The Stakes, the Dangers, the Sacrifices and the Hopes: An Interview with Stephen Yates on Hong Kong’s Protest

Narration: Hong Kong’s million people protest against the Extradition Law has spilled over to broader areas and the Hong Kongers are not stopping. What are the Chinese Communist regime’s options in Hong Kong?

the Communist Party of China has done things that are inconceivable to most people in the wider world.

Simone: So you said we don’t know China but we know the US. What do you think the US would do if there was another Tian Anmen square in Hong kong

It would certainly color the presidential election conversation. So there would be, I think pretty loud voices in Congress.

I would expect the United States government to do no less than it did at the time of Tiananmen.

Narration: Hong Kong’s situation is relevant to many stakeholders, but who would react to it in the most direct way?

Simone: If the PLA get involved in Hong Kong, Will Cai Yingwen become the next president of the Republic of China?

I think it has a significant effect like that,

Narration: And what is America’s real stake in Taiwan?

Amidst the ongoing protest in Hong Kong, My interview with Stephen Yates, He was the Deputy National Security Adviser to Vice President Dick Cheney from 2001 to 2005, and an expert on China and Taiwan. Stephen and I discussed what the Hong Kong protest could do to Taiwan’s presidential election in 2020, to the U.S. China trade war and the broader U.S.- China confrontation, and finally to the inspiration of the mainland Chinese people in their own struggle. I am Simone Gao and you are watching Zooming In.

Title: The Stakes, the Dangers, the Sacrifices and the Hopes:
An Interview with Stephen Yates on Hong Kong’s Protest

Simone: Alright Steve, Thank you so much for coming here again.
My Pleasure

All right, talking about Hong Kong, You know the Situation in Hong Kong has been escalating. now they’re planning on a general strike on August 5th and yesterday the commander of the Chinese military garrison in Hong Kong addressed the protest for the first time saying, you know, the violence by the protesters is absolutely not tolerated. Well, the same commender a few weeks ago told the visiting high ranking US official that the PLA in Hong Kong would not get involved in the handling of the Hong Kong protesters. Do you think there’s a change in the CCP’s thinking of how they are going to deal with the people in Hong Kong?
Well, certainly I think the West generally or the outside world is taking those words as a warning that a Tiananmen like disbursement of the crowd could take place. I don’t believe that any rational person in Beijing could think that that would go well for the international reputation of the People’s Republic of China, and in terms of where the global impression of China in recent years has become more negative and the personal reputation of Xi Jinping has become more negative. That would just be a disastrous move on their part. It would be tragic for the people of Hong Kong if that’s the direction it was going. In recent weeks though, we’ve seen that the PLA and Beijing generally have other options. They have rented thugs to go in and beat peaceful protesters. They have sort of random bullies that will go around and punch young protesters in the face.

And there’s videos that go around the internet showing in some ways a tremendous amount of fortitude and patience on the part of the young demonstrators where they decidedly do not respond to the physical abuse. And it’s, that’s been a compelling image. And for the protesters, the more that they stay on the side of nonviolence, and, and there’s some kind of aggressive pushback by security forces, and if there is any open involvement with PLA, it will I think greatly, greatly increase the international sympathy for the desire of the Hong Kong people or just standing up for holding onto a shred of autonomy.

The world is watching. Uh, the bluster from Beijing is not surprising because that’s how they think, but should they take that step? I think it would be quite tragic and very, very, I think negative for China.

Right, People have been guessing what their real intention is. If this is just a threat or if they really are planning on doing something like that. And if that happens, what do you it will do to a number of parties, most importantly, Taiwan?

Right, well certainly would be…would have an impact on perceptions in Taiwan, but these recent events have already had a dramatic influence on Taiwan’s perceptions of the Communist Party, Taiwan’s perceptions of engagement with China generally. And it’s influencing the politics of the presidential and legislative races in Taiwan, that will come to a head in January of next year, but it would also have a much, much bigger strategic impact if they were to have a Tiananmen like event that, you know, we need to remember, you go back all those years, China’s economy ground to a near stop and probably was in very negative territory because their statistics are not honest. And so China’s economy contracted international sanctions piled up. China’s economy is already under strain with tariffs and other pressures from the United States, but not just the United States. You add on top it international, condemnation on reputation, and the sanctions that inevitably would follow from something like that, plus the loss of the financial value of Hong Kong as an international financial hub.

