder arrested for you know, probably like the 12th time in the last year. And then on July 31, I became the first American citizen and foreign citizen to be charged for colluding with foreign forces, which essentially is just me doing my constitutionally protected right of advocating for Hong Kong in the US. That arrest warrant was issued for six [overseas Hong Kongers]. And then the latest: we saw 12 Hong Kong protesters who were facing charges try to escape to Taiwan on a boat. They were picked up, arrested, and are now indefinitely detained in China without access to their hired legal counsel or communication with their family. I think that it is important to keep in mind that this is not something that spontaneously combusted a year and a half ago. This has been a steady, consistent fight against the erosion of what was promised to Hong Kongers and this past year, this outright break of China no longer honoring the international treaty and agreement that China made to guarantee Hong Kong’s autonomy and basic rights until 2047. So that is my best version of trying to explain how we came to be here.
JEFF WASSERSTROM: That’s wonderful, very, very clear on many things, and I think we can take this back in time to fill in some of the gaps. Mary Kay, you’ve covered Hong Kong, you’ve covered the handover itself in 1997, and you’ve spent a lot of time going back and forth between Beijing and Hong Kong. So what stands out for you as key moments in the past, or even things that are sort of recurrences of things that you remember from from the past that you’re now seeing happening again?
MARY KAY MAGISTAD: So I actually lived in Hong Kong in 1995-96, in the lead up to the handover. And at the time, people were very anxious, and they were very careful. I was going around with a microphone and asking people what they thought about the political situation, what they were going to do about it, and a lot of people were like, I’m not going to talk to you on mic. Maybe off mic. There was a lot of uncertainty: What is this going to feel like the day after the handover? What’s it going to feel like three months later? Six months later? And while some people welcomed the handover — you know, they didn’t have a lot of love lost for the British — others were really scared. Some people left. Some people got passports, just in case.
When I covered the handover, I remember, you know, in the wee hours — actually, it was almost dawn — watching, you know, the APCs coming over from China. And there were Hong Kong journalists there with me on the road, and they’re just like, where, where will this lead? Is our life changing forever right now? It turned out that it didn’t really right away, and I think that opened a certain kind of space. And I’d really be interested in hearing Samuel’s take on this, but let me just go through a couple of things that I found rather striking at the time, that slowly over the last part of the 90s, you know, ‘98, ‘99, there was still room for free speech.
There were still dissidents who were living in Hong Kong and working in Hong Kong. Han Dongfang, who had been an activist in Tiananmen, was involved in starting the China Labor Bulletin in Hong Kong. Human Rights Watch had an office in Hong Kong, other activist groups, human rights groups, etc. And so I think there was, to some extent, a feeling of, well, if this space is here, let’s use it. We can relax a little bit and speak our minds and say, you know, we have a rule of law, we have 50 years of having a separate way of living in Hong Kong, and maybe we can set an example. I think some people felt this. I’m not sure how widespread it was, but an important cohort of the Hong Kong population felt it, felt, let’s make sure we protect this space.
Then I was gone from the region for three years. And when I came back in 2003, it was striking to me how much more activated the population, a bigger part of the population was. I was there in 2003, when there was a half million-person protest on a very hot, steamy day in the middle of summer. But it was so peaceful. It was families with their kids, and older people, just saying we don’t want an anti sedition law, which had been proposed, we have the right to keep our way of life here. One group came out again, in 2004, when the law was proposed again, and again, they pushed it back. And in this time, a generation was growing up in Hong Kong that was seeing all this happen and thinking, we have the right to push back, we have the right to protect our space, our civil rights. In the next years, it was interesting seeing how this group of younger people, as they came of age, as they became older teenagers and in their early 20s, were willing to be a little bit more assertive. I think the police didn’t really at first know quite how to deal with that. And I’m not saying you know, violent or aggressive I’m just saying you know, that they were speaking up more and maybe asserting that they had a separate Hong Kong identity, and this is precious to us, and we want to keep this — something I wasn’t hearing people say as much before.
Then on the negative side, I think there was a certain amount of chauvinism toward mainland Chinese who were coming in, which antagonized a lot of mainland Chinese. So in Beijing, I was hearing a lot of outrage, how dare they talk about us like this? There was a video that went around, look at these Chinese who are eating food on the subway. They have no couth, they have no manners. There was a tension building on both sides. In Hong Kong, you know, feeling affronted: How could you be squeezing our rights, which was happening gradually throughout this time. And in Beijing, thinking: You should be grateful to us. You have all of these rights, you have all of this room, and still you insult us. I think they each built off the other ,and it led to the kinds of confrontations that have happened more in the last five years. That’s what I see as an outsider who was there briefly, living there briefly, and then visiting frequently. Jeff, you visited quite often, and, Samuel, you’re from Hong Kong. What do you guys think?
JEFF WASSERSTROM: This sets a lot in the picture that’s very important. I think it’s important to remember what an extraordinary experiment Hong Kong was. After the handover, there had never been a case of a city that was part of a Communist Party-run country in which things were done so differently. And I think there were things that were left unresolved, and Samuel brought up the fact that was supposed to be a move toward democratic elections. The chief executive in Hong Kong is elected, but only fewer than 2000 people vote, and they’re vetted candidates. But one of the things that was really special: you knew you were in Hong Kong rather than a place on the mainland, because the courts would sometimes rule against the government. Somebody would be arrested, and then they would be out on bail and giving interviews right afterwards. There were newspapers that would criticize local policies and national policies. There was a satirical television show that made fun of the British colonial authorities, and then after 1997 toggled to making fun of the Chinese Communist Party authorities. That was something really extraordinary. It was something that I think we need to keep in mind. It can seem naive, how could people have believed that these promises of some degree of autonomy would really be lived up to when the Chinese Communist Party has always put such a premium on control. But it really was quite amazing there.
Local people didn’t take them for granted and pushed back when there was a threat to them, and achieved some victories. Along the way, in 2012, there was an effort to bring in patriotic education, a term that has recently come into the news in America in a disturbing way. And protesters, including a young Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow, who’ve remained key figures in the protests, who as teenagers pushed back against that, and helped galvanize people. The local government retracted it, they pulled back. So there was a push and pull throughout this period.
I think one of the things that gets in the way of Americans appreciating just how worrisome the things that have been happening recently are, is that in the minds of a lot of Americans is Tiananmen. Tiananmen haunts this story in many different ways. And what is remembered about that in the West is largely the massacre early June, and there hasn’t been a massacre like that. When I would talk about how I had studied Tiananmen and now I was studying the Hong Kong protests, one question would be, will there be a Tiananmen? By which often they meant, will there be soldiers firing on crowds in the streets? To get to the moment now, there hasn’t been that, but there were a whole bunch of other things that were part of the Tiananmen repression, and a whole bunch of other things have happened. There have been massive numbers of arrests, there have been people fleeing into exile.
