Hong Kong in Turmoil: Former Chief Secretary and Scholars Discuss the Protests in Hong Kong


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Professor Thomas Fingar (left) introduces the "Hong Kong: A City in Turmoil" conference keynote speaker, The Honorable Anson Chan.

On October 1st, with a massive National Day parade down Chang’an Avenue in Beijing, the People’s Republic of China celebrated the 70th anniversary of its establishment in 1949. Like a split-screen T.V., however, on the other side of the border in Hong Kong, black-clad protesters wearing gas masks and goggles undertook one of the most violent protests in Hong Kong SAR since the 1997 handover.

With those contrasting images still fresh on everyone’s minds, FSI, Shorenstein APARC, Stanford China Program, and the Center for East Asian Studies jointly sponsored a conference on October 2nd titled “Hong Kong: A City in Turmoil” to an overflow audience. Jean Oi, Director of the Stanford China Program who moderated the program opened the conference by quoting Stanford President Marc Tessier-Lavigne and Provost Persis Drell who, in a campus-wide message, had recently encouraged the university community to not shy away from difficult conversations. “We have an extraordinary opportunity [at Stanford],” she quoted from their email, “to learn from each other, to have our thinking challenged, to sharpen our arguments and to develop better ideas from a thoughtful debate.” Even while explicitly aware, therefore, that differing opinions rage on both sides of the debate regarding Hong Kong’s protests, but trusting that “there are thoughtful people on both sides of the debate,” she continued, “we have decided to organize this special event.”

The former Chief Secretary for Administration of the Hong Kong Government (1993-2001) Anson Chan gave the keynote speech followed by a panel discussion featuring Harry Harding, University Professor and Professor of Public Policy, University of Virginia; David M. Lampton, Oksenberg-Rohlen Fellow, FSI, Stanford University; and Ming Sing, Associate Professor, The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

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The Honorable Anson Chan speaks at Hong Kong: A City in Turmoil conference.

The Honorable Anson Chan gives the keynote speech at the "Hong Kong: A City in Turmoil" conference.

Keynote Speech

In her keynote, Anson Chan first recalled the handover ceremony in 1997, which she attended as Hong Kong SAR’s Chief Secretary, bridging the transition from British sovereignty to Chinese sovereignty. Chan spoke of her dawning realization at the time that the transition of sovereignty “would call Hong Kong people to forge a new identity” that “reconciled our community both with its past and future.” She noted “that many Hong Kong people, particularly the young, have indeed forged a new identity, but not as loyal, submissive Chinese patriots that Beijing had hoped for.” The central government had “singularly failed to win hearts and minds,” Chan added, especially of its young people. Hong Kong is, indeed, now at a crossroads and, she admitted, is a “city in turmoil.”

In Chan’s recollection, the central government exercised its power with “great restraint” following the handover. At first, the SAR government, too, was vigilant in protecting Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy. Gradually, however, the city’s autonomy and civil liberties, she asserted, suffered increasing erosion. In particular, “[o]ver the past fifteen years, things changed drastically.” Describing the series of events that have caused Hong Kong’s residents increasing alarm -- including the forced abduction of Hong Kong-based booksellers; disappearance of a mainland Chinese billionaire from a luxury hotel in Hong Kong; Legislative Council members’ oath-taking controversy; the resulting disqualification of six legislative members; and the political screening of pro-democracy electoral candidates, etc. -- she further noted that the “snail’s pace of progress” in implementing full universal suffrage for the election of the Chief Executive and all members of the legislature promised in the Basic Law also brought on mounting popular frustration and despair.

“Was this progressive erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy inevitable?” Chan asked. “I don’t think so,” she answered. Since 1997, Hong Kong SAR’s successive Chief Executives, she countered, have progressively failed to reassure the Hong Kong people that, first and foremost, they will do their utmost to uphold “one country, two systems,” and to defend Hong Kong’s autonomy. In an unsparing critique, she noted, they have instead increasingly come across as “mouthpieces of the central government, toeing the Beijing line.” Chan also suggested that “some years back, Beijing began to both lose confidence in the judgment and competence of the Hong Kong administration and to fear that growing sense of people’s identity as ‘Hong Kongers’ rather than Chinese citizens could pose a threat to the long-term, successful integration of Hong Kong into the motherland.” This growing distrust, then, proved catalytic to increasing tensions and difficulties in Hong Kong-PRC relations.

Characterizing 2003 as the first watershed moment when large public demonstrations – Hong Kong people’s “first taste of people power” -- forced the SAR government to withdraw its proposed bill under Hong Kong Basic Law Article 23, Chan recounted the failure of the constitutional reform consultation process in 2013-2014, the decision of the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress on August 31, 2014 to set institutional limits on universal suffrage, and the resulting 2014 Occupy Movement, which later morphed into the Umbrella Movement. These popular movements failed to yield genuine universal suffrage, however, and this failure, Chan stated, “left wounds that went unhealed and festered quietly.”

The million-strong protests on June 9th and 16th to register popular opposition to Hong Kong SAR government’s introduction of its extradition bill “broke all records,” Chan noted. Recounting the five demands of the current protesters, Chan voiced support for the establishment of an independent commission with “carefully crafted terms of reference” that could objectively examine the handling of the current unrests. Such a commission could go a long way towards pacifying the protesters, she suggested, and “[s]top the violence, at least for the time being.” She also urged the reopening of broad-based consultation on political reforms, lain dormant since the collapse of the Umbrella Movement in 2014; and to even consider a measure of amnesty to exonerate a subset of both the protesters and the police. Recognizing how problematic such a recommendation might be in the face of spiraling violence and vandalism, she noted, “we are in an unprecedented crisis, and for society to heal, unprecedented measures such as an amnesty applying to certain actions by the protesters and the police force may well prove to be necessary.”