The fleeing of business would, I think have just a catastrophic impact, on China. Remember post Tiananmen, Hong Kong was still a colony and there was still a lot of confidence of, in terms of people staying in Hong Kong. and if there was actually an event like this in Hong Kong itself, we’re in uncharted waters. And then it also becomes the end of one country, two systems. It’s just one country. And so the offer to Taiwan of one country, two systems that Deng Xiaoping made, if it isn’t already dead, it would be dead then.

Okay. Would you say PLA get only involved in Hong Kong, Tsai Yingwen would become the next president of the Republic of China?
I think it has a significant effect like that, not necessarily because of President Tsai as a person, she’s running for reelection in her own right. but if you look at when bad things are done by the Communist Party, and make international news make the news in Taiwan, it tends to increase support for those broadly in Taiwan who want to make best friends with the United States and its allies who are concerned about entanglements with China, and it greatly weakens the dominant party in Taiwan that has sought to make a peace agreement with the CCP. So it, it definitely has a, partisan political impact in Taiwan when these things are done. We had the New Year’s Eve address, that was delivered by Xi Jinping that that was somewhat blustery and it, it colored the, the competition for the primaries, in Taiwan.

And in some ways it bolstered President Tsai’s standing when she was able to respond to it. These dramatic demonstrations in Hong Kong with such a high proportion of the population demonstrating it’s forced all of the major nominees in Taiwan to disavow one country, two systems as a model for Taiwan. And President Tsai’s reaction to it, there’s only one president at a time, gives her a natural advantage. But it also is resting upon a broad popular perception that China is today going in the wrong direction. And you put that in the context of things international, where there are concerns about the integrity of political institutions, the integrity of media, the integrity of business supply chains and you add on top of it profound political risk and security risk. Then I think that it just dramatically bolsters those that want self government, that want to have no longterm relationship politically with China and want to be protected against these kinds of aggressive moves.

There is an uncontrollable element in this whole situation. You know, the CCP has set a bottom line, a red line for Taiwan. That Is Beijing is not going to tolerate Taiwan’s independence. Now the thing is, if PLA gets involoved in Hong Kong and if that provoked Taiwan and all the sudden the independence voice in Taiwan gets bigger. Do you think that could trigger and in a sense force the CCP to do something radical to Taiwan?

Yeah. Well, there’s no way to eliminate these kinds of thoughts or calculations. I have no evidence that this is a plot by the CCP, to sort of chart this course or warn about actions along these lines. But the anti secession law was written in a way that sort of said if a things went too far or if there was unrest or what have you, that there were certain conditions under which that they reserve the right to intervene in Taiwan. Well, this seems to be somewhat of an anti secession law logic implied in what Beijing’s messaging is to Hong Kong right now. Also, the bigger uncertainty though for Beijing is if there is this dramatic move against the people of Hong Kong and we don’t know whether that’s going to happen yet, we’re kind of watching and waiting and uncertain development with these sustained, demonstrations and maybe they don’t stop.

But if there is that kind of move, the real question is, will there be consequences in the rest of China? The whole world kind of remembers in 1989 the filling of Tiananmen Square, but what they don’t have the same impression of is that Beijing was only one of many geographies where people were rising up in an organized way to demonstrate against corruption and inflation and other kinds of problems in China. And so it’s really a broader question of will the people of China begin to see that the promise of a China dream is not coming from the CCP, it’s not coming from Xi Jinping. And it would, will there be a…will there be pressure internally that Beijing has to be more concerned about than trying to hold down politics and Taiwan, if they’re rational, they’ll know from history that the people of Taiwan are ungovernable by outside powers.

