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The mostly leaderless movement for Hong Kong’s democratization withdrew from the airport, allowing flights to resume, but the situation remains unresolved as long as protesters and government fail to come to an agreement on reforms. We speak to Sean Starrs in Hong Kong

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GREG WILPERT Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Greg Wilpert in Baltimore. After canceling hundreds of flights on Monday and Tuesday, the Hong Kong airport, one of the world’s busiest, has been returned to normal, more or less. Protesters had taken over the Hong Kong airport’s, check in area which had then led to flight cancellations when travelers could no longer get to their flights. On Wednesday, protesters though voluntarily withdrew from the airport and some even apologized on social media, saying that they would consider their tactics more carefully in the future. 

The protest began back in June and at one point drew as many as 2 million people, according to the organizers. Meanwhile, there has been some concern that the Chinese government might send troops into Hong Kong when videos circulated of increased troop presence in the city of Shen Zen near Hong Kong’s border. However, as of now, there’s no indication that troops have been deployed to Hong Kong. Joining me to discuss the situation in Hong Kong is Sean Starrs. Sean is assistant professor of international relations, Department of Asian and International Studies at the City University of Hong Kong. He joins us from Hong Kong where it is very late at night right now. Thanks for joining us again, Sean. 

SEAN STARRS My pleasure. Thanks for having me. 

GREG WILPERT So let’s begin with reviewing some of the most recent events. This most recent wave of Hong Kong protests, which seem to be organized mostly by students, began with protests against the proposed extradition law, which would have enabled Hong Kong to extradite citizens who are wanted in mainland China. Now, the law was eventually shelved, but the protests continued. Why did they continue and how have the events evolved since then? What is motivating the students or the protestors now? 

SEAN STARRS Yes, so the original demand was of course to withdraw the extradition bill and Carrie Lam did that quite early on, early June. Finally, after 2 million protesters, about a third of the population of Hong Kong protest on the streets, but she didn’t completely withdraw. So she’s declared it dead in water, but she didn’t completely withdraw it. So the protests have morphed into five demands now. The first one being complete withdrawal of the extradition bill, others relating to releasing those who have been arrested. The June 12th protest was marked as a riot and so when you’re tried for rioting in Hong Kong you get 10 years, up to 10 years in prison, so they want to remove that label of June 12th as a riot, and a few others relating to that. And then the last one is they’ve tacked on in July, so about a month later, is universal suffrage for all Hong Kong citizens to elect the chief executive, which is the main focus of the 2014 Umbrella Movement. 

GREG WILPERT Okay, I want to get back to some of those demands later, but first, some of the protestors have begun questioning the tactic of occupying the airport. Now what’s going on? Why the second guessing of tactics, who is leading the movement and why is it mainly younger people and students who are involved? Why not a cross section of the population of Hong Kong, although obviously when 2 million people came out, I’m sure it was a cross section, but it seems to be most of the young people who are at least leading the movement. 

SEAN STARRS Young people are leading what they call the front liners. So the front liners are the ninjas that you see, fully in black covering their face so that they don’t get picked up by facial recognition with the goggles and everything. So yeah, so both actually, even high school students, but also university students are mainly comprised of front liners, but it’s actually a very broad base. I mean on August 5th we had Hong Kong’s first general strike since 1967, over 50 years, and that was very broad based and a number of unions, even people in the finance sector, law, civil servants went on strike and the Flight Attendants Union went on strike on August 5th and then that was on a Monday. And then on the Friday is when the first airport sit-in happened. So that was partially organized by the the Hong Kong Flight Attendants Union. So of course not students. 

And then we’re now in our sixth day of the airport sit-in. So actually, there are still protesters right now in the airport as we speak. So it’s 11:00 PM in Hong Kong time on Wednesday, but many of them are there to apologize. So they’ve made signs saying they’ve apologized. They’re apologizing for the disruption caused to passengers. So that was seen as the significant escalation because they actually got luggage cars and they blocked passengers from being able to check-in and be able to get on their flights yesterday, on Tuesday. So that was a significant escalation on the protesters’ part and a lot of people within the movement think that was going too far. And so today, I mean I have students that have told me that they’re there in the airport today to apologize, holding up signs and so on. 

GREG WILPERT I want to get back to the issue of the demands now. As you mentioned, one of the demands is to have universal suffrage for the election of the governor and to generally increase democratic participation. And originally when China took over the city from British rule in 1997, there was an idea that to maintain limited representative democracy in Hong Kong. But since then China seems to be backtracking from this. So what is going on? Why is China… why do you think China is backtracking from this commitment to maintain what some have called two systems, one country, in the sense of Hong Kong. I mean leaving aside Taiwan for now. 

