Managing editor Drew Griffin sits down with Olivia Enos of the Heritage Foundation to discuss the ongoing crisis in Hong Kong, human rights, and the plight of Christians and Communist China.
Drew Griffin is managing editor of Providence.
Olivia Enos is policy analyst at the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation.
Kirkland An produced this episode.
Welcome to the ProvCast, the regular podcast of Providence, the journal of Christianity and American foreign policy. I’m managing editor Drew Griffin. Few topics over the last several weeks of this summer have dominated the news cycle more than the protests in Hong Kong, and there are few people within the Providence network that I would rather speak about this issue with than Olivia Enos. Olivia is a policy analyst at the Asian Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation. She specializes in human rights and transnational criminal issues. She’s a frequent writer for Providence and a frequent speaker on the issue of human rights and religious freedom within China and the international community.
So, Olivia, welcome.
Thanks so much for having me, Drew.
You’ve written for us as we’ve been covering the protests in Hong Kong. So, I want to try and set the stage a little bit. I don’t want to assume that our listeners are, you know, have the entire picture because it’s hard as news cycle moves into news cycle and the story continually develops. It’s hard to remember, maybe, how we got to this point, so maybe you could help us set the stage a little bit historically with how we got to this moment with these massive, almost record breaking protests on the streets of Hong Kong.
Yeah, so, in 1997, you had the British handing over Hong Kong, essentially returning it back to China after several years under British colonial rule. At that time, the arrangement was an agreement to uphold something called the “one country, two systems” model. What that essentially allows for is for Hong Kong to operate in a capitalist system as it had under the British up until 2047, at which point it’s actually supposed to be handed back to Beijing. But also at the time of 1997 was when they established the Basic Law, and the Basic Law that is set up is framework, but it also really sets the tone for what life in Hong Kong will be like, and that is a system that adheres to and uphold the rule of law there. And so that’s been really critical and really important.
I think that one of the reasons […] are seeing so much momentum in the current system is that you are starting to see people who are saying, you know, okay, the Legislative Council in Hong Kong introduced the extradition bill. This extradition bill would have allowed individuals to be extradited to China at Beijing’s whim and caprice. And so they saw this as an erosion of the Basic Law, and of that rule of law if the extradition law had been passed. But I would argue that a lot of the objection […] proposed extradition bill, which has since been tabled but not fully withdrawn, has to do with this broader sense in Hong Kong, feelings of and desire for reform that really laid dormant in Hong Kongers. So, I think that part of the reason why you see so much momentum is because the generation that will come of age in 2047 is now coming of age… is coming of an age now. And they’re worried about what their future is going to be like, and the extent to which they’re going to have to sacrifice their liberties at the doorstep of Beijing. So, I think these are the central animating forces, and part of the reason why you’ve seen people just coming out in droves in Hong Kong in support for what has been largely peaceful protests.
So, I’ll point it out, I guess—just for the point of view of our listeners—you’re calling on a cell phone so the connection, I know, may break up a little bit, but we appreciate you taking the time to speak with us even via cell phone.
So, Carrie Lam, who is the chief executive there of the Hong Kong city, the region, has been widely criticized for even introducing this extradition bill and it has—considering the amount of furor that it’s kicked up—it’s been questioned, why would she do this? Why is this… Why would this be a wise kind of step? Did she just not anticipate this reaction? Is this just something she thought she could slip in, you know, silently without…
And one of the things that you see in Hong Kong specifically is that because there’s a greater exchange of information, there’s a greater level of freedom. It’s a lot easier for the people to know what the government’s doing. So, it’s not… This isn’t like the central government in Beijing that can do things and controls the information to such an extent that people that they’re ruling have no idea what’s going on. In Hong Kong, they know. They can see, wait, this law is being proposed. Wait, we could be extradited to mainland China. We are going to oppose this. So, what impetus or what has driven Lam’s approach here? Has there been any kind of rationale that she has given or that Beijing has given for this law?