The Japanese had Taiwan as a colony for 50 years and the people of Taiwan, emerged with their own identity. The KMT came and established martial law, imposed heavy controls and the people of Taiwan, emerged with their own identity and the CCP wants to try to swallow this porcupine? I think it will not be a pleasant meal for them to try. It would be disruptive. It would be tragic. But ultimately the people of Taiwan, have proven remarkably durable through all kinds of outside influences and occupations. So my hope is that some degree of rationality will prevail in Zhongnanhai and that the people of China will impose their will on their government in some form or fashion. We don’t have to get to these extreme considerations of “what ifs”.

The general perception is that the price is too high for Beijing to go that direction. But for you, you do not rule out the possibility of them actually doing it. You don’t think this is a pure threat only.

Well, I mean, the Communist Party of China has done things that are inconceivable to most people in the wider world. It literally starved millions of its people imposing radical economic policies during the great leap forward. It literally murdered multiple millions of its own citizens for political purposes in the cultural revolution. And it destroyed several elements of longtime Chinese culture and tradition. The institution of the family has been fundamentally destroyed inside of China. The institutions of religion have been fundamentally destroyed inside of China. The very use of language has been altered in fundamental ways. They fought against Confucius and then now oddly use Confucius institutes as points of propaganda internationally. So there’s things that the CCP has done to China, to the Chinese people that most other people, most people around the world would consider to be wildly irrational.

We didn’t even mention Tiananmen in that list. And so I can’t rule out any kind of outrageous or what I would consider to be irrational action by them if there’s a sense of paranoia or a potential loss of power, that they are not willing to abide. But, I want to believe in the ultimate rationality and hopefully, the responsibility of the Chinese people themselves to recognize that this relatively small percentage of their population that is in the communist party is not all Chinese people. And that maybe they can impose their will. And of course, from my point of view, I’d like the people of China to enjoy the freedom that the rest of the world does. But in the absence of that, I hope that they can at least impose a degree of caution on their own government and force their government to take care of them instead of intervening in these other areas that really are supposed to be left to self-government. I mean, after all Hong Kong is supposed to be governing Hong Kong with a high degree of autonomy, that was the promise of the joint declaration that was written into the Basic Law. And so why is Beijing bothering at this time? They could have left Hong Kong to its high degree of autonomy and taken care of problems inside the mainland itself.
So yeah, that’s the question you just talked about, you know, there was actually no need to do what they did in Hong Kong and Xinjiang and things like that. But then why did they do that?

Well, I mean, I, I can only speculate. And, we do not have the blessing or the curse of knowing the mind of Xi Jinping or the other top leaders of China. They are a secret government that is not actually accountable to its people. They conduct their deliberations in secret. And so no, one in the world knows why they’re doing what they’re doing, except for the very small number of unelected, unaccountable leaders in China.

We don’t really get to know why they’ve gone down this path that I think is irrational, unless the reality to them is they know more about what’s happening inside China and maybe the Communist Party’s grip in controlling institutions of the economy, politics or broader government is weaker than they’ve let us know. And so it’s out of fear, anxiety, perception of loss, that they’re acting out in more extreme ways because it just doesn’t make sense. These things seem to have generally on a gradual basis, been moving broadly in their direction. So why rock the boat?

So you said we don’t know China but we know the US. What do you think the US would do if there was another Tian Anmen square in Hong kong, or maybe not to that degree, but the Chinese military get involved in the suppression of the Hong Kong people.
Well, I think those images would be broadly shocking to a lot of Americans. You know, I think there’s been broad coverage of the demonstrations in Hong Kong, but I don’t know that it’s become kind of a kitchen table conversation among a large majority of American households. It would certainly color the presidential election conversation. So there would be, I think pretty loud voices in Congress. Every candidate running would be pressed to speak. There are now many, many candidates running for the Democrat nomination. My guess is they would have to compete to revive some position on human rights in China, that has somewhat waned in the Democratic Party in recent years. Nancy Pelosi, who’s the speaker of the house, entered Congress in the times, soon after Tiananmen square and was a vocal proponent of human rights in China at a critic of the Communist Party and a speaker she has from time to time, said things that were critical of what’s happening inside of China as speaker.

I would expect her to be a leader in denouncing actions that would be taken if that were to be the direction things went in Hong Kong, I would expect the United States government to do no less than it did at the time of Tiananmen. But who knows, we’re in different times.
Simone: A harder time or an easier time for China?