In Samuel’s own life, he helped his father with exiles from Tiananmen coming into Hong Kong. There was a period when Hong Kong was a place where people fled oppression, and now things have undergone such a change, that it’s a place people are fleeing out from. Another thing that Samuel said that made me think about it, that now wearing a T shirt can get you arrested in Hong Kong. It used to be that you knew you were in Hong Kong, because you could sort of say whatever you wanted to a large extent. You certainly were always freer to say things than you were on the mainland. And now in a sense, if you wore a t-shirt that said, “Long live Shanghai” in Shanghai, that wouldn’t be a problem. But “Glory to Hong Kong” could get you in trouble in Hong Kong. So it’s this strange thing that Hong Kong still has some degrees of freedom, more than the mainland, in terms of news and other kinds of things. But in some ways, it’s leapfrogged from being by far the freest part of the People’s Republic of China, to a place that in, some really disturbing ways, looks a little bit like the least free places in the People’s Republic of China, places like Xinjiang and Tibet, where the government, if you protest, the government treats you as a terrorist or a separatist. So it’s a very strange shake, and that has happened very, very recently, but I’d love to hear you, Samuel, responding to anything that either Mary Kay or I’ve said in this little bit.
SAMUEL CHU: Well, first of all, I think that it is important for people to realize that Hong Kong has never been a democratic society. There has never actually been a freely elected self-governing infrastructure in Hong Kong. It was a colonial state. There was, during a brief moment between the ‘84 joint agreement and declaration to the ‘97 handover, which actually my father participated in, a push to open elections before the handover. Because I think people at that point already realized that there needed to be some kind of accountability, some way of political agency, or this might not work. And the CCP completely shut down that effort to open up elections.
So I think that there is a sense sometimes that like, oh, let’s go back to where we were. This movement has never been about going back to where we were. I think that that’s what made the last six, seven years or so so different is that people realize that we have always been fighting for every inch, that we are rooting. We’re not trying to defend something in the back, we’re actually trying not just to preserve, but to create the kind of democratic and open society in Hong Kong that we actually wanted. And so when people fought for election in 2014, for example, like Occupy Central, like the Umbrella Movement, it’s not like we have ever elected our chief executive. It’s not like our legislature was ever freely elected. And I think that that’s important, because I think that at the end of the day, people’s fighting for political participation and political power is at the core of this. It’s not just about if you can wear a t-shirt or not, or if you can travel back and forth.
The other thing that I think was important is that the barometer for many years of how Hong Kong was different, has actually to do with Tiananmen Square. Hong Kong was the only place in China where they were allowed to openly remember and talk about and protest what happened in Tiananmen Square. And that happened from ‘89, continuously until this year, in 2020, where, for the very first time, the Hong Kong government banned the vigil that had taken place for 31 straight years. And I think that that’s part of what speaks to the rapid transformation of Hong Kong into, you know, really the least free place in China, but also speaks to its resiliency, because you’re talking about a city where, despite the fact that they have never had a free and open election, they have been indoctrinated, baptized in a way, for three decades, with speaking out against the Hong Kong government or the Chinese government, with remembering the atrocities, with valuing dissent and protest to a point where I think protest has become sort of a part of a lifestyle in Hong Kong.
So it’s not surprising to me, the resiliency, the creativity, and the staying power, because this traces all the way back to I think what Benny Tai, who co-founded Occupy Central and has recently been fired from his tenured position in the university, said, as academic activists say: their movement, it started in ‘89, it continued in ‘97. The third movement was 2014, with the Umbrella Movement, and 2019 is the latest, but there is a continuity. And one last point, I think, to you what you said, Jeff, that Victoria Tin-bor Hui, who’s a professor at Notre Dame who is on our board, would often say, is that this fixation on Tiananmen being on the bloodshed really does, as you said, take away from the fact that Tiananmen has been happening every day since June 4, 1989. People have been taken to jail. Family has been held hostage. Dissidents have either been in exile, convicted, in prison, every day in every part of China since ‘89. And so I think that to really fully appreciate what this movement, this resistance in Hong Kong represents, it’s important to fill in that gap between ‘89 and 2019. Because that’s how you come to appreciate and understand both the challenge and also the resiliency.
JEFF WASSERSTROM: So we’re getting some wonderful questions, and I’m trying to think of how to bring them in. But I’ll raise a few of them. And then you can choose which one to bring in or to answer, and I will too. One is where Taiwan fits into this situation. And I think it’s very important because when Hong Kong was offered this sort of deal of “one country, two systems” — you can be part of the country but have a high degree of autonomy — there was the hope that this would be something that people in Taiwan could look at and think of as a possible way of their integration in. And one of the banners that I remember very well from going over during Occupy Central, the Umbrella Movement, was a banner that was put up that said, “Taiwan, beware, Hong Kong today could be your tomorrow.” Whereas when the deal was initially set, a Beijing saying was, “Taiwan, look at Hong Kong, their today could be your tomorrow.” And there’s been a switch to that. So that’s one question.
Another question was, what to make of the special role of youth in the protests? That I think is significant, in part simply because young people have more skin in the game with this. They’re going to live more of their life after this 2047 moment when none of the promises, whether held or not, will be taken.
And there is a question of what American protesters might learn from Hong Kong at a moment when our own democracy is under such threat. Maybe more generally, what I’ll just say personally, is that I’ve come to feel differently about the United States as I’ve been tracking Hong Kong so carefully. Even though the Hong Kong movement is described as a democracy movement, often what people have often been fighting for is a separation of powers. And we’ve realized in this country recently, how twinned those kinds of concerns are: being able to vote and also having a separation of powers. And so those are three very big issues. But before we bring Congresswoman Katy Perry in to join us, I wonder —
SAMUEL CHU: Wait, isn’t it Katie Porter and not Katy —
JEFF WASSERSTOM: Katie Porter, oh, my gosh! She was just trending on Twitter. Not trending on Twitter for the reasons that the other Katy is. So while we’re waiting, would any of you like to pick any?
SAMUEL CHU: I’ll take a stab. And then I’m interested to hear both of you. As you said, there used to be the slogan of Hong Kong today, Taiwan tomorrow, in a positive or at least a manufactured positive sense of like, if “one country, two systems” works for Hong Kong, it can work for Taiwan. Now it is really seen as sort of the negative of like, this is going to happen to you, Taiwan. If you ever get close to making a similar deal, this is how it’s gonna look. And I will even take the connection further to our current American democracy. I say to Americans all the time, beware, Hong Kong today, America tomorrow, because this is what happens when you destroy and erode any sort of democratic institutions. When you raise this, you know, separation of power, when you tell people that you no longer have any political agency individually, when you let market capitalism be the driving force of policy all the way through, from housing to welfare to political elections.
