© 2023 Milwaukee Public Media is a service of UW-Milwaukee's College of Letters & Science
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Hong Kong Protests Pull Attention From China's Self-Reflection


In Hong Kong, pro-democracy protests have snarled streets for three weeks now. It's been an unwelcome distraction for Chinese leaders. The chaos in Hong Kong comes as the Communist Party is wrapping up a meeting about how to improve the rule of law. NPR's Anthony Kuhn has this report from Beijing.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Front and center at the party plenum is Communist Party boss Xi Jinping's ambitious anticorruption drive and his effort to cement his position as China's most powerful leaders since the late Deng Xiaoping. The agenda is dominated by domestic politics, and Hong Kong does not appear to be on it. Professor Wang Gungwu is a historian at the National University of Singapore and a former vice chancellor of the University Hong Kong. He says Hong Kong residents' expectations of political reform are not unreasonable, but...

WANG GUNGWU: They would also have to take into account that this may be not a good time at the time when the Chinese leadership is facing so many problems of their own. To test them, to push the Chinese leadership at this stage may not be the wisest thing to do for Hong Kong.

KUHN: Shi Yinhong is an international relations expert at People's University in Beijing and an adviser to the central government. He says that so far Beijing has been fairly effective in dealing with the protests. It has stood back and let Hong Kong authorities take the lead, and it has avoided repeating the bloody suppression of pro-democracy protests in Beijing in 1989.

SHI YINHONG: (Through translator) They have avoided not only large-scale bloodshed, but even large-scale conflict. At the same time, they have not ceded any ground on their basic principles and policies. Although many issues remain unresolved, I think we've made it through the most difficult part.

KUHN: Shi says there are things that Beijing could be doing better. It could speed up the process of electoral reforms that protesters want. It could be more sensitive to the wealth gap that has alienated many Hong Kong residents. But he says the bottom line is that Xi Jinping is not the kind of leader who backs down when challenged, and China cannot tolerate an opposition politician as Hong Kong's leader.

YINHONG: (Through translator) I believe that no matter what, no political process should produce a Hong Kong government that stands in total opposition to China's central government.

KUHN: Beijing insists the candidates for Hong Kong's leader must be approved by a nominating committee of business elites. Professor Wang Gungwu says that so far this system has failed to produce leaders who can bridge the huge differences in Hong Kong and mainland China's political cultures.

GUNGWU: The kind of people who are willing to stand for - to become chief executive, to be acceptable both to Hong Kong and to Beijing are rather rare.

KUHN: Wang adds that the long-standing trust between Hong Kong and its government has begun to come apart.

GUNGWU: The generational gap between expectations of the young coming out of the school systems in Hong Kong and the political leaders that are now emerging or being selected by the chief executive, there's a growing gap there which is new to Hong Kong.

KUHN: Great Britain and China agreed in the 1980s on Hong Kong's return to Chinese rule. When they did that, Wang says, they envisioned that decades in the future, mainland China and Hong Kong's political systems would evolve to become more like each other. But as the protests drag on in Hong Kong streets and both sides' positions harden, that convergence seems a long way off. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Beijing. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.