I think the decision to introduce the extradition bill itself was extraordinarily tone deaf. It overlooks the fact that Hong Kongers have for generations really cherished their personal liberties and freedoms. And I think that what it really reveals is that there’s a disconnect between the Hong Kong government and the will of the Hong Kong people. I think it is important at this point to be reminded that the Basic Law did not establish a democracy in Hong Kong. So, the system itself is not necessarily built to have a foolproof feedback loop between Hong Kong citizens and their government. But I think that those citizens are saying, look, this feedback loop is broken. We feel like there’s no other way for us to be heard, and so we’re having to take to the streets in droves.
And I think that this is true when you see any protest movement. It’s really revealing the fact that citizens no longer feel heard by their government, and they feel like they can’t be heard apart from protesting, and so I think this is an important wake up call for Carrie Lam, but also for the Legislative Council in Hong Kong. And hopefully, they will realize that introducing controversial bills…
I mean, if the extradition law were put into action, it would have an astronomical effect on Hong Kongers’ liberty; I think it would have a significant cost to even international business people who are doing business on the regular in Hong Kong because Beijing could essentially say, hey, we want to extradite one of your American businessmen or women—there’s several thousands of them that live in Hong Kong and operate on a day-to-day basis—and could essentially do so at will. Just the threat of it, actually, caused one of my colleagues at Heritage to write an op-ed that said, look, Hong Kong has enjoyed the top slot in Heritage’s index of economic freedom for the past 20 years since the inaugural report, and it would likely affect its placement as number one had the extradition bill actually been passed then and if it ends up going into effect in the future. Right now it’s tabled, but it’s not fully withdrawn, so there’s real fear from some of the Hong Kongers that it’s being held for another time, another moment when the Hong Kong authorities might just pull a fast one.
So you bring up an interesting idea that there’s a correlation, it seems to be, between the economic vitality and importance of Hong Kong and the rule of law that’s established on the British common law system. It seems as though the rule of law is essential for the economic freedom and the economic vitality of Hong Kong. So what I’m interested in is, in Hong Kong, you’ve got the fourth largest stock market in the world, and you have a massive increase over the last 20 years of cross-border banking, where international entities are kind of using Hong Kong as an ombudsman between Chinese companies and the international community, and all of that seems to be in danger for China and for the international community if Beijing were to overplay its hand or send troops in or act overly violent. Do you see in the way in which history is kind of prologue, when you look at the 1989—which, ironically, 30 years, you know, this summer, like almost to the date of the protests in Tiananmen Square. When you look at how Beijing overreacted there—we saw the scenes of tanks in the streets and the famous scene of protesters standing in front of the line of tanks and the violent oppression that China meted out in order to set back the protesters—led to a cooling off, you know, the international community on China for the next 10 or 15 years. The umbrella revolution that happened in Hong Kong that was peacefully settled in 2014— the umbrella, I guess, protests—do you see China playing out its hand here? Do you see that it is taking into account that the world community is watching when it’s trying to decide how to deal with these protesters?
Yeah, I think that, you know… Last Friday, my colleagues and I put out a paper that was essentially responding to what if Beijing doesn’t intervene militarily? The report is unequivocal. It says essentially, there should be no perception of business as usual with China if they engage in some sort of military intervention or otherwise. And I think we need to be unequivocal now in our rhetoric, and I think we need to be clear about what exactly is at stake. A couple of the solutions that my colleagues and I recommend, for example, would be saying, you know, if there’s anyone in Beijing who is seriously considering or encouraging some sort of military intervention, that person is at stake for targeted financial sanctions that would make it hurt real hard, right in their bank account. And so, you know, that’s one solution.
