Trump’s Policy Toward Hong Kong Is Biased by US-China Trade Negotiations

Hong Kong remains an incredibly complicated region, not only historically but geographically and politically. Since June 2019, a variety of social and economic issues have been driving the historic protests.

In this interview, John Feffer, author and director of Foreign Policy in Focus, discusses the generational divides at hand in Hong Kong, implications for the countries involved and any pending lawmaking associated with the ongoing demonstrations. Feffer also weighs in on the left’s support of governments that stand against U.S. imperialism regardless of the regime, and talks about the need for the left to differentiate their political positions when it comes to contextually unpacking the issues of regionalism and federalism.

Daniel Falcone: Could you start by providing a basic overview of Hong Kong and how it’s arrived at this political moment?

John Feffer: Hong Kong is traditionally what’s known as entrepôt, a port city that has been set up for trade purposes with specially designated laws to facilitate particular kinds of trade. It was for many years a British colony, even though it’s quite clearly a Chinese territory. So, it’s a legacy of the colonial period, of when the colonial powers went in and divided up China. China, for more than a millennium was essentially the center of the global economy and certainly the preeminent power in the region.

But when it fell on hard times, colonial powers leapt in to take advantage, and to a certain extent, also encouraged the decline of China. Hong Kong is, along with Macau, a similar kind of place that was controlled by Portugal, a final legacy of that colonial period. It was handed over from the British to the Chinese in 1997 with an agreement that was supposed to last for half a century.

And during those 50 years, Hong Kong would enjoy special status as a special administrative region of China. It obeyed this formula of “one country, two systems.” Hongkongers would enjoy far greater political freedoms than their counterparts on the mainland, but that didn’t include universal suffrage. And they wouldn’t have the kind of political freedoms that, for instance, the Taiwanese currently enjoy, after they went through their own kind of democratization process.

Economically, at the time of handover in 1997, Hong Kong represented a huge chunk of overall Chinese economic activity, close to one-fifth. So economically, Hong Kong really was still at the end of the ’90s mainland China’s preeminent window to the global economy. But that began to change in the 2000s as mainland China’s economy took off.

Hong Kong’s economic contribution to the overall mainland economy shrank considerably, below 5 percent at this point. Meanwhile, the kind of political freedoms that Hong Kong enjoyed were limited.

Another point of view was, no, if this is truly going to be one country, two systems, then Hong Kong really should have a fully democratic system in which everyone enjoys universal suffrage, and there is no control of media or limits to freedom of expression.

Hong Kong has operated in that kind of “gray zone” since 1997 with an older generation more or less satisfied with the situation, and the younger generation more or less dissatisfied with the situation. And, of course, the younger generation’s concerns are not just fueled by an anxiety that the mainland is exerting greater political control. They’re also dissatisfied with their economic plight in Hong Kong itself.

Hong Kong is an extraordinarily divided place. It has a tremendous amount of wealth, as one might imagine from its entrepôt days. It’s a center for finance capital. But there’s also a lot of poverty. A large number of people live below the poverty line, especially young people, and it’s extremely difficult to get jobs. It’s even more pressing to find affordable places to live. And so that also has contributed to pent-up frustrations among the younger generation.

Can you comment on the underlying issues of Hong Kong’s political tension? Are these largely economic and more revolutionary in character than the set of specific and formal demands as seen in the five demands? The tinder was already dry by the time the five demands were declared, correct?

I would say that there are definitely economic frustrations, but I wouldn’t characterize the demands as simply formal. Some of them date back to 2014 — to the Umbrella Revolution — such as resignation of the chief executive and having an election that everyone can vote in. There were negotiations back then, and they weren’t resolved at that time. So you could say that that prepared some of the tinder as well. So it was dry from those previous protests.

It’s difficult, of course, to formulate the very specific economic demands that would attract a consensus among a broad range of Hongkongers. And I think young people have focused a good deal on the political side because, number one, they can be clear on demands. And remember, these recent protests were initially around the extradition law, which seemed like a clear and present danger to the folks who were protesting.

People have said, “Look, you know, plenty of countries have similar extradition laws. Why are you worried about this particular one?” And the protesters would say, “Well, we’re worried about this because China has used extradition to put pressure on folks in Hong Kong. So that’s what we’re concerned about. We’re not concerned about extradition in general. We’re concerned about how Beijing uses extradition.” So that was the approximate cause of the current unrest.

The other demands accumulated around that concern about extradition — for instance, the description of June 12 protest as a “riot”. Plus, earlier demands had gone unresolved. So that would be two primary reasons why the focus is on political questions.

It’s also much easier to sell this kind of a protest to the West — to the United States, to Europe — as a set of political demands, as opposed to a set of economic demands. There have been a number of articles about the disparity of coverage between, say, the protests in Hong Kong and some of the anti-austerity protests that have swept through the rest of the world, such as Lebanon or Chile. Those have been covered, and it’s not like the press has ignored them. But there’s been a disproportionate amount of coverage of Hong Kong protests. And in part it’s because it fits a larger narrative, one that is both political in nature and of course is set in the larger U.S./China conflict.

How do you characterize the protests of Hong Kong and the tensions with Beijing in terms of how Washington approaches this? What’s your take on how the president and the administration are rhetorically addressing it? It seems that depending on any Western leader for that matter, a need to be careful and selective in asserting what is separatism vs. what is revolutionary in character. And it sounds like they don’t know what to say all the time, when there are gray areas of protest. How is it impacting D.C.’s call on the matter?

