Episode 1: Hong Kong Protests

What has been fueling the protests?

April 22, 2020
Written By:
Debing Su

Hans Anderson: This is connecting Pacific. A podcast from the University of Michigan of personal stories and perspectives about the changing relationship between China and the United States. I’m Hans Anderson.


We spoke to a group of U of M students and faculty from China to hear their perspective and how the recent Hong Kong protest started. They took us back 23 years to Tuesday, July 1st. 1997. Britain had just handed Hong Kong over to China after 156 years of colonial rule. The terms of the handover included the understanding of one country, two systems where for at least 50 years, certain economic and political rights would be preserved in Hong Kong, distinct from the laws and rights granted by the people’s Republic of China on the mainland.


Anderson: Nicole Wu is currently a PhD student at the University of Michigan from Hong Kong. We asked her to share her memory of that day in 1997.

Nicole Wu: I was six when that happened. So to be very honest, because I was six, I cannot claim to have remembered things from that day. I do see a lot of footage just from July 1st 1997 as I was growing up. One thing that I could observe as a kid was that in my first year of elementary school. I used to have religious sisters and in my school, because I went to a Catholic school, and then the next year all of them are gone, including my supervisor, the school supervisor, sister Sheila, and I don’t know why exactly they, they’ve left. And I think that’s not totally unusual.

Back in the 90s of course, of course everyone leaves Hong Kong for their own individual reasons, but then it could have been a bigger part of the migration wave that existed in Hong Kong in the 80s but more so in the 90s so I think it was mostly because of like the Tiananmen incident in 1989 and all the negotiation that surrounded.
That period of time in which Hong Kong is supposed to return to China under one country, two systems, and people are having a lot of uncertainty about what two systems mean. Does it mean that we still keep our capitalist way of living? Does it mean that we still keep our limited freedoms that we have at that time?

Do people still get to do whatever they do on a daily basis and people get worried and many people left if they could. So my family members have left too.

Anderson: Edgar Chung is another U of M student from Hong Kong, and he shared how people in his family also fled Hong Kong after the handover, fearing that they would lose their rights and their way of life.

Edgar Chung: People uncertain about what the future of Hong Kong has and I have friends whose parents have immigrated to the States. I think that my aunt also immigrated because of this.

Anderson: Xiaohong Xu is an assistant professor of sociology here at the University of Michigan and he’s from mainland China.
And we talk with him about what it looked like from that perspective, seeing the handover.

Xiaohong Xu: I was in Beijing, I was in my late teens just starting my college. I mean, I was like average late teens, you were more like, you know, interested in finding yourself. And I think that was time I was very skeptical of following official scripts about state fact.

So I wasn’t really following closely, but of course I was patriotic, but I don’t think that following the official line would be a cool thing to do. Right. So I caught a glimpse of the Hanover ceremony on TV, but I don’t remember anything like any feeding beyond that. But I have to say that I grew up with a lot of Hong Kong pop culture.

So I, at the time, you know, I enjoy the music of Beyond. Steven Chow was like a comedian. I remember that time I really liked Stephen Chow, but all my classmates thought it was not a good idea. Because he is pretty crazy.

Anderson: After the handover, a lot of Hong Kongers had mixed feelings about this new Chinese identity. Two things happened in 2008 that moved people’s sentiment towards a more positive view of being Chinese.

Chung: And 2008, Beijing Olympics right, The Hong Kong people are actually very proud of China’s achievements.
And like many of them identified themselves as Chinese. I think it’s like around 40% of people in Hong Kong identify themselves as Chinese not just 10% today. And then you in the same year when there was an earthquake happening in China. The public of Hong Kong, they raised like a 1.7 billion us dollars to help with the disaster.
So the identification of being a Chinese and also very strong, and also I think like back in 2008 many Hong Kongers actually agreed that Hong Kong is a part of China. My country is China. We came from China. I am a Chinese.

Anderson: In 2012 Hong Kongers saw some developments in mainland China.
That made them feel a little more hesitant about being Chinese, which many people would say led them to the protests that we saw in 2019.

Chung: We have a couple of events that eventually changed the cultural identity of Hong Kongers. For example, you know, in 2012, the Hong Kong Education Bureau proposed the moral and national education curriculum for grade school, middle school, and high school. So that curriculum is basically like propaganda for Chinese communist party. So people back then didn’t really like that because Hong Kong was supposed to enjoy all sorts of freedom and free of censorship.They didn’t really like the idea of the Chinese government implementing this curriculum into our school system.