The second, honestly, is that there can be no way that a trade deal would move forward. The US would have to discontinue any sort of trade negotiations with China were they to intervene in Hong Kong. I think that there are a lot of humanitarian steps that the US can and should take as well, including by offering priority to refugee status to anyone from Hong Kong in the event that something like this happens. And I think that it’s not just the US that should respond. We’ve seen strong statements from the EU and otherwise condemning the whisperings and the murmurings that maybe some sort of military intervention would happen. But I think that China does recognize that there would be a real threat to its economic vitality were it to crackdown in any substantial manner on Hong Kong. So, I think it’s really, at this point, weighing its various interests that it has. China’s primary foreign policy motivation is to maintain its own internal stability, to maintain its sovereignty. In that sense, having unrest in Hong Kong which is the “one country, two systems” semi-autonomous region would be pretty devastating to them. But, by the same token, they’re interested in continuing to have economic engagement with the outside world.
So, I think China itself is in a real bind, and I think Hong Kongers realize that they’re in a position where they do possess some leverage, but I think they need to be careful not to overplay their hand over the long term; got to maintain that peaceful nature of the protests. And I think this is why the US at the highest levels of government, including President Trump, thus far has really refrained from any strong criticism of China when it comes to this. There’s got to be strong rhetorical statements: one, in support of the peaceful elements of the protests, but two, and I would say, arguably, most importantly, in opposition to any sort of threat of military intervention, in particular from Beijing.
So it seems though that what the protesters are facing—and you kind of mentioned this a little bit in your opening set up of where we are in the context of this current protest—the protesters are looking into the future, and they are seeing what Chinese rule looks like, you know, that the curtain has been drawn back a little bit, and they… What was once off 20 and 30 years into the future, well, at some point in 2047, we’re going to have to reconcile in some way with Beijing. It’s kind of they’re getting a little taste of that and it’s not palatable to them. I mean, it’s obvious that the idea of Beijing taking over control of Hong Kong or instigating kind of its Chinese rule—communist rule—of law there is not something that’s palatable. Even though it’s not palatable, it’s coming at some point, right? We’re delaying the inevitable a little bit, and it’s… The clock is ticking. How do you think that that inevitability plays in the minds of maybe both the protesters and Beijing? Now Beijing is looking at this and saying, hey, you know, one way or another, some point in 28 years, we’re all going to be one big happy family. The protesters are saying, you know, we don’t even like the taste of what we’re getting right now. We’re looking into that future and we don’t want to go down that road. How is that sense of inevitability playing out on both sides, do you think?
Yeah, I think that part of the reason why you’re seeing so much momentum behind the current […] is because people from all elements of society, whether business people, or students, or religious folks, coming from various religious traditions—everyone feels like there’s something at stake for them when it comes to these protests. And I think that part of it is because they recognize that over the long term there could be consequences. They’re looking over at what’s going on in mainland China and saying, we don’t want that to be our future. And so I think this is going to be very challenging, and I think that it poses some pretty fascinating and deep questions for the international community as to what do we think Hong Kongers want the future of their country to look like, and how do we best support conditions under which they can make those ideals a reality? I think that that’s going to be the question because come 2047, are you going to see some minor modifications, but basically a maintenance of the “one country, two systems” model, or are you really going to see them being fully subsumed by Beijing’s rule? If the latter is the case, I think you’re going to really get a lot of pushback, a lot of civil unrest. So, I would urge you as policymakers right now to really think about, what do we want our position to be come 2047? And even in the lead up to that, do we want it to be support for the continuation of “one country, two systems,” or would we prefer to have a full fledged democracy in Hong Kong? And I think that’s a question that is unanswered as of yet.
What role do you think that the international business community has in affecting the political outcome in China? Right now, there are currently around 1,500 multinational companies that have offices or regional offices there in Hong Kong. That’s up two- thirds since the ’97 handover. There are major companies, like even Alibaba, that are looking to perhaps be listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. Currently, they’re only listed in the New York Stock Exchange. I mean, there are major investors that see Hong Kong as a safe harbor within the Chinese economic system where they look at Beijing and they feel like it’s—or Shanghai—they look at it [and] it’s not quite as safe; it’s a little bit more uncertain. We don’t have as much of the rule of law. The economic system is so closed off. We can’t get information. Information is vital for economic development. So, with Hong Kong, how do you see, maybe… Is there any leverage from these corporations to perhaps affect the political outcome?
