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Journalist Ilaria Maria Sala discusses the arrest and release of demonstration “leaders,” the history of Hong Kong’s struggle for democracy, American involvement in the protests, and the complexity of the current movement

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MARC STEINER: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Marc Steiner. Good to have you with this.

On the eve of the fifth anniversary of massive demonstrations that became known as the Umbrella Movement, that took place against the Chinese government who called for limiting democracy, several leaders or publicly prominent figures in these months of demonstrations were arrested. They’ve since been released, it appears. And the demonstrations seem to have been called off for this weekend, but we’ll ask our guest about that when we introduce you to her. And while these largely leaderless mass demonstrations have taken over life in Hong Kong in the last several months, and show no signs of abatement, there are number of questions to be explored. What are the demands? I think many people around the globe are not sure what the demands are, and we’re going to talk about that. What are the various groups that are represented in these protests? Can the Beijing government afford to attack them and enter the city? What could be the outcome of all of this? And then there’s the question that needs to be asked about people like Joshua Wong and others, and political parties like the National Party and Demosisto, that some people say have relationships with the United States government agencies. Does that mean anything? What does that mean? And while not denying the Hong Kongers their own agency, what role does that play?

Hong Kong has seen protest starting back in 1967 against the British, and it has morphed, but never ceased. We are joined now by Ilaria Maria Sala, who is a writer and journalist living in Hong Kong. She studied at the School of Oriental and African Studies and Beijing Normal University and Beijing University. She’s the winner of numerous awards for her work as a writer, and joins us now very late at night in Hong Kong. Ilaria, welcome. Thank you for joining us.


MARC STEINER: So let me just begin to talk a bit about what is happening at this moment, as we were taping this conversation. So Joshua Wong and a number of others were arrested, and I understand demonstrations for this weekend have been called off. They were going to celebrate the fifth anniversary of the Umbrella Movement. So talk a bit about what the situation is at this very moment.

ILARIA MARIA SALA: Right. Well, in the past few weeks, the police have been denying permission for some demonstrations. There was a lot of expectations for tomorrows rally. However, that has been also denied permission. The reason given is that it could end in violence. The only rally that is allowed tomorrow is prayer meeting because normally in Hong Kong there is no permission required for prayer meetings, so there’s a prayer meeting which is happening at midday tomorrow. After which, we don’t know exactly what’s going to take place. The prayer meeting might pull some of those who wanted to go to the rally. People are expecting that a lot more will join the prayer meeting and we don’t exactly know whether then this will turn into a march, whether there’ll be strong police presence trying to avoid that. In the past, let’s say in the past twenty-four hours, the situation has become a bit more chaotic. In terms of knowing exactly what the police allows, it seems to be as little as possible. Also, as we mentioned, there’s been this phase of arrests, which is ongoing.

So most of those who have been arrested daytime, have been released on bail. There have been at least two more people arrested in the evening, and we can expect maybe that they will also be released on bail later on. But for the time being, there’s a lot of contradictory news going around and it’s a bit difficult to keep up with everything.

MARC STEINER: So very quick, I’m just curious for our viewers, when you said there was a prayer demonstration—I mean, very quickly, what does that mean? Who’s doing that?

ILARIA MARIA SALA: Mostly it’s Christians. It’s either Catholics or Christians. Buddhist groups have participated in very, very little in good pro-democracy protests. However, there is quite a Christian presence that has been visible throughout. Partially because they have asylum given to [inaudible] for those who were escaping from [inaudible] and they also have had a role as society mediators trying to bridge the gap between the government and people. So even if you look at the statistics, the number of Christians in Hong Kong is not that high. They definitely have a role in pro-democracy protests.

MARC STEINER: I’m just going to—Let me jump ahead to where I was going to go, and ask this question now, and we’ll come back to some of the issues that I think we really have to understand about the demonstrations and the demands and where this can go and where this can lead. But when you raise the question of Christian churches and different Christian groups being part of the movement, this is a very broad movement. That’s clear. As I talked – interviewed one other person who wants to remain anonymous, she was just saying it goes from left to right, from capitalist to socialist. It’s a huge, massive, leaderless movement that you also wrote about in this morning’s Guardian.