Anderson: In 2014 Hong Kong citizens felt further betrayed by mainland China. The Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress issued a legal decision saying that, well, Hong Kongers could vote, the party was going to pick the chief executive.

Chung: Well, what happened in 2014 was that the Chinese government suddenly announced that you are not actually allowed to vote for your chief executive. Yeah, sure. You can vote for your chief executive, but we, the Chinese government will be choosing the candidates.So that is what triggered the umbrella movement in 2014 and you know, people have been occupying the streets


Wu: So one of my professors was actually one of the three organizers of this thing, but he did not organize the umbrella movement. He organized the occupy central movement, and at the time I thought that’s not how I imagined him to be. Because he’s a sociology professor. He’s the guy who would go to China all the time to negotiate with Chinese officials. He’s the guy who would go to China to talk about NGO, like nongovernmental organization development. So he’s always in this position of being a moderate who’s open to dialogue and then comes 2010s and then he’s like hosting these round tables in the city and talking about how we would occupy central, which is part of the central business district in Hong Kong. And that’s how I thought he was like being super radical. And people of course would look back and think that like, that is not radical at all.

Anderson: So what happened to him?

Wu: He’s now in jail. In fact, one of my student’s dad was also one of the organizers of this, and I think he’s just got out of jail.

He’s in jail in Hong Kong and he knew that’s going to happen to him. And I guess it’s like the occupy central slogan, part of the slogan was like you used to love and peace. So like, it’s not the type of political campaign that you usually think about. And I think it became umbrella movement because the police responded to the crowds using tear gas, a lot of tear gas. I would say it was one of the first times in Hong Kong history and people responded to that by using umbrellas to block off some of these, like attacks from the police.
And that became the umbrella movement. But that was not part of their original plan of what’s going to happen in Hong Kong.

Anderson: The umbrella movement ended on December 15th, 2014 after 79 days of occupation, 955 people were arrested during the movement. Their aim of democratic reform was frustrated.


The 2019 protest began his opposition to a bill that would allow extradition to mainland China. Even when the chief executive of Hong Kong suspended the bill for a time, the demands for democracy escalated, almost as though they were picking up where the 2014 protests left off.

Wu: Also feel like when I talk to like say like my hairdresser or like just like really random people that like, and their tones.
I do feel like they talk about this incident a little bit differently. So for example, back in like say the occupy, but the umbrella movement in 2014 you can imagine it to be like Hong Kong people are demanding something that we don’t already have that’s promised to us, but we don’t already have that.

Versus for the extradition bill is like, we already enjoy a good legal system and now you’re trying to do something that would destroy it. So it’s more like protecting something that you have and people feel more strongly about protecting.

Anderson: There’s another factor that fueled the rapid escalation of the 2019 protests. We have to look back to June 4th, 1989 the Tiananmen square massacre. The people of Hong Kong commemorate Tiananmen square every year, and last year was the 30th anniversary of the massacre.


The moderate nonviolent protesters in Hong Kong joined forces with radical militants. We talked to professor Xu about how these opposing ideologies have come together and joined forces.

Xu: So one of the most interesting dimensions to understand this is from the relationship between the radicals and the moderates.

Typically for scholars who study social movements, that’s an important tension that people would observe, often coming down to a strategic choice that they have to make. For example, between Martin Luther King and Black Panthers. This happens to all social movements. After the umbrella movement in 2014, there was a huge spread between the moderates and radicals in terms of strategic choices, and there was a lot of fighting going on. In the years after that by 2019 all of them, the leaders in both wings ended up in jail. And so when the movement against the bill emerged, the two sides had to find a way to coordinate.

2019 movement, start with the initiative with the moderates who had 1 million people demonstrate on the street to stop the bill.That was June 9th. They didn’t achieve that goal. The government announced that they’re going to push ahead a bill on June 12th. That was the time that they said they’d have the third read of the bill. The morning on that day. Then you had radicals, thousands of young people, as well as some mid age people gathering in front of the parliament having an illegal “picnic” because they know it’s illegal, but they had to.

They were trying to stop the bill and that led to the confrontation with the police, the police shot tear gases onto them and it was a huge turmoil to the effect that a meeting was suspended. And then later. Two days later, the government said they were going to suspend the bill indefinitely.And that event on the one hand, causes many radicals to be arrested, and those people who aren’t the radical they want to escalate the action to sort of exonerate their friends. And for the moderates, they felt they had a big victory because the bill was stopped but was not because of that peaceful death demonstration three days before, but it was because of the violent confrontation. And they feel they owe the radical something and they are also on board with pushing the government to exonerate the radicals who, many of them were arrested during the event. So that was the moment that sealed the solidarity between the two sides.