I think […] the business community has historically played a critical role in Hong Kong, both as advocating for freedom and free market practices in our region, but also just as a critical stakeholder, critical institution within Hong Kong society. And I think that China cares what international businesses think about what it’s like to do business in Hong Kong, and they recognize that it’s a huge asset to their overall doing business with the world. And so I think that the business community should be as outspoken as possible in defense of the liberties of average Hong Kongers who are taking to the streets in a peaceful manner and trying to, in many ways, preserve the space that businesses have to operate on the day-to-day. I think that that needs to be a central part of how businesses conceive of their role in protests.
I think also, there’s a really important role for members of the legal community to play. Rule of law has always been central to Hong Kong’s continued existence, frankly. The Basic Law itself really does set up a very positive framework for that.
We hosted Martin Lee, who was one of the architects of the Basic Law at Heritage around the time that the extradition law was being considered and had recently been proposed. He wrote a very hard hitting piece—I think it was in the Washington Post—where he said, look, the reason why the extradition law has no place in Hong Kong is because Hong Kongers respect the rule of law. China has no rule of law, and we don’t want that to be the future for Hong Kong. I think that is so poignant and encapsulates a lot of what animates the motivation behind Hong Kongers being out in such immense numbers as we’ve seen over the past several months.
My guest is Olivia Enos. She’s a policy analyst at the Asia Studies Center at the Heritage Foundation. We’ve been speaking about the Hong Kong protests. We’re going to take a quick break. When we come back, I want to talk about the role of Christians and Christianity in Hong Kong and the potential threat that these recent changes in law pose to the Christian community there, when we come back.
Welcome back to the ProvCast, the regular podcast of Providence, a journal of Christianity and American foreign policy. I’m managing editor Drew Griffin. We’re continuing our conversation with Olivia Enos. She’s a policy analyst at the Heritage Foundation. Speaking on the recent protests in Hong Kong, Olivia, we talked a lot about the general context and the economic and political issues in the previous segment. I want to talk a little bit about the religious angle. Hong Kong is kind of a little bastion and a little pocket of freedom organized under the British Common Law system. [It] has far more freedom of speech, freedom of religion, and the rest, of course [than] Mainland China, which has none of those things.
About 11 percent, it’s estimated, of Hong Kong’s seven million residents are Christian. Even Carrie Lam, who is the chief executive of Hong Kong is reportedly Catholic. So, talk a little bit if you can, or maybe shed some light, on how these protests are maybe in part motivated by the religious community and the minority community there in Hong Kong, and how it may be informed—how this protest may be informed— some by the Christian presence. We’ve seen some of the protesters singing Christian hymns as kind of anthems for their protests. So, shed a little light if you can on the role of Christians within this Hong Kong protest.
Yeah, what’s been so remarkable about these more recent protests is that you have seen members from all different walks of life in the Hong Kong society coming out because everyone feels that they have something at stake. But I think one of the reasons why you’ve seen Christians in particular coming out in droves is because when they look over at what’s going on in China, when they see persecution of Christians there, when they see Beijing’s sort of odd relationship with the Vatican, when they see how Uyghur Muslims are being detained to the tune of millions in political re-education facilities, and also how China has cracked down on Tibetan Buddhists—no one is left unscathed. Religion in particular is an object of Beijing’s wrath, and we’ve seen this over and over again, time and time again, that China or […] communist regimes, for that matter, really do see religion as a threat to them. So, I think that a lot of people in Hong Kong enjoy the religious freedom that they have long been able to practice during their life in Hong Kong and are wondering, you know, come 2047, or maybe even before because the extradition law sort of brought tidings of additional crackdown, that that could be the future for them. So, I think that it makes a lot of sense that the church has been involved. And I think that, you know, the church has played a really critical role in a lot of communist revolutions. The one that comes to my mind are like Romania or Poland where you saw this intersection of average citizens in the church really driving toward a peaceful movement that did result in fundamental change without bloody revolution, and I think that that’s what’s really critical here, that the church can be a really… a peaceful element that comes in the midst of turmoil and chaos. And I think that that can be overlooked, even from a historical perspective.