People sometimes are shocked to discover that half of the legislature in Hong Kong is elected by businesses. This is what you get when you have this disregard for political democratic institutions — may it be elections, may it be the courts, may it be just, you know, a vibrant civic life. Hong Kong is actually where we’re all headed, with that in mind. And so I think that in terms of Taiwan, where there’s definitely this connection, obviously much more urgently, of Hong Kong becoming the model that Taiwan is going to get swallowed into. But I see this as a global issue, I think that democracy is under attack everywhere, because democratic institutions that we see right before our eyes are being disassembled in Hong Kong and in America. It’s actually very much a parallel track.
JEFF WASSERSTROM: Mary Kay, where do you want to jump in?
MARY KAY MAGISTAD: You guys both answered the Taiwan question really well, but I’ll add to that and say that I think that there are potentially a couple of other ramifications. One of them is in China’s Belt and Road initiative. You know, countries around the world are making deals with the Chinese government. And they look and say, “Okay, well, with Hong Kong, you had to deal and you didn’t keep it, so what does that mean for us?” And I’m not sure how much that’s consciously being said publicly but it’s certainly something that I’ve heard ordinary people, academics, people and think tanks, say in different parts of the world as they’re looking at the Belt and Road. And there certainly has been some reconsideration over the last couple of years, not just over the last few months, about like, “How close do we actually want to be, how indebted do we actually want to be to China?” not just in terms of money, but also in terms of anything, in terms of owing them a favor, owing them access or something like that.
Also, one thing we haven’t really touched on other than saying that businesses and business people are over-represented when choosing a chief executive in Hong Kong is that Hong Kong has been the center of business, and it’s worked for China to have Hong Kong be a center of business for a long time. And since the handover, keeping this civil society space in Hong Kong has been attractive for international businesses to come in. So the Chinese government seems to be making a bet now that its economy is strong enough, that it has other alternative financial centers in Shanghai and Shenzhen (which is more tech but they also have a stock exchange), that they don’t really need Hong Kong anymore. And so it doesn’t matter if Hong Kong has that space, and it’s become annoying for Hong Kong to have that space. So they’re shutting it down. That’s a gamble, and I’m not sure that’s going to work well for them in the long run. Particularly at a time when, you know, China’s President Xi Jinping is also saying quite openly, we’re gonna have this military civil fusion policy, we want the military and the civilian side of things, state-owned enterprises and private companies to work together, we all need to march together to make China take its rightful place in the world. That sends a signal outside of China, in addition to what’s happening in Hong Kong.
All of that said, I need to push back ever so gently, Samuel, on one thing you said, and that is, I think there are parts of China that do feel quite under siege, like Xinjiang, like Tibet. I have talked to civil rights lawyers in Hong Kong in Beijing, who were abducted from their offices as they were leaving to go home to their families and kept in an undisclosed location and beaten up. But for the vast majority of Chinese people, and I say this having lived in China for 15 years, and having reported in every province, many times, that most people just don’t feel that. I think for most people — and this is, I think, how the government is able to continue to have a pretty substantial amount of support from the general population — feel proud that China’s economy is strong, or it has been. This year hasn’t been great for it, but it’s doing better than a lot of other economies. And it’s just an interesting set of trade offs that I’ve seen people accept: I live a comfortable life. I have a lot of conveniences through using WeChat, for instance. Okay, the government’s collecting a lot of data on me, but I don’t have anything to hide. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that. So I think that there isn’t a sense in China that I have gotten from most people I talked to of “We’re oppressed. Please save us.” It’s you know, “You western journalists, you make a big deal out of these things.”
And some of the very people who say this, then are surprised when they have problems down the line. Because the government is what it is. And it mostly leaves people alone until they do exactly what people in Hong Kong have been used to doing for many years, which is speaking their minds and pushing back when they feel that something is happening that’s unjust. So you know, the government’s sort of trying to squeeze Hong Kong now into that same space where you don’t try to figure out where the edges of the cage are. Just as long as you don’t push for the edges, everything will be fine. That’s the deal they want Hong Kongers to accept.
JEFF WASSERSTROM: Actually that metaphor you used, [Li Jiajong?] a writer who I enjoy reading, had this very metaphor for talking about how Tiananmen made you aware of a cage. And then afterwards, the cage, if the bars get moved out further and further away, then it’s much easier to imagine that you’re free. And I think it is important to realize there are different ways of experiencing life in different parts of the People’s Republic of China. And I think it’s also important to realize, with something you were saying, Mary Kay, about the assets, the special aspects of Hong Kong.
They were assets to Beijing, that became somewhat less important over time. The metaphor that’s used for this has always been the goose that lays the golden eggs. And I think of what we hear about how the Chinese economy has grown, so the special role, the contributing part of the Hong Kong economy, it’s a less precious golden egg than it was in 1997, when there was no other developed city of the same kind. But one of the things that I think the international community has to answer for, including the part of the international community I’m part of, the academic world, is how we’ve been party to, in some ways, devaluing some of the things that were so precious in Hong Kong, and I’ll give the example of universities.
When Hong Kong became part of the PRC, the Chinese Communist Party cared about rankings — they wanted to have the best of things in the world. The only universities in the People’s Republic of China that were considered first class were the ones in Hong Kong: HKU, University of Hong Kong, Chinese University of Hong Kong. These stood head and shoulders above, even the most storied universities on the mainland, like Peking University and Tsing Hua University, in any kind of rankings, because they had academic freedom, and they had a spirit of critical inquiry.
One of the things that’s happened during the last couple of decades is that the international community, to some extent has said that institutions like Beijing Da Xue and Tsing Hua, are considered first class. They’re rising above the Hong Kong universities, even though they have constraints on critical inquiry, even though they have purges underway, including now of critical thinkers in fields like law and history. But if they have state-of-the-art labs, and if they have state-of-the-art facilities, then even things like the Times Higher Education supplement in the UK, ranks them above the Hong Kong ones. And then in a sense for Beijing to clamp down on academic freedom and freedom of inquiry in Hong Kong, isn’t squandering a resource as much. It’s a roundabout way of saying it, but I think there is a kind of global complicity in not treasuring the things that would stand out there. The same way that the assault on freedom of the press and the assault on journalists in Hong Kong is facilitated by the fact that there have been attacks on journalists in the United States and in other parts of the world.
So with that, I am going to pivot now to bring Congresswoman Katie Porter into the discussion. And I want to say it’s a really great pleasure for us to be able to bring the Congresswoman in as a special guest. We thought it was a great privilege from the beginning and then seeing the very positive things being said about her cross-examination trending on Twitter right now, it’s even more of a pleasure. It’s also a personal pleasure because she’s my representative, and I can say, with direct experience, not from my own interactions, but with people I know, that she has a reputation here of being very responsive to local concerns, being somebody who local constituents can go to with pragmatic problems, or with their moral concerns, and she’s responsive. And at the same time, she’s somebody who is very active in national concerns and will take the time to pay attention to global and international concerns as well. I think that’s really modeling a kind of political and civic engagement that we need to celebrate.
