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Clashes Between Hong Kong Protesters And Police Capture Beijing's Attention


One of the world's busiest airports was paralyzed by demonstrations yesterday.


UNIDENTIFIED PEOPLE: (Shouting in foreign language).

GREENE: Some pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong clashed with riot police as they occupied the territory's international airport. This is the latest development in a months-long protest that began over anger at an extradition bill that would have allowed China to extradite people from Hong Kong to the mainland. That bill was scrapped at least for now. And while the clashes yesterday caught the attention of Beijing, the Chinese government did not clamp down like it has said it could.

Let's talk to David Rennie. He is in Beijing. He's the Beijing bureau chief for The Economist magazine. David, welcome back to the program.


GREENE: So what are you sensing from the Chinese government right now? Is Beijing just showing restraint?

RENNIE: It's showing a physical restraint in as much as the worst nightmare for the people of Hong Kong was that troops might cross the border. And we had these extraordinary sort of videos being released by state media over the last two days showing lines of armored personnel carriers of the paramilitary police force, the People's Armed Police, waiting on the border ready to come across, which would be, you know, the most astonishing catastrophe for Hong Kong.

But for the moment, that seems to be designed to frighten people, and the conventional wisdom here in Beijing is that actually the communist leaders here would rather do anything than send the troops in. They're hoping, I think, that those scenes of violence you were describing to your listeners will kind of separate mainstream Hong Kong public opinion from the protesters and that maybe this will kind of lose public support and fizzle away. That's clearly the bet that they're making, but they're making it very clear that if they have to, they will crush this with force.

GREENE: And if that happened, what would be the risk for China? Like, why is the Communist Party so worried about that transpiring?

RENNIE: There's some local kind of economic catastrophe, as you'd see. I mean, Hong Kong is not as important as it used to be back when it was, you know, China's window on the capitalist world. You know, China is itself now a capitalist superpower, as you know. But it's still a very, very important place, you know, banking and business. But there's also things to do with America and the Chinese relationship with America. You know, you have - Congress has some extraordinarily powerful weapons that it can use to sanction China if there was blood on the streets of Hong Kong in that worst-case scenario. In particular, there is a law that Congress passed in 1992, which essentially treats Hong Kong as kind of like a little Western country that's an ally of America. And so Hong Kong people can travel without visas, and they can invest in America as if they were British or Australian.

And all of those privileges rest on this one law, and that law rests on the idea that Hong Kong is very different from everyone else in China under that slogan one country, two systems. If that slogan becomes meaningless because there are Chinese tanks on the streets of Hong Kong, then that law becomes meaningless. And then you're into a world of real economic catastrophe, not just for Hong Kong but the U.S.-China relationship would take, you know, a nosedive that would make everything we've seen till now look like kind of a walk in the park.

GREENE: That's so interesting because, I mean, we've been talking for months now about the trade war between the United States and China and how that relationship between those two countries is deteriorating. You are saying that is nothing compared to what might happen if this Hong Kong situation were to explode.

RENNIE: That's right. And it actually touches on really an interesting neuralgic point of America's relationship with China, which is that from the Chinese perspective, they often - you know, America is bullying us and America is trying to hold China down and American kind of CIA agents are whipping up these protests in Hong Kong, the whole kind of gamut. But actually if you look at the detail of it in Washington, there's a gap between President Trump, who, as some of your listeners would have heard, has said some pretty kind of casual things about these protesters if he's not that fussed about the pro-democracy movement - very, very different story in Congress. You've seen Senator Mitch McConnell on the Senate side, you've seen Nancy Pelosi, the speaker on the House side - so Republicans and Democrats making very clear that they are watching Hong Kong very closely and will act if they have to to really clamp down - so Congress playing a real role there.

GREENE: All right. David Rennie is in Beijing. He's the Beijing bureau chief for The Economist magazine. David, we always appreciate talking to you. Thanks so much.

RENNIE: Pleasure. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.