But before I get there, let me ask this one question. So you talk about the Christian groups and I’ve been in touch, as I said, with Joshua Wong to join us here for conversations at The Real News, but there also have been pieces that have been posted in a number of other places that question Joshua Wong and other leaders of the National Party and Demosisto, another one of the parties, and their relationships with United States conservative movements, with the United States government, and that the United States government is in part – didn’t start these demonstrations, but clearly is taking advantage of these demonstrations— his meetings with the American consulate in Hong Kong, so talk a bit about that.

As I ask this question, I want to be clear: I’m not saying the United States is the reason the demonstration is taking place, but clearly the United States is involved at some level, and some of the “leaders” are involved with the US government. Analyze that for us politically. What does that say? What does that mean?

ILARIA MARIA SALA: Okay, so as you mentioned, this is a movement which is pretty broad. There are people who would define themselves as I think in a sense of that they are even for maybe Hong Kong independence. Although, that is a truly, truly small group of people, not terribly representative. Then you have on the opposite end of this, people who are some kind of new Marxist or really at two opposite ends of the political spectrum. So you have basically a demand for greater democracy that’s comes from people truly from all walks of life. Our normal definition of right and left, that is often not quite appropriate for Hong Kong. Because you have, let’s say, a group of capitalists, if you want to call them that, who ask for democracy, and other groups also business-related who are pro-establishment. The kind of more classic left and right division doesn’t quite apply.

However, one of the things that the – there’s a slight level maybe a bit opportunistic about the Christian group, which is that in Hong Kong you are required to ask for permission to have a political rally. You do not need a police permission to have a prayer meeting. So there is – the fact that the political rally has been banned, partially gives more importance to the religious beliefs, that I’m not sure most of those who will attend will really go because they have a strong religious impulse, that that’s because that is the only place they can actually have a rally.

Now, to address the question of the American involvement, the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement has always tried to have strong international backing. That’s because Hong Kong is one of the most cosmopolitan cities that you have in the world. For sure, it’s the most cosmopolitan city in Asia. It’s very international. It speaks three languages— English being one of them— and it has countless ties with the rest of the world. One strategy of this movement has been to involve, proactively involve, people from every possible country. So we have had, for example, a number of fundraising meant to collect money to be able to place ads in international newspapers, to explain to readers abroad what the demands of the movement are and why are there protests in Hong Kong.

Now, why does this happen? This happens because Hong Kong is fighting – is 7.5 million people fighting against a very big propaganda apparatus, which is the one that you have in China. So they are desperately trying to have a counter narrative being sent out. And given the difference in trends, many in this movement have thought that reaching for help outside of Hong Kong was a good idea. You have shown a few pictures, just a second ago, one was of a woman talking to a bunch of [crosstalk]

MARC STEINER: She was part of the US consulate, and another picture was Joshua Wong talking to Marco Rubio in Washington, DC.

ILARIA MARIA SALA: Exactly. So, that [crosstalk] Joshua Wong and a few others. Now, that picture has been used by the Chinese propaganda as proof that there was some kind of conspiracy or some abetting being done by the United States. And that is clearly something that is in bad faith because that’s a consular representative from the American consulate. And as we all know, every diplomat does the same thing. They meet with local people. They meet with local parties. They meet with all sorts of representatives from society in order to understand the place where they abate. So even the Chinese government – the Chinese diplomats do the same thing. So for them to take a picture like that, and use it as proof of a Western conspiracy is a bit disingenuous, or certainly in bad faith.


ILARIA MARIA SALA: The picture that I’m seeing now, Marco Rubio with Joshua Wong. Joshua Wong has gone many times to the United States and spoken with whomever was willing to listen to him. There are pictures of him with Nancy Pelosi. There are pictures of him with Rubio. There are pictures of him with literally anyone of any way who was interested in democracy in Hong Kong. Why is Marco Rubio interested in the democracy in Hong Kong? I don’t know and I am not – that’s not something for me to be [inaudible] about. All I can [inaudible] is, from this side, the feeling of isolation that you can have as a democracy activist in Hong Kong is you’re stuck. That you are willing to have – to receive help from wherever it’s comes.