Well, in some ways the global reputation of China has been going down.

Over the last year, people have grown increasingly pessimistic about the direction China is going, politically,. There’s talk of Xi Jinping being Mao Zedong 2.0 in a new form of Cultural Revolution, spreading inside China. So the, the mood music as someone might say colloquially in the United States has been very, very different leading to this point. So perceptions and international response could be quite different in the sense that people might be more quick to resort to sanctions. There might be less of a desperate move to preserve relations with Beijing as there was in the wake of Tiananmen by the Bush administration at the time. And also we don’t have the Cold War backdrop that existed at the time of 1989 where there was still a Kissengerian draw that we needed Beijing as a balance against Moscow in the Cold War competition. All of that context is just fundamentally different today.
On June 13th Senator Marco Rubio re-introduced the Hong Kong human rights and Democracy Act 2019. In it, among other things, it requires the State Department to have an annual review of Hong Kong’s economic and political situation to decide whether it’s still autonamous enough to receive the special treatment from the US. What do you think this bill will be passed and what is the US approach with regard to the situation in Hong Kong?

I appreciate Senator Rubio pushing the idea. I think that all of us that are supposed to be expert on these things struggle with what are the right tools to use to be helpful and supportive of the Hong Kong people, but also to try to impose costs on Beijing or Beijing supporters if they undermine what should be the autonomy of the people of Hong Kong. In some ways, does it really hurt the communist party for there to be one country, one system? And if it is increasingly one country, one system, it’s natural that the United States should think about, well, maybe we shouldn’t treat Hong Kong as a separate customs territory. Maybe we shouldn’t give privileges to a Beijing controlled Hong Kong government. If it really is one government, it should be treated like the rest of China. That is rational. But at the same time, there’s a reasonable debate to have but does that help the people of Hong Kong? Ultimately if we are motivated to try to uphold the international agreement, that is the 1984 Joint Declaration, If we’re meant to try to hold Beijing accountable for the promises made in the Basic Law, if our ultimate objective is what was written into those promises of universal suffrage for the people of Hong Kong, for them to have that high degree of autonomy…Does kind of pulling back, on recognition of special status help the people of Hong Kong or hurt the people of Hong Kong.

And it’s not an easy question to answer because there does need to be a cost to Beijing for its actions and the people and the government of Hong Kong needs to recognize the risks that it will be playing with if there isn’t a clear international sign that autonomy is being respected in Hong Kong. But at the same time, I think for a lot of Americans, our concern and our motivation is to do right by the legitimate wishes of the people of Hong Kong. And it’s just not an easy question for us to answer.
Simone: And maybe that’s why this legislation is not being rushed so far

Steve: I think a hearing is in order, and open discussion is constructive and useful. And it might be that this bill is important to put in place so that there’s a signal sent that, you know, we may have an imperfect set of tools, but there are these consequences that will come into play and we want the people of Hong Kong, the government of Hong Kong, but also the CCP to understand this and it might help the administration if Congress takes a clear view on these kinds of issues and the administration can then put that into its toolbox of negotiations with China broadly and its dealings with the government in Hong Kong

And so what we’re seeing in politics and security is separate from the trade rebalancing. And those are where tensions could become, I think, more dangerous conflicts. Miscalculation on the high seas with the PLA being too adventurous and too expansionist. The potential destruction of autonomy in Hong Kong has bigger consequences for perceptions of China at large, than the broader trade rebalancing renegotiation, And fundamentally I don’t think that the trade rebalancing is anti-China. Whereas these other moves, the CCP risks I think are very, very substantial, broad based negative backlash towards China as a brand. So I see them somewhat as separate and different and I don’t see that the trade negotiations as something that’s necessarily bad. Even for China, in some ways it’s rebalancing and China could end up with a more sustained glide path for economic relations with the United States. I think that’s what president Trump’s vision was meant to try to move towards. The difference though is the leadership of China doesn’t seem willing to make that kind of concession at this point. And so maybe they’re trying to wait out the 2020 election to see whether they can get a better deal with a different president. I don’t know what their calculus is. But the trade negotiations themselves are not necessarily what one would normally think of as a war, even though it gets talked about that way.