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Assistant Professor Sean Kenji Starrs reports from the front lines of the uprisings

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

The Umbrella Revolution’s call for the resignation of Chief Executive Officer C. Y. Leung has a new twist. It is alleged that CEO received $6.4 million from an Australian engineering and development firm with interest in Hong Kong and Chinese real estate. This disclosure has ramped up the calls for his resignation. A top Hong Kong lawmaker told a McClatchy newspaper that the city’s legislative council was sure to launch an inquiry and might even use its powers to seek Leung’s ouster. There’s the possibility of bringing an impeachment motion, said Alan Leong, a member of the council.

How convenient is this for Beijing? Will this inject more fuel into the dwindling Umbrella Revolution in Hong Kong?

Now joining us from Hong Kong to discuss all of this and much more is Sean Starrs. Sean is an assistant professor of international relations at City University of Hong Kong and research affiliate for the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Thank you so much for joining us, Sean.

SEAN STARRS, ASSIST. PROF., CITY UNIV. OF HONG KONG: Oh, thanks for having me.

PERIES: Sean, just as you arrived in Hong Kong to teach at the university, the Umbrella Revolution started to unfold. Describe for us what you have been observing.

STARRS: Well, I think this has been a really significant development, not just for Hong Kong, but for China and indeed the world. I mean, China is the second most important country in global capitalism right now. Hong Kong is the third most important financial center for global capitalism. And it’s still an extremely important city for China, even though it only accounts for 3 percent of Chinese GDP right now.

And so what they’ve been able to do, what students have been able to do is completely lock down entire zones, three main areas of this massive cosmopolitan metropolis. So I think it’s very significant. And there have been reports of it dwindling, but I think those have been exaggerated from what I’ve seen just last night. I was down there just last night. And even though the police took down some barricades and a mob of thugs violently took down some barricades in Admiralty and Mong Kok, I witnessed last night them being rebuilt even stronger, with hammered nails, building wooden structures, bamboo matrices, and so on. So I think this continues to have legs.

PERIES: Sean, on one hand, we’ve been hearing that this is a very spontaneous revolution, and on the other hand, I’ve also been hearing that this is very well organized, it is extremely well executed, and we should be expecting the second act very soon. What do you think?

STARRS: It is a bit of both. I mean, so Occupy Central with Peace and Love was founded in January 2013, and they’ve been talking about occupying a small square in Central, the main business district, for, what, 18 months or something. But they were only ever planning to occupy a small square called Chater Square for a maximum five days. So absolutely no one predicted that it would get this big and that they would expand to different regions of the city, which I think, by the way, has been a brilliant tactical move, spontaneous and unplanned. But it’s really overstretched the police and, indeed, the leaders of Occupy Central Hong Kong Federation of Students. So, on the one hand, it is highly organized and planned. They do seem to be well funded. I mean, there is actually one billionaire that supports this movement. I saw him on the streets just sitting with students–the first time I’ve seen a billionaire with no personal security guards in the streets.

PERIES: So, Sean, what do you think the interests are of this billionaire?

STARRS: Well, for him, so he’s the founder of Apple Daily, which is a newspaper here. It’s stridently anti-Beijing.

So his life story is actually quite interesting. I mean, he escaped Maoism when he was, I think, 11 or 12 years old. So he’s vehemently anti-Communist Party. And his newspaper has been running some racist attacks on mainlanders in general as well. So for him it’s about the Communist Party in Beijing.

PERIES: And what do you think about the Occupy movement coming into convergence with such successful tycoons and media typhoons and so on?

STARRS: Yeah, I mean, so the leadership of Occupy Central have really been focusing on liberal democracy and on electoral politics, what they call universal suffrage. They have–Benny Tai and others have mentioned inequality and the power of tycoons and the stranglehold of tycoons over Hong Kong, but it hasn’t been a primary focus, whereas it has been on the streets. You can just walk around the streets and talk to people and see posters and everything, and clearly inequality and the power of tycoons is very much a central issue for many of the masses.

PERIES: Sean, one of the issues that we keep hearing about is that the students are actually demonstrating because of some of the inequities, lack of employment, access to some basic housing, and so on, because–you know, the growing inequities and disparities in the population. Tell us more about that.

STARRS: Yeah. I mean, I guess like most major cities in the world, the rich are getting richer and the poor are getting poorer in Hong Kong. So from 2010 to 2011, the poorest 10 percent, they saw their income declined by 16 percent, and the richest 10 percent saw their income increase by 12 percent. And Hong Kong has one of the greatest rates of inequality in the developed world. So, according to Forbes, there are 41 U.S.-dollar billionaires, and they have combined wealth of over USD 200 billion. So, for comparative purposes, the GDP of Hong Kong in 2013 was $274 billion. So inequality is very much on the minds of many of my students and the students that I’ve talked to on the streets.