Calling herself an “unrepentant optimist” even against formidable odds, Chan highlighted how Hong Kong has come through many challenges before and after the handover. She sought to emphasize how “[t]he majority [of Hong Kong people] are not anti-China and accepts that Hong Kong is a part of China.” However, she continued, “they are also proud of their Hong Kong identity and fiercely protective of the rights and freedoms they enjoy and which are guaranteed by the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law.” Condemning the violence committed by both the police and the protesters, Chan ended her speech with the following words.

So, on this seventieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, we in Hong Kong recognize the huge progress that our country has made in a breathtakingly short time, lifting hundreds of millions out of poverty, improving living standards and achieving economic growth and social advancement that are the envy of the world. We are proud of the unique contribution that Hong Kong has made to our nation’s spectacular achievements and modernization. But we are distressed that the central government feels it necessary to be increasingly repressive towards its Hong Kong subjects. I urge the Beijing leadership to act with greater confidence and to trust us more completely with stewardship of our own future by allowing us to elect our own leaders. In these troubled times, we ask Beijing respectfully to listen with greater understanding to the voices of Hong Kong’s upcoming generations, to recognize and respond to their fears and aspirations and, above all, to harness their talent, their energy and commitment for the benefit of the city we all love and for the benefit of our nation as a whole.

Panel Commentary

Harry Harding, University Professor and Professor of Public Policy, University of Virginia, next spoke from the panel. He applauded the clear and concise rendering that Chan provided of how Hong Kong arrived at the current crisis but noted that his was “a more pessimistic forecast” of Hong Kong’s future. With “one country, two systems” due to expire in 2047, he surmised that Beijing will further whittle away at Hong Kong’s key institutions, such as the judiciary, the press, and universities, and, perhaps, even the freedom of expression of its business community. With respect to Taiwan, Harding noted the increasing urgency in President Xi Jinping’s call for Taiwan to be reunified with the motherland. Yet, Harding noted, the developments in Hong Kong have made “one country, two systems” increasingly unpalatable to even those traditionally favorably disposed towards Beijing. For the U.S., the recent protests have enabled Hong Kong to take center stage with legislative action around the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, the PROTECT Hong Kong Act, and debates surrounding the Hong Kong Policy Act. The recent unrest has also contributed to declining favorability ratings for the PRC from all sectors of the United States, he noted.

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Harry Harding, one of the panelists at the conference, gives his thoughts on the situation in Hong Kong.

Harry Harding, one of the panelists for the conference, gives his thoughts on the situation in Hong Kong.

Ming Sing, Associate Professor, The Hong Kong University of Science and Technology, first delineated the increasing levers of political and economic controls imposed by the PRC government upon Hong Kong SAR since 2003; and the corresponding rise in intensity of political protests in Hong Kong. He then provided a fine-grained analysis of the different phases of the 2019 protests, which began as a peaceful mobilization of public resistance, then grew in violence and counter-violence. He further presented a number of surveys that showed how the majority of the protesters are, indeed, well-educated and young with many of the frontline protesters being university and secondary students. Despite media reports that have suggested that economic discontent lies at the heart of protesters’ grievances, Sing presented survey data that the demonstrators’ grievances are, in fact, mainly political, including Hong Kong’s lack of universal suffrage and central government intervention, among others. Such data, he concluded, further highlights the gaping distrust between Hong Kong’s youth and the central government. 

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Ming Sing speaks during the Hong Kong: A City in Turmoil conference.

Ming Sing explains the information presented in his slides.  

David M. Lampton Oksenberg-Rohlen Fellow, FSI, Stanford University, characterized himself as “hopeful but worried” about the situation in Hong Kong. Raising five observations in particular, Lampton noted the first worrying sign: i.e., neither the outside world nor the SAR have a “road map to the future” with the PRC. Neither the Basic Law nor the Joint Declaration of 1984 can now serve as such a “roadmap,” Lampton asserted, and without a “shared vision,” he stated, “[i]t’s hard to be optimistic.” Secondly, in this “leaderless” protest movement, Lampton asked whether anyone can authoritatively negotiate with and enforce upon its followers any agreement reached with Beijing, should any transpire, so that it can lead to an effective resolution. Thirdly, as evidenced by the PRC’s mass display of “muscular nationalism” on October 1st, Lampton questioned whether Xi Jinping has any incentives to accommodate Hong Kong protesters’ demands, especially when Beijing’s leadership may have its own worries about domestic stability in the PRC. Fourth, with constitutional crises engulfing both the U.S. and Great Britain, Lampton noted, Western democracies are also hampered from effectively and responsibly addressing the situation in Hong Kong. And lastly, Lampton acknowledged how, in the policy vacuum left by the Trump White House with respect to Hong Kong, U.S. Congress was speeding towards adopting punitive legislation against the PRC. But Lampton again expressed doubts as to whether sanctions and threats are effective tools to extract concessions from the PRC government under Xi Jinping.

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David M. Lampton shares his viewpoint with the other panelists.

David M. Lampton shares his viewpoint with the other panelists.

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The Honorable Anson Chan gives summarizing remarks to close out the "Hong Kong: A City in Turmoil" conference.

Watch the entire conference below. You can also listen to the audio version below, selecting individual tracks.


Conference and Speaker Introduction Video Transcript
The Hon. Anson Chan Keynote Speech Video Transcript
Introduction of Panelists and Harry Harding Video Transcript
Ming Sing Video Transcript
David Lampton Video Transcript
The Hon. Anson Chan Closing Remarks Video Transcript