And so to bring the Congresswoman up to speed a bit, we’ve been discussing various aspects of the Hong Kong situation, from the history of protests there to the tightening of controls on the city. And we’ve also talked about how events in Hong Kong fit in with trends across the People’s Republic of China, and to some extent, in a larger international setting, though we haven’t really dealt with US-China relations yet. But to bring you into the discussion, I thought maybe the best way to start would just be to ask you to say a bit about what you find most concerning about the current situation in Hong Kong, and to offer your perspective on how the American government has responded so far, and could respond. So welcome. Welcome to this session. We look forward to hearing from you.
CONGRESSWOMAN KATIE PORTER: Thank you, it’s so nice to see you, Jeff. And thank you everyone for having me. And for the very kind introduction, Jeff. And I want to thank the LA Review of Books, and the Hong Kong Democracy Council for putting this event together. This is really a time in which we need to be having conversations. And I think last night’s debate illustrated just how difficult those are to come by right now in our society. So really grateful for you for facilitating this discussion.
And, you know, I wish there was an easy answer right now to what I find most concerning. But there’s a number of items and a number of things. So I wanted to run through a little bit of my own background and connection to Hong Kong, to kind of set the stage. When I graduated from college, in 1996 I wanted to teach. And I had taught middle school kids throughout my time in college, and so I was hired to teach at the Hong Kong International School. And I taught eighth grade math, which apparently nobody has ever volunteered to teach in the history of time. But that was my number one choice, eighth grade math. So I went to Hong Kong for the first time in the fall of 1996, and then stayed through the handover, the transition in 1997. And that was a time that was really, really interesting to be in Hong Kong, both to see how Americans were reacting to it, but also to see some of the hopes and anxieties of the people of Hong Kong at that time. And then also the relationship of the huge expat community that’s been part of Hong Kong’s history for a very long time, and how they were dealing with this change. I think there was a sense of foreboding about what the future might hold, but in the moment, it was really dealt with as a celebration, certainly by the Chinese. (I mean, you will never see fireworks like that ever again. It was truly hours. I love fireworks. And they were so long, I actually got bored. I mean, three hours in I’ve seen it all, right?)
But there was a sense of foreboding about whether what we were seeing in that moment was going to be the enduring relationship between China and Hong Kong. And I think that’s where we find ourselves today, that some of those concerns have come true. And so, you know, when we think about the National Security Law, one of the things that immediately jumps out to me is that I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this happened at this moment. I think it came at this moment, not only because of things about Hong Kong and things about China, but really because of where our world is. The United States is distracted. Importantly so, you know, really focusing on Coronavirus. We have a very high death rate. We do not have this virus under control. We do not have a coordinated national plan. And so, I think Beijing understood that the United States is not going to be moving even really, really important foreign policy issues to the top of the agenda when we’re dealing with both a huge national election and a huge out of control pandemic. And of course, the pandemic has affected every country. But I think there was an opportunistic sort of strategy here with the timing. And I think this illustrates a really basic truth, which many of you may have heard about foreign policy: you can’t have strength abroad without strength at home. And I’m not just talking about the Coronavirus. I’m also thinking about our own fragile democracy, and the degree to which we are having trouble defending, shoring up, and stabilizing some of our own democratic institutions. I think that also creates a kind of ideal moment for Beijing to take action with regard to Hong Kong. And so I think what I find really concerning is this gulf between where we are as a country in America, and where we need to be as a country in order to be an effective champion for human rights and an effective advocate for democracy, a broker of peace, all of these things. We’re not well positioned right now with our current leadership, economically, or in terms of our social institutions to be playing that really, really important role.
And that’s not to say that Congress hasn’t taken action or that we don’t care about what’s going on. Because we do and we have taken steps. Congress blocked the sale of riot equipment to Hong Kong, we’ve condemned the National Security Law, we’ve authorized new sanctions, and I was proud to vote for all of those bills. But I will tell you just coming to you from Washington, walking the halls of Congress today — there’s a lot of walking in Congress — in walking those halls, this is not at the front in the center. And that’s because our own domestic problems are substantial and severe. And so I think we have to be honest with ourselves about that even as we’ve taken these bills. These bills are good, that’s why I voted for them. These bills send an unequivocal message about our American values and our priorities, but they’re not going to change Chinese behavior. And I don’t think we should be kidding ourselves about them. They’re sending the right message, they’re making the right noises, they’re not going to likely change the effective policy on the ground. I think if anything, the repression in Hong Kong is getting more intense as time goes on, and I think you could say the same thing about the situation in Xinjiang. And it’s just continuing to be a problem. So when you ask me about what I think about the response, you know, what I see in Hong Kong is a microcosm of so many of the challenges we’re facing in US foreign policy generally.
It’s clear that China is a problem in many, many parts and pockets of the world, including in Hong Kong. It’s a problem because we believe there are fundamental rights to freedom of religion and freedom of expression. And they’re not honoring freedom of speech, they’re not honoring those rights. It’s a problem because China is the world’s largest greenhouse gas polluter. And we cannot meaningfully tackle climate change without their cooperation. And it’s a problem because China has economic and military power that is formidable, and they can use that power to create and to shape a less free and democratic world. And I think all of those problems with China are growing rather than receding. While these sanctions and increased defense spending, the kind of tools that Congress tends to reach for, are important, they’re not going to be by themselves a solution. First and most importantly, Americans have no interest in some kind of new Cold War. That’s not appealing right now to people. This is a time of domestic disagreement. And we’ve seen domestic writing and protests over civil unrest, very important issues here. And so to the extent people inside the beltway are trying to gin this up as a new Cold War, I don’t think there’s an appetite for that among the American people. Second, were there to be some kind of new Cold War, I think it would be coming at the expense of being able to have a meaningful dialogue and make meaningful progress on climate change with China. And I think that is going to increasingly be an overriding goal of our foreign policy, including even our military policy explicitly.
So I think Hong Kong should be a lesson for us that the current approach isn’t enough to change Chinese behavior. I think we know that our approach to the world needs to change, but it’s hard to build. It’s hard to put kind of our foreign policy approach on a bumper sticker. You just can’t fit the phrase, build multilateral institutions — I mean, even soft power, it sounds like a bad vegetable or like a squishy marshmallow. It sounds like something you learn at a women’s seminar, like, you should use softpower. So these motivate this concept of building multilateral institutions and soft power. I think it’s difficult for them to compete in the very noisy policy sphere with kind of the saber rattling tactics on the other side.
