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Hong Kong-based attorney Robert Lee talks about the economic and political history at the center of ongoing protests

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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 are witnessing the largest and most relentless demonstrations in the history of Hong Kong. Hong Kong is officially known as the special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China. In a 1984 agreement between China and Britain, Hong Kong was handed over to China on 1 July 1997. The now densely populated 7 million people strong experiment of China is coming apart at the seams.

Here to discuss some of the history and the recent developments of the Umbrella Revolution is Robert Lee. He is joining us from Hong Kong. Robert Lee is a lawyer practicing since 1988. He has offices in Tokyo, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. He’s a board member of The Real News Network.

Robert, thank you so much for joining us.

ROBERT LEE, LAWYER: Glad to be here, Sharmini.

PERIES: Robert, before we get into the demonstrations, let’s have a look at the historical context here. Why did this agreement between Britain and China come about? How did China end up with Hong Kong?

LEE: Well, by 1984, the situation in Hong Kong was–they’d just come out of a recession. Economically, it wasn’t–the future wasn’t certain, largely because even without any agreement, most of Hong Kong was due to be returned to China anyway. The whole new territory’s part of China was only leased to Britain for 100 years. It was only the Hong Kong Island and Kowloon Peninsula that were given in perpetuity to Britain. So even in the best scenario, Britain would have had to hand back three-quarters of Hong Kong, without which it couldn’t have continued. So they had–there was so much uncertainty created by that that the economy was being affected.

And that’s what brought about this agreement whereby Britain said, okay, we’ll give you back not just the new territories, but we’ll give you back everything. And this created a lot of tension among Hong Kong people, ’cause they didn’t know what would happen if they all were handed back to China. So the result was an agreement, an international agreement, whereby China could regain sovereignty over all of Hong Kong. But the quid pro quo was this one country, two systems idea, which meant that the British system of law and government and economic and political customs would continue for at least another 50 years. That’s the two systems aspect of the deal. The one country was, of course, that Hong Kong would become part of China. So it was very much an international agreement. It’s been lodged with the United Nations. And the idea was that Hong Kong would be able to continue to have a political and economic development based on what Britain had been doing beforehand, that is, moving towards democracy.

PERIES: And capitalism.

LEE: And capitalism. The capitalist system was to continue. And that was part of the basic law. Communism was not to be any part of Hong Kong’s government. It was to be Hong Kong people running Hong Kong.

PERIES: So let’s get into the Umbrella Revolution here. I understand that the umbrellas come handy against tear gas, the sun, and the rain. But we understand that they are mostly students who are mounting these massive demonstrations against the administrative powers of Beijing. The young Joshua Wong, the 17-year-old representing high school students come to mind as he’s been plastered all over the press internationally. But what is the real compositions of the demonstrators? Who’s joining them?

LEE: Well, originally and for a long time there was this plan to have Occupy Central, which is really a copycat of Occupy Wall Street, which was started by an academic, Benny Tai, who actually was involved in some of the constitutional committees that were drafting the basic law back in the 1990s. And so his focus was the proper constitutional development of the one country, two systems. And I think he just hijacked the name Occupy Central that grew out of the financial crisis and to use that method of demonstration to try and bring attention to the fact that China was not allowing Hong Kong to implement universal suffrage in a way that respected the two systems idea. So most of the press and the development of this problem was focused around Occupy Central movement, and the business leaders, the political leaders were all against it and saying it would hurt Hong Kong’s economy and so on.

But in the midst of this, some other things occurred even before the students started their boycott of classes. The legal profession went through a little bit of a crisis because Beijing published a white paper a month or so ago, right in the middle of the constitutional debate, supposedly to clarify Beijing’s attitude towards Hong Kong’s constitutional development. But it really was a very aggressive white paper in that it more or less said that Hong Kong’s one country, two systems owes all its validity to Beijing and is under the administration of Beijing, that even the legal system, with independent judges, these people are also administrators who get their power from Beijing. So there was a real crisis provoked among the legal profession, the bar society.

PERIES: There must be a few hundred thousand lawyers in Hong Kong, given all the business that takes place.

LEE: There are a few thousand, a few tens of thousands. But in particular the bar society, the Bar Association–that’s the lawyers that go to court–you know, we have the two systems in Hong Kong; they’re not a united profession–they were very upset because they thought that this undermined the independence of the judiciary. But the Law Society, which is the business lawyers, not the court barristers, the head of the Law Society made some remarks about the white paper which contradicted what the Bar Association was trying to do and suggested that, well, the white paper wasn’t really too against the basic law. And he made some other remarks, such as, you know, communism has been great for China. And this provoked a real backlash among all the lawyers in Hong Kong. And they had a large meeting, at which several thousand turned out, to pass resolutions effectively impeaching the head of the law society, and he had to resign. So that was a week or so before the students announced that they would also boycott classes to show their support or their concern over the direction in which the constitutional development was changing with respect to the election of the chief executive.