So it seems to me there’s a little bit of tension in this entire episode between the increasing authoritarian control of President Xi Jinping and the protesters and just the general mood within China that the more that he increases, the less wiggle room he has in instances like this, right, that there is… When people begin to protest, if he would take any challenge to him—whether it’s in Beijing, or whether it’s in Hong Kong, or whether it’s in the Shenzhen province and the Uyghurs, like any challenge to his authoritarian control—if he fails to act, and then fails to completely snuff it out, it’s a real sign of weakness. When you look at how Xi Jinping is dealing with religious minorities in the country and you look at the importance of the religious community there in Hong Kong and the Christian community, I mean, there’s… It seems to be this paradigmatic struggle that’s beginning to form between this authoritarian government and the religious minorities in China.
And the reports that we hear, you know, kind of anecdotally, is that the Christian community is exploding in China, that house churches are exploding, that there is just a massive increase in people who are confessing Christian faith and that religion is expanding. The tighter he seems to grasp, the more likely it seems like a lot of China’s going to slip through his fingers, or there’s that potential.
When you look over the next 28 to 30 years,, what do you… Where do you see this going? I mean, do you see Xi continue to consolidate his power and stamp out any resistance, even if it’s to his economic detriment? Or do you see that there could be a moment in which the tide begins to turn, that there’s a critical mass of people who maybe even look to places like Hong Kong and see that freedom is viable, that freedom is worth the fight, and that China begins to shift and change from the ground up?
I mean, I think that it would be great if there was fundamental change and transformation inside of China, and we certainly have seen, first, soft transformations inside of China, particularly when they became more economically free, but one of the striking things about the transformations in China is that regardless of its opening up to the international community and the global market, there has not been a subsequent advancement in civil and political rights there. And so you continue to see people who are persecuted massively, continue to see individuals who are facing persecution like you referenced. And so I think that Xi Jinping is likely only going to continue to enhance his grip on power, and as a part of that, he clearly sees targeting religion as central to maintaining his grip on power. I mean, just last February—or in February of 2018—he instituted new regulations on religious affairs, and regardless of whatever faith or creed you have, he wants all religion to conform with the Chinese Communist Party’s basic precepts. And so this is a fundamental transformation of religion as a whole. But, you know, at the end of the day, the buck doesn’t stop with God. The buck stops with the CCP and what they say is right. And so this is really quite challenging. I think it’s really a full frontal assault on religious faith, and you have seen heightened persecution that came on the heels of these regulations on religious affairs. I think this is what we can expect to see for the foreseeable future, particularly under President Xi Jinping. But, like I said, it is impossible to predict the future and we don’t know who the next leader of China will be when Xi Jinping finally does give up power, and we don’t know when he will give up power. And those types of variables definitely created an uncertain future, but, at least for the foreseeable future, persecution of religion will continue to be a core component of the CCP brain.
My guest has been Olivia Enos. She’s a policy analyst for the Heritage Foundation and you can read her piece, “What We’ve Learned from the Hong Kong Protests So Far” that she co-authored with Sarah Brown at providencemag.com.
Olivia, thank you so much for your expertise and for your time, even though I know it’s… I think you’re combating some illness and [calling in] via cell phone, but we appreciate you taking the time to talk with us.
Thanks so much for having me. I really appreciate it.