Democrats want to be championing democracy and human rights. But they’re also really worried about feeding President Trump’s xenophobic fear-mongering about Chinese Americans and to some extent about China as a power. There’s a sense that he’s exploiting our concerns about China to his own political gain, rather than to actually meaningfully address human rights concerns in Hong Kong. And so at times, I think because of that we’ve seeded the conversation on Hong Kong to some Republicans, who are frankly, very happy to talk about democracy in China, even as they’re making it harder for us to exercise our own democracy here. And so I think, to some extent, that was our path of least resistance, an attempt to create a bipartisan response to Hong Kong. But it ended up being pretty unproductive. So to clarify, and close my long opening thoughts here, with respect to what our response could look like in the future, I think the first and most important step is to get Democrats really out there and onboard doing the work, and showing people that we are fighting the same fight as Hong Kongers, here and there, that there is a commonality among what the Hong Kong people are going through in terms of struggling to protect their freedoms, struggling to hang on to some of their limited democratic freedoms with what we’re seeing here. And this is very different, I think, from the historical, “Look at us, we’re the bastion of democracy. You all need to be more like us.” We’re in a situation where a lot of the world is saying, “Yeah, look at you. Look at what’s going on with your elections, look at some of the human rights concerns within your own country, look at, for example, the exercise of police power, here in the United States.” And then, you know, to critique the Hong Kong Police becomes a more complicated dialogue. And so I think that sort of put a frame on it. That’s how I really think about putting it in context here in a very noisy policy space in Washington.
JEFF WASSERSTROM: So that’s this really great. And one thing that’s wonderful about it is you answered without knowing they were being asked a couple of the questions that came in from the audience, one of which was whether the Democrats had ceded to the Republicans the lead and I think you framed that very well. The only thing I would add, just because I’m a moderator, but also a participant, is that the thing that you do not want to do in this situation is praise an autocratic leader in China, praise them personally, at the moment, when there’s a personality cult of Xi. One of the things that’s driving the tightening of controls is the distraction of the world. But another is the need for a nationalistic leader like Xi Jinping to be able to point to things in which he’s extended the reach and the power of Beijing. And so to praise his personal qualities, to say he’s a strong figure who can get things done has been precisely the wrong signaling that’s been coming from the White House, but I’d like to get Mary Kay or Samuel in to respond to or ask questions of the Congresswoman.
SAMUEL CHU: Congresswoman, it’s great to see you. I don’t know if you remember, but we actually first met the week before you became the inspector for the California settlement with the banks. I hosted you for an event in Pacoima.
CONGRESSWOMAN KATIE PORTER: I do! We were in a church, if I recall, right?
SAMUEL CHU: We actually went to a couple of different places, yeah. And we shared with you some of the cases of mortgage modification plans that we have been organizing with families, and I will always remember that because you were not on the job yet. You came before you even took the job to visit with the families that we were working with, that were in foreclosure. And this I think ties into kind of where I am —
CONGRESSWOMAN KATIE PORTER: I’m so glad you said that. Because for about the last 15 minutes, I’ve been trying to place you. So the person on this call that I was like, Oh, I might recognize him from around the neighborhood is Jeff. So I’ve been trying to place you for like the last 15 minutes. So thank you —
SAMUEL CHU: I bring that up not just to help you solve your 15 minute mystery, but to also say that, one of the things I’ve learned — -and I’ve been organizer for domestic issues and now for the last few years on Hong Kong, because it’s a personal issue to me — in the economic crisis, in the foreclosure crisis that we were both involved with helping resolve, what became clear to people, was how rigged the system was. It was sort of a revelation to people that, “Wait, what do you mean that that didn’t just happen overnight?” And I think that in a way was the most powerful exposure people had to why democracy matters, the democratic process matters, because you can actually figure out a way to hold them accountable, to stem the problem from continuing and to restructure the system, to reform the system in a way that is permanent. That in a way, is a parallel to how Hong Kong in the last six years, how it became clear to Hong Kongers that the system was rigged against them, fundamentally.
And, you know, in a lot of ways, they were much more focused and narrow in the fact that they didn’t have any political agency and didn’t have any political rights under the current system, and now have actually even had what little they had taken away. So I guess my question that I’m interested in your take about is how, without an election process, without a democratic government in Hong Kong — that, you know, has now completely decimated any kind of representation — how can we also do what you’re describing, supporting this organizing on the ground that can translate this realization that the system is rigged, we got to do something about it. But we can’t actually go vote or run for office like you did, and actually change it. I think there’s a sense of stuckness about what is next. How do we connect this discontent, this despair and this anger around the system to real transformation, particularly in an oppressive authoritarian state? Now in Hong Kong?
CONGRESSWOMAN KATIE PORTER: I think it’s a wonderful question. And, you know, I thought a lot about, well, actually, the connection between consumer protection, which is my background, and freedom of expression, which maybe are not the two things that people would put right next to each other, as I had a conversation with David Kay, who’s just retired as the UN Special Rapporteur on freedom of expression. And one of the things that we talked about is what I’ve done with some consumer protection work in foreign countries. The example here I’ll give is Myanmar — one of the things I came away from spending time there trying to help them to build and implement their consumer protection law was what they really needed was a Yelp. In other words, they really needed a way to complain and not be silenced and to organize and to share information with each other. And I think that, you know, there are multiple ways that we create power and move power socially. And, obviously, democracy and voting is one of them. I think, actually, there are some lessons that a lot of Americans are asking themselves about the fragility of a democracy with 2016. You know, we elected my class in 2018, saying, this will be great, this will be a check. And, yes, we have been a check in some ways on the Trump agenda, but in other ways, Foreign Affairs being a really good example, we haven’t been able to be much of a means to meaningfully redirect. There’s a lot of presidential power there.
So I think one of the things for people to think about is the importance of how do you build that organizing power? at the ground level? How do you name really what the forces are that are oppressing you? And I think the government is the obvious one here, but there’s a whole host of organizations within this space that are also connected to that. The higher education system, some of the corporations that are there, I mean, these are also powerful forces that are exerting control, right? And so I don’t know if I have a good answer for that. But I do think that if you let this kind of situation fester, you can actually lose the energy and the spirit of a whole generation or more of people. And it’s not easy to get back. So I think it’s really important that we stand up for Hong Kongers now, that we nurture their concerns, that we amplify their concerns, and that we don’t cede that to xenophobia or pushing against China, but really standing up for the rights of Hong Kongers. And so I think that’s one helpful way to approach it.