So I think the legal crisis didn’t get a lot of press because it was–for one reason, the meeting was not open to the press. But there was a lot of awareness of that problem and that situation in Hong Kong. I think together with the Occupy Central plan that had been several months in the making, and then you had the students coming in with her boycott, again, there were some–the government to tried to be very heavy-handed with the students, saying, you shouldn’t jeopardize your future by going out and boycotting classes, it’s irresponsible not to go to class. But the students went ahead anyway, and they ended up being the real catalyst for turning Occupy Central into a much bigger movement than it otherwise would have been.

PERIES: Are some of the business people and lawyers, the split in the legal community, is that transpiring on the ground in terms of some of them joining the demonstrations?

LEE: Oh, yes, very much so. I mean, people in my firm and other firms have joined in the demonstrations, have gone to–some are participating, some are just going there to observe. The legal profession is going to hold a candlelight vigil tomorrow night at a spot near to the High Court, in which they’re giving their support to the students and saying basically that the handling of the student boycott by the use of tear gas and riot police was excessive and contrary to Hong Kong’s proper rule of law.

So I think the whole community is galvanized here. It’s not quite as big as the demonstrations that occurred at the time of the Tiananmen Square massacre in 1989, but it’s certainly the biggest demonstrations since that time. And it’s also more immediate because it affects the people in Hong Kong, whereas Tiananmen was really something in which Hong Kong was giving its support to a movement in China, and it wasn’t really–there wasn’t any threat of violence in Hong Kong at the time. So this is a very broad-based protest, which has gone in the face of very strong media, you know, business leaders, political leaders, commentators from China, saying you shouldn’t do this, it’s counterproductive, it’s not going to get you anywhere, it’s going to hurt Hong Kong. In the face of all that negative criticism, these demonstrations of gone ahead, which says something about the degree of dissatisfaction that the people in general are feeling at the moment.

PERIES: When we’re sitting in the West, think of Hong Kong, we see a highly developed, extremely capitalist, hypercapitalist kind of a society, but that a demonstration or indication that that is really not so. There’s a lot of turmoil, there’s a lot of inequity, there’s a lot of issues that obviously these people are facing in order to hit the streets. Describe what life is like to live in Hong Kong. And if you’re an ordinary person like the students, what kinds of issues are they facing?

LEE: Well, Hong Kong has always been very positive about capitalism. It hasn’t been a hotbed of industrial action. But it has–since the financial crisis, and before that, the general widening of the gap between rich and poor has affected Hong Kong as well. We’ve been shielded from a lot of that because of the economic boom that the presence of China has caused. But like other places, a lot of the wealth from the boom has gone to a very small segment of the population. The middle class is being squeezed a lot harder. Property prices are way out of line with what the ordinary middle-class person can afford.

So, yes, although Hong Kong remains pro-capitalist, people are seeing that the system is not working the way it was before, and they don’t–particularly students. I think they see more and more mainland students coming in to universities in Hong Kong. The price for a university education is going up and up. They don’t see the same future in Hong Kong as before. There are more and more mainland tourists coming in. With respect to the legal profession, you’ve got maybe 30 or 40 percent of the students in law schools are from the mainland. And it might be their second degree. So there’s a real concern that Hong Kong is rapidly no longer a place for Hong Kong people.

And there is a much broader discontent with the direction government is taking. And in many ways a lot of the discontent is against the Hong Kong government. It’s not against Beijing. These particular problems of Occupy Central and what’s going on now are against both the existing government and Beijing. There’s a high degree of satisfaction with the current chief executive, C. Y. Leung, whose popularity rating is as low as any popularity rating can be. And he’s seen purely as a puppet of Beijing. And people are very cynical about what he can do. And they’re equally cynical about what Beijing’s reaction to all this will be.

PERIES: And what do you think it will be?

LEE: It’s really hard to say. Everyone–the idea, the general feeling of Hong Kong is, well, you can’t do much, and China run things anyway, whether it’s openly or behind the scenes, so they’re not going to budge. And that’s the general view or what has been the general view up until recently. But I think the fact that the students and the people that have joined and supported them are doing these protests anyway is making it all a little bit less predictable.

PERIES: And, Robert, these demonstrations have been going on since 22 September. Is there any signs from Beijing or the administration that they might actually meet with the students and the Occupy group?

LEE: There’s been nothing so far from C. Y. Leung about meeting. I think they’re just in the waiting mode now to see whether it will peter out on its own. That’s not likely, although this is not a mass demonstration that is completely disrupting business in Hong Kong. It’s affecting a few areas. But on the whole, if they wanted to continue, I think there’s a good chance that people will go along with it.

PERIES: Is there any wavering in the stock markets as a result of the demonstrations?

LEE: Yes, the stock markets have been affected a little bit, but not drastically.

PERIES: Robert, I imagine these demonstrations are going to continue, and I hope you come back and keep us posted.

LEE: Yes, they will continue, and I’ll be very happy to keep you posted.

PERIES: Thank you for joining us.

LEE: Thank you.

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


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Robert Lee is a graduate of the University of Toronto with a master’s degree in Japanese literature. After graduating from the University of Texas Law School, he worked as a lawyer with Baker & McKenzie. In 1984, he founded his own firm with offices in Tokyo, Shanghai, and Hong Kong. His clients are mainly Japanese and Chinese companies doing business in the region.