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Tiananmen analogies are a barrier to understanding what’s really going on in Hong Kong, says Peter Lee, journalist for Asia Times Online

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SHARMINI PERIES, EXEC. PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Sharmini Peries, coming to you from Baltimore.

We have seen much reporting on the demonstrations in Hong Kong. However, in these reports we have heard very little from Beijing. According to the 1984 agreement between China and Britain, China guaranteed Hong Kong’s core values, way of life, including freedom of speech and assembly, until 2047. Is China in breach of this agreement?

Now joining us from Los Angeles, California, to shed some light on Beijing’s response to the demonstrations is Peter Lee. Peter is a journalist who writes on Asian affairs with a focus on China. He regularly contributes to Asia Times Online and CounterPunch.

Thank you so much for joining us, Peter.


PERIES: Peter, the demands that the demonstrators are making in Hong Kong, essentially the democratic values, the right to choose the executive, is it enshrined in the agreement that was signed in 1984 with Britain?

LEE: The agreement with Britain, and also the Basic Law, which was promulgated in 1997 [incompr.] both clearly give Beijing control over the nomination of candidates for citywide offices. Article 45 of the Basic Law states that the candidates will be vetted by a nominating committee, which is described merely as broadly representative.

PERIES: So if this is totally within the purview of Beijing to administer Hong Kong in this way, clearly the demonstrators are calling for a departure from that agreement. Do you think that this is something Beijing is listening to? And will they try to make some adjustments to the way in which they administer Hong Kong?

LEE: I believe that Beijing is, of course, hostile to the idea that the interpretation of the basic law, which was issued by the national People’s Congress in Beijing, can be questioned by Hong Kong. However, they will be politically pragmatic about it. If the crisis in Hong Kong reaches a level at which sticking to the current position becomes untenable, they will probably consider some sort of compromise, not an abolition of the committee, perhaps, but perhaps a concession concerning its makeup.

PERIES: Wouldn’t it be wise to do so, given that the demonstrations of totally focused on C. Y. Leung’s–and demanding his resignation? Wouldn’t it make sense for Beijing to sort of bring in a new administration and a new leadership that will actually talk to students and perhaps negotiate with the demonstrators?

LEE: I think that C. Y. Leung is a strawman and the calls for his resignation are more for public relations because of his unpopularity in Hong Kong. Calling for C. Y. Leung’s resignation and attributing all sorts of malfeasance to him is a very good political move. But for Beijing, and also for the local pro-democratic Hong Kong activists, who include not only students but many members of the local professional and political community, they understand that the decisions are made in Beijing and whoever is sitting in C. Y. Leung’s chair will have very little impact on that decision.

PERIES: Peter, you wrote in an article in Asia Times that the Tiananmen Square analogy here, in terms of its comparison to Hong Kong, is a barrier to understanding what’s really going on. What did you mean by that?

LEE: I think that the original 1989 Tiananmen demonstrations were to a great extent a textbook example of a truly spontaneous outpouring by students and citizens. The Occupy Hong Kong movement, which also has very legitimate local grievances and local roots, is, on the other hand, a very carefully choreographed campaign of political pressure which is meant to escalate in stages and yield in the end a political compromise between Beijing and Hong Kong.

PERIES: The growing support that the Umbrella Revolution or Occupy Central is having now is really indicative of the kind of discontent in Hong Kong and people in Hong Kong have been feeling for a very long time. Can you describe better for us what some of those issues might be?

LEE: First of all, it should be said that there is alienation from Beijing and from the People’s Republic broadly among the citizenry of Hong Kong. They do not consider themselves, as polling shows to be, Chinese. At least 50 percent of them think of themselves exclusively as Hong Kongers. And add to that their grievances about the pushy mainlanders and excessive mainland control over the local economy and attempts to muzzle the media. And so there’s widespread discontent, or, I should say, alienation.

However, in terms of the specific political agenda of Occupy Hong Kong, the agenda is not broadly understood or supported, I believe, by the people of Hong Kong. This is going to be a long period of education and political salesmanship, I should say, in order to get the people who turn up for a rally to actually go out there and block streets in the service of that agenda.

PERIES: Peter, why is Hong Kong so important and so pivotal for the Chinese economy? It could be said that back when the agreement was signed, there was very little capitalistic transactions taking place, say, between the mainland and the rest of the world. Back then, Hong Kong was an experiment in capitalism. But that issue is no longer relevant, as there is free commerce between the mainland and the rest of the world.