MARY KAY MAGISTAD: As you were speaking, Samuel, my mind went to like, if you’re in a society where your rights are being squeezed, and there isn’t a clear path forward to a situation in which they’re not being, as long as Xi Jinping is in power, what can you do? And I think you can actually take a page from Chinese online over the last decade, who have found extremely creative ways to express criticisms, to be snide and sarcastic, and satirical. And, you know, satire and humor, in the East bloc, you know, when the Soviet Union still existed, and in China, over the time that I was there, plays a crucial role in keeping people aware, and in keeping people sharp, thinking what’s really going on around me and sharing that with others. And it also creates a sense of community, or sustains a sense of community. And I think in China, there was a real high point in like, 2011, when the high speed train crashed. There was this outcry on social media that was so great that the Chinese government was like, holy heck, we need to shut this down. We know where this is going. But there’s a lot you can do beneath the surface. And also in China, you know, over the course of the time, I was there 2003 to 2013, as long as police were still publishing each year, how many protests there were, they were in, like, high tens of thousands over 100,000. One year, I think it was 2010, was like 180,000 protests. So there actually is room for some protest.
But I think at the moment, the government’s hyper vigilant, because it’s, like, you guys all want to separate, and we can’t let you do that. We’ve got to just keep squeezing you until you stop doing that. And then once we think you’re loyal, we’ll let you have some of the little protests that you used to have, which weren’t all against China, right? You know, Hong Kongers have been protesting all kinds of things over the course of the last 20 years. I think part of it is just play the long game, and use all the tools you can, and not all of them are like a direct straight-on confrontation with, you know, the highest leaders in China, but they can still get you to a place where you, you preserve some of the space as much as possible, of what Hong Kong has had.
JEFF WASSERSTROM: I think talking about the long game and talking about subtle forms of resistance is really important now to think about. Going back to something Samuel said earlier, Hong Kong has been a colonial setting with anti-colonial movements. It was a colony of Britain and now increasingly, with the national security law being imposed by Beijing, it’s clear that a distant capital is once again, not as distant, but a distant capital is imposing its will. Anti-colonial movements sometimes take a very long time and often seem utterly hopeless, at one stage in their history. Movements in the Eastern Bloc — if you thought of it kind of rationally, why are people in Prague in 1968, rising up? In ‘56, it was repressed in Hungary. And then after ‘68 is repressed in Prague, they rise up in Poland again, in the late 70s. And then in the early 80s, it seemed that Poland was a dead end, it was a failure. But then things change in the world, different spaces open up there. There’s the possibility, things that seem impossible sometimes do happen. I don’t think that there’s an inevitability about where the arc of history bends, but to try to keep bending it in the direction you want, even when it seems impossible.
There was one question again about the awkwardness. And I think Samuel maybe would be good to answer this: How does it feel when you’re a Hong Konger fighting for certain kinds of things? You’re a progressive on many levels, and the people who are your natural allies are often regressive in their policies domestically. But before I get your response, I just want to say, because the Congresswoman brought up the difficulty of having civil debate on anything in America right now. There’s a model of wonderfully civil debate in a recent issue of The Nation magazine, with Wilfred Chan, and Jeffrey Ngo who are in different wings within the Hong Kong struggle within the United States. Jeffrey is somebody that Samuel works with closely. Wilfred is somebody who’s much further along on the left, and the two of them have this exchange about whether American support should be sought, whether you find alliances with people you disagree with on many things. And what’s what’s beautiful about it is that the two of them clearly have so much respect for each other, even though this is an ongoing disagreement on strategy and tactics. And so I just think it’s something I look forward to teaching as a model for the kind of debate that is a real debate in which each person has the potential to be influencing somebody else. But I’d like to get your response Samuel, and then we can bring the Congresswoman back in as well.
SAMUEL CHU: When I first met the Congresswoman back in that time, I was working with families who were underwater in their mortgages, and we eventually got a $25 billion settlement from the banks. I think I was taught, and I made a choice early on in my career, to work in politics as defined in the broadest sense of the word. And we’re in a moment where when people think about politics, they only think about partisan politics, about electoral politics. But I have, even before working on Hong Kong, always believed that my job as an organizer, as an activist, or whatever you want to call it, is to cultivate political people in the more pluralistic, diverse, complex sense of the word, meaning that I want people to understand that they themselves have more than one interest. Because “I support Hong Kong” doesn’t represent and define all my other politics. And I think that this is where we are at now. I think that in some way, my friends and colleagues would probably say this is sort of my secret agenda. Working on Hong Kong, beyond, you know, really wanting to create this free and democratic Hong Kong is to also open up this space, to not be stuck and say that you have to allow your Hong Kong politics or China politics to define all your politics and all your self interest and all your political interests. And it’s not a secret. Prior to this, I worked on anti-poverty, mostly food insecurity policies. Before that, I worked on gay marriage and helped to secure the rights for gay individuals and families, from marriage to adoption to other things. And it’s not a secret that I think, for me, the so-called awkwardness, for me has to do with a more vibrant democracy. I have no permanent enemies and permanent friends. Because in the democratic process — as you can tell, I’m well trained by Saul Alinsky. I came out of the Chicago organizing tree, and I was taught that building political power and being able to build and embody democratic values does not mean you are a narrow partisan or a person who only works with one group.
What that means, though, is that I found myself quite frankly, in a lot of places where I’m in a relationship working with people on one thing where I disagree with them adamantly on others. And having that relationship allows me to do that. I mean, that’s the good part about this: if I’m never actually examining our shared interests, or where we might be able to make some compromise, then I’m never able to actually confront people on places where we do differ. I think that that’s part of where I do think we’re in a little bit of a danger here, of everything at this point being scooped up with politics being defined by partisanship and not negotiation, deliberation, self examination and compromise. So I think that’s partly where I am. And I think that the Congresswoman is a great example of this, of connecting the dots between domestic — we should never be afraid to speak about the fragileness of American democracy, because that is part of the strength that we draw from to speak for Hong Kong in America.
CONGRESSWOMAN KATIE PORTER: I really like that point about honoring, I guess, I would say, the fragility of democracy, and understanding that as an American strength, understanding that it’s fragile, because it requires so much of each of us, not only elected officials but of each of us. And that makes it both very, very strong, very resilient, maybe is a better word, and yet very, very fragile. And so I think, you know, when we talk about working across the aisle, you know, it’s very clear that the American people, when you poll on this. Everybody loves this concept, then you do it, and they’re like, I can’t believe you could ever have a bill with so and so. So I have a particular bill with a particular Republican member of Dan Crenshaw. I don’t have a lot in common with Dan — that’s the understatement of the century. But we’re working together to crack down on scam PACs, and that is the right policy for the American people. I think you do learn that part of being able to negotiate effectively for what you believe in is having a good understanding of alternate perspectives. And you get that from having those moments. So I think there’s a big difference from what we’ve seen in Congress, to return to Hong Kong for a minute, when we sit in Congress, which is, you know, bipartisan bills, an effort to return to stating collective core principles, and sort of the saber rattling of the Trump administration, which I think is really more about Trump’s self-interest than it is about advancing the situation of Hong Kongers. So some of that I think, is more about, you know, feeding into his narrative about American military might and not understanding that there are so many ways in which the largest threats that China presents to us aren’t traditionally military, right? So I think that’s a really interesting observation about the fragility of democracy and people kind of saying, does that make us weak? I would say that makes us strong, because it requires and calls on us to be more like Samuel, right? Like little ‘p’ political in that kind of broad way that you were describing.