PERIES: And is that being projected in terms of the broader community? Or is it something that is just in terms of the experience of the students?

STARRS: The broader community as well. I mean, Hong Kong didn’t have a minimum wage until 2010, and it was only set at HKD 28 an hour. It’s now been increased to HKD 30. This is about USD 3.87 cents, which is unbelievable. I mean, I don’t know how anyone can live off of that. The price of housing has doubled since 2009. So this is definitely widely felt. There’s 1.2 million Hong Kongers that live under the poverty line, which is less than USD 1,500 a month.

PERIES: And how is that manifesting? I mean, we know that this started off as being a demand for universal suffrage and democratic rights and freedoms of people living in Hong Kong, but the Umbrella Revolution was largely focused on that. Is there a class consciousness to this movement?

STARRS: Class consciousness is a big word. The working class, some of the working class has been involved. Some of the leadership of the Confederation of Trade Unions in Hong Kong very much supports the strike, and there are definitely lots of workers on the streets individually that support this strike. But there hasn’t been–well, I mean, in the first week there were up to 10,000 workers that were on strike, but it’s kind of a gray area, because there were two national holidays. So were they on strike, or were they just taking a day off for the public holiday?

But, I mean, I have seen, certainly, some class consciousness. But it’s mainly around inequality and the sort of the power of the 1 percent and 99 percent, borrowing the language from Occupy Wall Street, as opposed to the working class versus the capitalist class.

PERIES: Hong Kong is a very large financial center of the world. Not even Occupy Wall Street was able to achieve this level of disruption in a city that is so concentrated. But financial capital is also very fluid. It’s a more metamorphosis. It changes and it moves. And if it’s not Hong Kong, it could be Shanghai. What do you think the impact will be of this movement on this large capital city?

STARRS: Well, I mean, of course capitalism can live very comfortably with liberal democracy and universal suffrage and so on, I mean, obviously the United States and so on. But Hong Kong is unique. I don’t think finance capital can simply move to Shanghai or Singapore, because Hong Kong is a gateway for global capital into China, and it’s a gateway for Chinese capital outwards. There are still very strict capital controls in China. So mainlanders, for example, can’t invest in stocks outside of China. They can only invest through the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. So there are unique factors about this in Hong Kong. So if the Occupy continues, then who knows what could happen?

PERIES: Right. And what do you think of Beijing’s response to all this so far? Not much movement, is there?

STARRS: Well, the general pattern, at least over the past 30 years, is to let local officials deal with whatever protests arise in the provinces, city level, county level. So even in Tibet or Xinjiang, the central government rarely steps in. It’s mainly the local provincial governments. So this is the same pattern here. Xi Jinping has rarely directly spoken about Hong Kong. He’s leaving it to the local Hong Kong government.

PERIES: And you also recently wrote to us about the kind of evidence you’re finding, where the opposition to the demonstrations were financed and supported by the state and perhaps the leadership of Hong Kong itself. What evidence did you find? Tell us more about that.

STARRS: Well, there’s different kinds of support, because, I mean, there are different groups that are against this Occupy. So the most stirring evidence I have from a student, which has to remain anonymous, is that her mother, who emigrated from China, the mainland, the local Chinese Communist Party gave her a text message with a menu of different options, so HKD 200 to participate in the anti-Occupy rally, up to HKD 1,000 to actually use violence, tear down the tents, and so on. So that’s actually from a provincial Chinese Communist Party. So, again, the central government can maintain plausible deniability because this is at a more local level.

In terms of the Triads, so my university, City University, actually has–there’s a center that has a rehabilitation program for the Triads. So I have another student who’s a friend of a former Triad at this university who’s in this program who also get a text message, this time being offered HKD 500 to go down to the protests in Mong Kok. He wasn’t told what he would have to do. He thought he would just have to show up to an anti-Occupy rally. But once there, a woman speaking Mandarin informed him that he would have to cause trouble in order to get the $500. So there’s circumstantial evidence.

Well, another piece of evidence is a video that was going around Facebook showing the police in Causeway Bay actually giving out blue ribbons, which has become the symbol of the anti-Occupy rally, so that he is actually caught on video giving out blue ribbons to people.

So there has been–I feel like there’s been many accusations of collusion between the police, the Triads, and even the Communist Party at the provincial level on the mainland.

PERIES: And, Sean, finally, what is your expectation in terms of going forward? What do you expect? What should be we looking out for?

STARRS: I don’t see this dying down in the forseeable future at all. I mean, from what I saw, every time the police escalate, more people come down to support. And just last night I saw more tents in Admiralty on the streets than ever, than in the entire 15, 16 days. So, as long as this can continue, every day it will apply more pressure on both the Hong Kong government and the central government to make some significant concessions, which would again further encourage people in the future, in the medium to long term, on what is possible in Hong Kong.

PERIES: Sean Starrs, thank you so much for joining us today.

STARRS: Thank you very much.

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


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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.