MARC STEINER: So let me ask this question. When I look at pictures of the demonstrations and what’s happening on these streets, and I read I think it was your piece I just read also. It talked about a few days back about pictures of Mao at these demonstrations. We had these demonstrations where Mao Zedong and his quotes are there, about revolutionary justice and when he talks about democracy from his perspective. You have demonstrators, I’ve seen signs saying, “Donald Trump help us” and singing the US National Anthem. I’ve seen signs of all kinds, from right and left. And so, describe for us, just for a moment then, what then from your perspective is the amorphous nature of this movement, and where can it lead? What can the end game be here? And this is a hugely broad coalition, which I guess historically have a tendency to fall apart because they’re so broad. But this may not, we’ll see. There are a lot of contradictions involved in what I just said, so can you parse some of that out for us?

ILARIA MARIA SALA: I can try. There are contradictions, and yet there aren’t because this is not an ideological movement. This is not a movement with us, which is advocating one political line of force either from the left, either from the right, either from center. This is a movement that is asking for universal suffrage, and is also a movement that is asking for Hong Kong’s identity to be allowed, to be preserved. These are not part of any, let’s say, political parent. Among the people who are asking for universal suffrage in the streets you have people who then end up voting from very different parties, if they were allowed to have a vote. We have to look at this movement trying to abstract ourselves a little from more conventional lines than we may have in a Western political system.

These are people who have never – they were a colony for one and a half century. They were never asked for their own opinion, for their own future. The UK decided to make a deal with Beijing without never having given the referendum in Hong Kong to ask people what they wanted to become, what they want to be. And so, they were just given over like a parcel from London to Beijing, and they were promised this one thing in this passage. They were promised universal suffrage. To this day, 22 years later, universal suffrage has not been given to Hong Kong. This is also a leaderless movement, which organizes itself either on the phone or through various telegram, Facebook panels. It’s also a movement that has been making a lot of decisions at the, let’s say, at the last moment. In this sense, again, there is no clear line. There’s actually, when you see those who call themselves the frontline fighters, they are most like I think we could call them more anarchist than anything else.

Then you have those fifteen foreign flags. Some of them are from the US. Some of them are from the UK. There’s also some who have been waiving the colonial flag. Now, there are very few. If you think that we have had in Hong Kong marches of up to 2 million people, I have counted the moment when there were the most foreign flags, I counted fourteen. So that’s – it attracts a lot of attention, but it shouldn’t because it’s really a very small proportion. The British flags, some of those are being waived by people who have a kind of mixed status that was left to them by the Brits, which is a British National (Overseas). It’s a half passport. It’s not a full nationality. It’s a passport. It’s a travel document, basically. Those who are waving that flag are basically asking the UK to take responsibility for them, for the mess they feel that the British have left them in.

Then there are those who are waving American flags because some are of the idea that Trump may support them. If you talk with many Chinese dissidents today, you’ll find a surprising number of them say that they are supporters of Trump. If you start asking what that means in terms of, do they support Trumps policies? Do they even know what Trumps policies are? What about the war? What about the Mexican border? What about the law, that you know even better than me? They have no clue about all that. They don’t really care about any of that. What they see is that Trump is giving China a hard time, the Chinese government a hard time, so they support Trump because they also want the Chinese government to have a hard time. End of the story. So a very limited perspective, very limited look at what that means. Again, as I said before, we shouldn’t look at something that happens so far away from the US with a US perspective because it means something else here.

MARC STEINER: Well, Ilaria Maria Sala, this has really been fascinating. You’ve helped us parse through a very complex situation, and I appreciate you taking the time, and I appreciate your writing, and look forward to more conversations. Have a lovely evening in Hong Kong and thank you so much for joining us today.

ILARIA MARIA SALA: Thank you. Thank you so much.

MARC STEINER: It’s my pleasure. And I’m Marc Steiner here for The Real News Network. Thank you all for joining us. Let us know what you think. We’ll be covering this some more. I’d like to hear your ideas. Take care.

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Ilaria Maria Sala is a writer and journalist living in Hong Kong.