SEAN STARRS Yes. I mean China itself has changed quite a bit since 1997. I mean, under Xi Jinping, he came to power in 2012, but certainly, especially since 2015 there’s been a real crack down in civil society in China as well. I mean they’re arresting human rights lawyers, they’re even closing down labor centers like at universities and so on. So there’s been a crackdown in mainland China as well. And I think Xi Jinping in particular, I mean he is quite often referring back to the 1980s in Soviet Union. I mean, he thinks that Gorbachev’s perestroika was an absolute… One of the biggest mistakes in communist history. And so he’s really trying to… I mean he’s not allowing any alternative voices or any sort of pluralism at all. Whereas, Hu Jintao, to some extent, opened up a debate a little bit more. And so Xi Jinping is clamping down on that. 

So, in terms of Hong Kong, I mean we’ve seen… There is limited democracy in Hong Kong, some of the counselors are directly elected by the people, but since 2015-16 what that’s led to out of the umbrella movement are a bunch of new political parties and new elected officials that were elected, but they were supporting Hong Kong independence or at least increase… I mean some of them were supporting Hong Kong independence, others a protection of one country [inaudible] and so on. But they were quite popular. I mean, I forgot his name, but one elected leader in Hong Kong Island, which is the name… or part of Hong Kong Island, which is the main financial district, he won and got a majority of the votes. He’d been in the main finance district. So these ideas are getting more and more popular and so that Beijing really wants to try… really needs to clamp down on this. 

GREG WILPERT Okay. And so China’s suggested though for a while that these protesters are being encouraged by the United States or by the West in general, has not very been very specific, it seems in this charge. But is there any indication of outside interference? 

SEAN STARRS I mean, yes. So just last week for example, a Chinese newspaper, I forgot which one, they doxed a US diplomat, they give out her personal details because she was photographed meeting Joshua Wong in a luxury hotel. So she’s a US diplomat from the State Department and the national endowment for democracy does support certain organizations in Hong Kong, which are involved in the protest movements. I mean, I know this because I have a friend that used to work with national [inaudible], so he told me. But so there is… Jimmy Lai met with Mike Pompeo and Mike Pence. So Jimmy Lai’s is a billionaire in Hong Kong that’s one of the big financers in this movement. He owns Apple Daily, which is one of the most currently anti-Chinese newspapers in Hong Kong. So he met Mike Pence and Mike Pompeo. 

There’s certainly some involvement but to portray the US as orchestrating this or shaping this, guiding this, is a gross mischaracterization. I mean, you just have to go on the streets and see how it’s incredibly self-organized, how there’s many different groups involved with different tactics. Some want to only be peaceful, some are increasingly becoming more and more violent, throwing Molotov cocktails, throwing bricks and trying to beat up police officers when they can like they did in the airport. Yesterday was when a police officer actually drew a gun when protesters took his baton and started beating him. There’s various factions, so to characterize this as a US operation is absurd, in my opinion.

GREG WILPERT Just one last question. I’ve seen some indications that this is motivated also by economic inequality, that the movement is motivated by economic inequality, even though the overt demand has to do with democratization. To what extent would you say that’s true and what is the economic situation of Hong Kong at the moment? 

SEAN STARRS So this is something that’s not quite as discussed as much. I mean, even in the 1989 Tiananmen Square, a lot of the protest was about inequality because of Deng Xiaoping’s capitalist reforms. I certainly, talking to my students and also talking to people on the streets, everyone knows that Hong Kong has the highest rates of inequality in the developed world. The housing, you now have to save 40 years of your entire salary to buy an apartment, a tiny apartment in Hong Kong. My apartment is 350 square feet. My students say, well what do you do with all that space? They can’t believe my apartment’s so big. The minimum wage in Hong Kong is about 34 Hong Kong dollars, which is about four or five US dollars, when Hong Kong has the highest housing expenses, highest real estate prices on the planet. 

So there’s huge inequality. I mean, the Hong Kong growth is also declining as is China’s. So Hong Kong’s growth is now slowest its been in over a decade. So yeah, inequality is very much on people’s minds, but there still isn’t a lot of connection between… If you ask, for example, people what would you do with the universal suffrage, who would you vote for and so on. What kind of policies would you enact through the ability to vote for your chief executive, there’s still not a lot of connection between the two. I mean, so people are generally upset with the inequality in Hong Kong, about the declining job prospects, there’s certainly their inability to buy their own flat and so on. I mean people live with their parents until their thirties and so on here in Hong Kong. I wouldn’t say that it’s the number one immediate factor driving the protest, that is still this sense that China is increasingly encroaching upon Hong Kong’s freedoms and its desire to protect it and perhaps expand it. 

GREG WILPERT Okay. Well we’re going to leave it there for now, but I hope we’ll come back to you soon. I was speaking to Shawn Starrs, assistant professor of international relations at the City University of Hong Kong. Thanks again, Sean for having joined us today. 

SEAN STARRS Thank you very much. Good night. 

GREG WILPERT And thank you for joining The Real News Network. 

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Sean Starrs

Sean Starrs is an assistant professor of International Relations in the Department of Asian and International Studies at City University of Hong Kong. He was formerly a research affiliate and visiting assistant professor at the Center for International Studies, Massachusetts Institute of Technology under the supervision of Noam Chomsky.