Let’s start at the top with Donald Trump, who doesn’t care about human rights and certainly doesn’t care about the specific demands of the folks in Hong Kong. His primary concern is getting a trade deal from his friend — he calls Xi Jinping his friend. And anything that he will do with regard to Hong Kong has to be understood in that context. So, initially, of course, he cast aspersions on the protests. He called them a riot, said that Xi Jinping has shown restraint, and generally showed no indication that he would sign what was emerging from Congress as legislation in support of the protests and sanctioning the Beijing government as well as anyone within the government — including the Hong Kong government — that was engaged in kind of repressive measures.

But then he turned around and ended up signing pro-Hong Kong human rights legislation, and that was deemed to be a surprise. But, again, you know, we can’t interpret that as an about-face on the human rights question or about politics in general. It can be interpreted as a maneuvering point in the ongoing trade negotiations to put pressure on Beijing to accelerate its timeline in negotiating an agreement. So that’s Trump.

One of the things Trump campaigned on was a differentiated foreign policy regarding China. And then as soon as he has this opportunity to criticize China for this treatment toward Hong Kong, he waffled.

If Obama had waffled on the Hong Kong issue as Trump has done, Trump would have zeroed in on Obama and criticized him mercilessly. Trump in many ways has been otherwise quite consistent in the sense that when he was criticizing U.S. foreign policy, his primary concern was economic. And, again, anything else was useful for argument’s sake, but not when it came down to actual policy. And in this case, Trump actually was anticipating or channeling bipartisan concerns. I mean, if you look at other issues — Iran, Cuba, Russia-Ukraine — Trump was going against a consensus or, at least, was wading into controversial waters. But with China, no.

He was reflecting a broad consensus here in Washington — not one I necessarily share — that China was getting away with murder and that something had to be done. And you could find that among trade unions as well. Trade unions, the bastion of the Democratic Party, supported this for the most part, since they had long-standing concerns about outsourcing to China and unfair competition by China. So there anyway, Trump was really on solid political ground in making these changes.

When it comes to the likes of Catalonia and Spain, Ukraine and Russian-speaking separatists, Hong Kong and China, Venezuela or Syria, where there are various uprisings and pertinent resource battles, powerful countries call liberation movements “separatists” and often try to gain influence, thus leaving the American left divided in each of these areas and regions. It is obvious and understandable why hardcore leftists will not support actual right-wing European separatism, but in terms of the leftist attachment to federations, even when they pulverize weaker neighbors, where do you personally come down on this line of thinking?

One strand is this element of the left that sides with Beijing and Moscow regardless of the question. It could be a separatist question. It could be an economic question. But they side with Moscow, Beijing, even Damascus sometimes, because they see these countries as counterweights to U.S. hegemony or, as they would put it, U.S. imperialism. So it doesn’t really matter what the political nature of these regimes are, as long as they stand up to Washington.

I frankly think that’s nonsense at a lot of different levels. The question of separatism plays into that, obviously. Beijing, Moscow and Damascus are not going to be sufficiently strong as counterpoints — or counterforces to U.S. imperialism, if they are internally divided. So, this part of the left opposes anything that smacks of separatism. It’s a tactical question, not an ideological question.

There’s another strand of the left which makes an ideological decision about separatism versus federalism that has less to do with the question of American imperialism and more to do with the issue of majority rights versus minority rights. And that kind of application is found in the “states’ rights” discussion here in the United States, in which states’ rights becomes a code word for a racist or particularistic agenda.

You mean a right-wing or a neo-confederacy type of thinking?

Exactly, and as opposed to a more universalist agenda, which the federal government represents. So that would be a separate strand of thinking that goes on the left: opposing anything that smacks of separatism because it represents particularism as opposed to universalism.

I personally don’t make evaluations of countries based on how they stand toward the United States. I make the evaluation about whether the government is a democratic government or what its economic policies are, whether it’s a repressive state, et cetera. So that’s on the first. The second, I am sympathetic to the concern about the undercutting of universalist ideals and values. But I also think it’s absolutely necessary to stick up for autonomy and democracy as it’s represented at a local level.

Democracy doesn’t stop once you step outside the capital of a country. Different countries have different principles of centralization versus decentralization. And so that has to be appreciated as well. There’s no single standard. It reflects a long-standing tradition or even a new tradition. Poland, for instance, was pretty highly centralized during the communist period but became highly decentralized after 1989.

So you have a new tradition of decentralization, which now actually really allows for much greater progressive politics to survive in an otherwise authoritarian era, because you have, at least in cities and some of the larger towns, greater authority on the part of mayors and town councils to resist the kind of hegemonic program of the Law and Justice Party, in the case of Poland — or California resisting the Trump administration, for that matter.

My position is highly contextual and it depends on the country and its tension between regionalism and federalism, as well as what the agenda is of the particular region that wants greater autonomy.

Lastly, could you comment on the recent development, whereby Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam rejected the independent inquiry into the police handling of the protests? How does this directly impact the ongoing demonstrations in the short term?

Of the remaining demands of the protesters, this could have been one that Carrie Lam compromised on without the kind of political restructuring that free and fair elections, for instance, would require.

But Lam probably feels as though she has time on her side. The protests have become less intense, in part because so many activists are in jail. The global media have moved on to other issues (U.S.-Iran conflict, fires in Australia, Trump’s impeachment). So, she perhaps thinks she doesn’t need to compromise.

That’s a strategic mistake, in my opinion. The discontent that fueled these protests has not gone away. In fact, the police violence in particular has angered a large portion of the population. The protest movement is leaderless, so it doesn’t have a coherent way of debating tactics moving forward. Some protesters favor continued street pressure; others prefer to build on the successes in the last district-level elections. But the risk continues that protests — on the street or in the workplace — will make Hong Kong ungovernable, which would prompt Beijing to intervene more directly. At some point, if only to preserve her own position, Lam will need to compromise. Such an independent inquiry could be a first step.

This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.