LEE: This might not be the accepted wisdom, but I do not think that the Hong Kong demonstrations are particularly significant in the larger scheme of things. The same weekend that the journalists were covering the Occupy Hong Kong demonstrations, for instance, 250,000 people appeared at a rally meant to evict the prime minister of Pakistan from his position. On the same weekend, 60,000 students with umbrellas marched in Mexico City and 32 other cities demanding reforms and also marking the murder of two dozen students just a week before. So the significance of Hong Kong, I think, to a certain extent has been overblown.

Hong Kongers themselves say that they feel that their city is insignificant. And, indeed, Hong Kong GDP only makes up 3 percent of China’s GDP, and it’s always been the concern that the Beijing government will not compromise, because it has alternate cities that it can use as a focus of development and trade other than Hong Kong. If Hong Kong blows up, they can always switch to Guangzhou (Canton) or Shanghai.

PERIES: Right. So the attention that the Western press is giving the demonstrations in Hong Kong as a pro-democracy movement is perhaps overblown?

LEE: It is an important story, and it is important because the challenge to the authority of the Communist Party, the Chinese Communist Party in Hong Kong, will have immediate knock-on effects in Taiwan, and also in Xinjiang. And so I can’t fault them for covering the story. However, I think that the coverage primarily of it as a student movement has been unsophisticated, if I may say, while actually the reality is it’s an extremely sophisticated political phenomenon.

PERIES: And what are the indicators of that? What is the progression we’ve seen to date in the last month? And what are we to expect?

LEE: One aspect of Hong Kong democracy is that it has been heavily funded not only by the National Endowment for Democracy, which is the American operation which specializes in color revolutions, and that’s attracted a great deal of attention, particularly in Beijing, but also–.

PERIES: And what proof do we have of that?

LEE: The WikiLeaks actually–no, actually. I’m sorry. I’ll back up on that. The NED’s own website lists its support for democratic education, and particularly in terms of student education, directly on its website.

PERIES: And does it indicate how much money has been allocated for this project?

LEE: I believe it’s somewhere along the lines of half a million dollars a year. So this isn’t–I do not believe this is a U.S.-manipulated color revolution, but at the same time, the United States is very happy to see Beijing have a political crisis in Hong Kong.

The other major source of funding is certain anti-Beijing local tycoons, particularly the media tycoon Jimmy Lai, who runs Apple Daily and Next Media. You might have seen some of the Next Media’s amusing animations. Anyway, he has been a lavish financial supporter of the Occupy movement, and also of pro-Democratic politicians, who make up a strong bloc inside Legislative Council. So there’s it’s not just students spontaneously going on the streets. There are people with a plan. There are people who are investing serious amounts of thought and money into how to advance a Democratic agenda.

PERIES: The progression that I was referring to earlier in terms of the student movement and Umbrella Revolution and Occupy Central, you think they have a number of different demands they’re going to make into the future. What do you think they will be?

LEE: I believe there is a process. And what’s noteworthy is that the student demonstrations have essentially petered out. There are only a few hundred demonstrators at the three main sites. And at the same time, the pro-democracy bloc is starting to give interviews to the Western press, which is a very important conduit for them. And right now the students are going to initiate discussions with the government–this was the one concession that was given. And I believe that the purpose of that is to reopen the issue of the Democratic process, and in particular the role of the nominating committee. And I also believe that because of the threat of continued unrest or repeated unrest and street protests, the hope for the Democratic movement is that the Hong Kong government will essentially switch sides and become an advocate in Beijing for these democratic reforms. Beijing is not going to take this movement seriously if it’s just students. But if it’s students, if it’s professional people who’ve already come out, if it’s the pro-democracy bloc, if it’s businessmen and elements, significant elements in the Hong Kong SAR government, then I believe that there’s a chance that the democracy movement will get some kind of reforms. I do not believe it’ll end up with the abolition of the nominating committee and direct democracy, but I think that the way the political sausage gets made, it’s quite possible that the composition of the nominating committee will be tweaked in a way that allows for pro-democracy candidates to make it into the runoff.

PERIES: Well, Peter, I hope you join us again and keep us posted about the developments in Hong Kong, as well as in Beijing.

LEE: Well, thank you very much for having me.

PERIES: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.


DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.

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Peter Lee, journalist, writes on Asian affairs with a focus on China for Asia Times Online and Counterpunch, with a focus on Asian affairs and US policy in the region with a focus on the US military rebalancing. He is also proprietor of the blog, China Matters, where he blogs on Asian affairs. Most recently, he has been following the Occupy Hong Kong movement.