JEFF WASSERSTROM: So I’d like to have asked Irene to read off some questions. We’ve got a lot of questions coming in. So do you want to hop in and read some out so that we can try to we’re nearing the end, but we want to get some of these in?
IRENE YOON: It looks like there’s a question from Madeline Hsu: “The National Security Law projects authority over persons outside of China’s geographic jurisdiction and not just persons with Chinese citizenship or acting within Chinese jurisdiction. How likely is the Chinese government to pursue extraterritorial prosecution of non-Chinese citizens, critics and protesters?” And I would imagine, Sam, this might be a good question for you?
SAMUEL CHU: When I woke up from a text telling me that I had an arrest warrant, I ran into Mr. McGovern, who had been a champion in Congress for us last week in DC, and he was like, “Just stay close to the US. Don’t go to China, because that’s probably not a good idea.” But all joking aside, I think that here’s where I think we see some of the traditional tactics that the CCP uses, which is I think leveraging the threat. Limiting my travel is not necessarily going to be a big deal. But, you know, my family lives in Hong Kong. I think that’s a big part of this. But to your question, I think that that is what the intent is. I think that what Chinese authorities saw this past year is the vibrancy and the creativity not just on the ground in Hong Kong, but overseas. The fact that we were able to build bipartisan policy to go through Congress at a time like this, to get support of the Human Rights and Democracy Act, the Protect Hong Kong Act, the Autonomy Act, and actually get those things done in a bipartisan way, really, I think woke up the Chinese authority. We can’t just control them here, we have to somehow try to control them over there.
And so I would say that I’m not waiting for a knock on my door. I’ve been reassured by the State Department, and we have not seen any legal paperwork. Interpol has not been contacted, there has not been a red notice. But I think that what [the Chinese government] is trying to do is to say that we are going to test out how far we can go, especially when, you know, we have shown that we have not been shy about taking hostages, literally, of foreign citizens in China. And so I think that they’re trying to test it out. I think that the way we respond to these threats on a case by case basis is going to be meaningful. It shows the Chinese authority, and it shows people in Hong Kong and the Hong Kong authorities, that we’re not going to back down just because, we’re not paying attention.
MARY KAY MAGISTAD: But I think another thing that’s important to keep in mind with what they’re doing with you, Samuel, is setting an example. And the Chinese government does this within China all the time, where you do something and they can do this, and not necessarily just for people born in Hong Kong, but under the National Security Law, they could charge anyone with committing what they consider a crime in China. You know, in the United States, if you do say something or do something in the United States or in Britain or wherever you are, and then you go into Hong Kong or China, you could be arrested.
SAMUEL CHU: I’m pretty sure that the Congresswoman who voted on those bills has violated all the provisions. And so actually, when they came, when a reporter asked me how I felt, I said, “If they come arrest me, I’ll lead them down to the Congress, and they can arrest every member of Congress who voted for the Human Rights and Democracy Act.”
CONGRESSWOMAN KATIE PORTER: Throwing us under the bus, Samuel!
IRENE YOON: We have maybe two questions that we can think about together. So one of our attendees has asked, “How would you define the political leanings or affiliations of the Hong Kong movement as it stands (leftist/centrist/some other definition or imagination of political beliefs)?” and maybe relatedly, “There have been some criticisms of the Hong Kong protests not being representative of led by the most vulnerable communities in Hong Kong, what material benefits to this protest yield for lower class and marginalized folks in Hong Kong?”
JEFF WASSERSTROM: Well, I would just say, again, with this exchange in The Nation, it was very exciting to see an exchange between a kind of center left and further left, that the fact there is discussion going on there, I think is very important. And there are ways that you can get access to the different wings of this discussion in English language materials. The Lausan collective is a group of commentators who are pushing for more class solidarity, more emphasis on building unions, more emphasis on socio-economic kinds of issues. Whereas we often get the voices of the part within the movement that are more classic focusing on human rights and electoral, democratic issues. So you have access to that through these debates. So I think there’s a range.
And I think, what was notable about the movement last year was how the protests spread to all different districts of Hong Kong, whereas earlier protests tended to be centered in some parts of them, and all different segments of society, not that there weren’t tensions. But you had very young protesters and much older protesters turning out in their roles as elders of the community, who saw a role in supporting the youth of the community. So it was a very, there was a lot of modeling of that crossing solidarity, not to romanticize it too much. And it’s under such pressure that there are bound to be divisions. But that was that would be one answer, I think, to that first question.
SAMUEL CHU: And I would just add, I think briefly that, sometimes it is hard, because when you’re fighting, you know, when it’s framed around, that this fight is against an authoritarian regime. It seems like that is the one thing that you can focus on, and I do think that — I actually resonate with what the Congresswoman said that sometimes you really have to be very consistent in the small things to chip at it. I think that throughout, one of the reasons why, you know, the resiliency and the creativity of the protests has been so remarkable is that, you know, when they were banned from large scale protests, they did their own spontaneous lunchtime mall, you know, singing. When they couldn’t do that, they went out, just stood there, and then they were arrested. When they can’t hold up signs, they just hold up a blank piece of paper. And when they came to arrest them for a blank piece of paper, they just started walking around together in the neighborhood.
And I think that there is always a danger of, I think, letting your organizing and the agency that you’re building be co-opted by an ideology and being simplified. This is where I was so moved — people didn’t really notice that the election that was supposed to be in September for the legislature was postponed. People forget that in June, Benny Tai and others organized their own primary election, where 600,000 people in the midst of COVID, came out to vote. So I think that I am inspired and also energized by the continued creation of these signs and rituals and, you know, practices of democratic practices. Even in the midst of places where you’re not allowed to have it. We keep coming up with new ways to do it. I mean, 600,000 people is a lot, especially when they have told you that you can’t gather more than 10 people at a time.
JEFF WASSERSTROM: And an earlier question had been what can American protesters learn from Hong Kong. I think one of the things is Hong Kong in 2019, at one level has been a failed movement. But it’s also been a movement that’s been inspiring people in many different parts of the world. The idea of the “be water” strategy, that emphasis on flexibility, the using creative kinds of very pragmatic means to combat tear gas, are things that are being picked up in different places by people looking at Hong Kong. Belarus, there’s been looking at Hong Kong. Thailand, there’s been looking at Hong Kong. There’s a looking for the common denominator of desires for certain kinds of freedoms, and for a more accountable government. But then there’s an interest and an inspiration. And I think that’s something, I think we should have a broad view of success and failure. A movement can fail to get what it’s after in one location, and still inspire people in other places. Tiananmen did not succeed, but the image of the Tank Man has inspired people, different places, the failure in China in June of 1989, I’ve heard people in Eastern Europe say, they found what happened in China, so inspiring, and it helped them in their struggle, even though the obvious lesson was how dangerous it is to stand up to that kind of state. So I think that’s something as heartbreaking as the Hong Kong story is, we should think about ways in which it is having something of a generative power in adding something to the global repertoire of protest activities.
IRENE YOON: I think that’s really wonderful, and maybe a wonderful place for us to conclude our conversation this evening. On behalf of the Los Angeles Review of Books. I want to thank each of our panelists for joining us tonight and sharing their really invaluable insight and expertise. I’d also like to thank everyone at LARB who helped make this event happen. In particular, our fantastic volunteers and staff this evening, Sonia Ali, Nicole Liu, Brian Spivey, Yi Wei. And all of you who are here joining us and asking some really incredible questions. I’m sorry that we didn’t get a chance to get to all of them. But there’s clearly a lot, a lot to discuss here. And maybe actually to kind of leave with one of the questions, one was asking about what local or international news sources to recommend reading to follow the protests. As people want to kind of continue learning more and follow them more closely, where should they go? What should they look to?
CONGRESSWOMAN KATIE PORTER: You can tell me let me go first, I’m gonna have the least detailed answer. Before Jeff comes up with some amazing source that’s been translated from Mandarin! Let me pause and see just how much I like that question. I came in with a group of colleagues in 2018, a lot of whom have a lot of national security background, some of them in the United States Armed Forces, some of them more in the Foreign Affairs space. Like my colleague Tom Malinowski, one of the things that we’ve talked a lot about, is that I thought I didn’t get a lot of questions about foreign affairs or about human rights because people didn’t think I knew about these things, or I was passionate about them, even though I am. But in talking to some of my colleagues, they don’t get a lot of questions about some of these issues either. And so I think one of the things I would encourage people to do is actually to ask their Congresspeople and their elected officials, and to take the time to teach them. So if you have family in Hong Kong, if you were a Hong Konger, or if you know people, those conversations and elevating what’s going on there directly to your elected representatives, those conversations matter. And so one of the things that we’ve really struggled with at our offices, you know, how do we get people who are so concerned about so many issues right now domestically, to also understand our role in stabilizing and improving the world. One doesn’t go away as the other kind of rises, right? They exist in tension with each other. So I would just say that I encourage people to recognize their own selves and their own stories sometimes as a really important source of information for those of us in elected office.
SAMUEL CHU: And I would just piggyback on that. Actually, I did not ask Congresswoman to bring this up. But Mr. Malinowski, actually, we’re endorsing a bill that he wrote, introduced today that will provide some protections for Hong Kong protesters who are under threat for charges and arrests. And that’s a great example of really creating this pipeline of information, not because I am biased. One of the reason that we heard for many years on Capitol Hill is that we don’t know even lawmakers don’t really know how to vet the news that was coming out from Hong Kong, and China, not just because of the language differences, but because of, you know, really, the challenges of just knowing who to listen to and how to decipher. And so one of the reasons why we actually created HKDC last year in the first place was that we wanted to make sure that we have at least some way of vetting and screening that information. We now pass on information on a regular basis to members of Congress. We can do better, and I think that we need to do better. And this is actually true of all the places where we’re talking about the unrest domestically and internationally. I think, and this is something that I am inspired by what you said, it is hard to put multilateral institutions on a bumper sticker, it is extremely important that we look forward to creating not just government multilateral institutions, but grassroots multilateral institutions, because some of these things like news sharing, news reporting and documentation, what’s happening on the ground, is that kind of institution that is needed. And so we’re going to do our best at HKDC on our website, and our Facebook and social media to continue to feed and try to translate both culturally, politically and linguistically. And I think that Jeff and others will probably have other sources as well. But I think that that is a task, I think, a really essential role that we must play. And we’re actually, since you mentioned, it was sending out a survey to all not just current office holders, but candidates for office, 470 members of Congress up for reelection on November 3, to ask them to, you know, state some of their stance on Hong Kong issue, but really, as you said, to educate and to for, you know, to really make their team and their offices think through the implications of what is happening in China. So that is something that we’re doing right now. And so I think that that’s another great point.
JEFF WASSERSTROM: So I would just say there is the Hong Kong Free Press, which has been doing yeoman’s work and reporting from the ground. Quartz has wonderful reporters on the ground in Hong Kong, very one that you might not think of immediately. The Guardian has just been running a good series. The Nation and Dissent magazine for deeper dives have started to be periodicals on the left that have been paying more attention to Hong Kong. The New York Times has some very good people including Elaine Yu who’s a Hong Konger, who is beginning to get more bylines there. The Los Angeles Times, I, you know, got to stick up for the local team, has good reporting on Asia and has, you know, there could always be more, but it has carried some very good pieces on repression in different parts of the PRC, including the Hong Kong story. So those are some of the places I would say initially. NPR also does does good work.
MARY KAY MAGISTAD: I’ll throw in a couple as well, for not just Hong Kong, but also coverage of China. And it brings in a lot of different views. China File, which is put together by the Asia Society, it’s just a great resource for learning your way in more deeply into a lot of different issues, including those that affect Hong Kong, even if they’re not directly about the Hong Kong protests. And if you really want to take a deep dive, Sinocism, which is put together by someone named Bill Bishop. And that goes very deeply into a lot of what’s going on with internal Chinese politics, which directly affects how policies are carried out in places like Hong Kong.
IRENE YOON: Wonderful, thank you all, again, so much for also humoring my secret last question there and for joining us this evening. This is really, really wonderful. We appreciate it so much. And again, thank you to all of you who’ve joined us this evening. And all of you have helped support and make this event happen. And that goes beyond the staff and the volunteers that we have tonight, we rely on the support of members, donors, and engaged readers like you to keep us publishing new essays and interviews daily, without paywalls and providing free public programming like this. So thank you so much to everyone who’s been a supporter and to all of you for your interest and participation tonight. And just a last announcement, this event, as many of you may know, was part of our celebration of Banned Books Week. So if you’d like to support us or join us for additional programming and perks, we’d love to have you join us in the following ways. You can become a member you can check out the podcast books and essays we and some independent bookstores that we’ve partnered with have curated for the occasion, you can make a donation and get our banned book speeder, we’ve put together a really great anthology of some of the best essays and interviews from archive, tackling issues of censorship and free expression. You know, most of all, we’re just really glad that you came, participated in the conversation and had great questions. And thank you again to all of our speakers. That concludes our program for this evening. Thanks for joining us and we hope to see you all again soon.