Wu: According to a recent public opinion survey post by the Chinese University of Hong Kong, we actually do see a clear consensus and what people want, so wanted to demand that nearly 70% of people think that the Hong Kong police force should be restructured.Close to three quarters of people think that the chief executive Carrie Lam should step down.

Anderson: Well, why didn’t China just send tanks into Hong Kong like they did in Tiananmen square.

Chung: Hong Kong was actually a very special place economically in terms of trading with China. So because Hong Kong enjoys judicial independence and also all sorts of different freedom, a lot of countries are willing to trade with Hong Kong.
And it’s also because Hong Kong is so close to (mainland) China, a lot of Chinese businessmen and actually doing business through Hong Kong to the rest of the world. This is like I suppose in mainland China because that’s like the opposite case because if they don’t have a clear judicial system, so people are just hesitant to do business through mainland China.So this is the reason why China, you know, as mainland China is trying to keep Hong Kong the way it is.

Anderson: What do people from mainland China think about the Hong Kong protests? Let’s hear from professor Xu.

Xu: I would summarize as confusion, bewilderment, and anger. More sympathetic people would say that they would agree with the goal of the movement, but they would disagree with the way Hong Kong people tried to do so.Particularly they were concerned about some of the violent confrontations without trying to understand why that confrontation came from. But the bigger picture is that many of the mainland Chinese, particularly from a middle-class background, felt a sense of betrayal by Hong Kong people.

And that not only is about betrayal of their beloved homeland China, but more importantly is about the betrayal from Hong Kong that they understood to be there. And that was Hong Kong, it was only interested in business, consumerism, shopping and entertainment and avoiding any kind of politics, because that’s the direction that China has been through since Tiananmen.

And so there was a sense now, suddenly, Hong Kong people have become so politicized and they felt that Hong Kong people have betrayed the Hong Kong that they tried to emulate in the last two decades.

Chung: I think Chinese people are kind of wrong about the Hong Kong protesters because in China the news is censored, like all the media, as being what the information that they’re given is controlled by the government.
And there was a student who said I wasn’t able to access any other news source and back in China. And then the only thing that they’re saying is that this whole movement in Hong Kong is something that’s organized by the US government as a leverage in trade war.
They also asked if there’s any other new source that I should read or any other sources that you recommend us to look at. We wouldn’t actually be having this conversation if it were to happen in China or something.

Wu: I agree. Definitely agree with this point that it seems to be a perception in mainland China that protesters are getting paid essentially to destroy Hong Kong and also to seek independence from China, which has, I don’t think it’s the mainstream rhetoric you hear in Hong Kong at all.

I would say that in fact, if you look at and like look at the things that are happening 10 years ago. It’s not like people from Hong Kong don’t have a sense of belonging to China. It’s just that recent events heightened the differences that we feel between Hong Kong and China. So I feel like when people ask me if I’m Chinese, I’ve never denied that I’m Chinese.But then when people ask me where I’m from. My answer would always be Hong Kong, and that’s because I feel like the label Hong Kong conveys additional information. That’s just like it’d be asked people, are you like, where are you from in the US if someone’s from New York, that person would very probably say that they’re from New York.
And it’s because that label carries important distinctions between you and people, maybe from the rest of the country. But it doesn’t mean that you don’t think that you are from that country.

Anderson: Here at University of Michigan, we have roughly 4,000 Chinese speaking students. Edgar and Nicole share their experience of being from Hong Kong in interacting with Chinese students from the mainland.

Chung: I do have some friends from mainland China at U of M, like all three of my roommates are from mainland China, but I think like the general approach of whether there is a conflict between us, which was just not talking about the issue. I think it’s not a healthy way to do this, but like in general, I just avoid a sort of argument with them and talking about politics stuff.

Wu: I do have friends from mainland China while I was in Hong Kong. While it is here, one of my former housemates is from mainland China and there is another housemate who is from Taiwan. And then one who’s like American Taiwanese. And then the first day we moved into our house, the Chinese roommate put out a big Chinese flag in our living room.

And I was like, I would rather you not, but I’m also not offended by it. The Taiwanese roommate was lit it, when she saw it and the Taiwanese American friend didn’t care. At the end, what we hve on our wall was a LGBTQ flag. That was the compromise that we struck.
But yeah, I do discus like issues with her. So like we drove to Ohio together. That was like a five hour drive and then it’s just the two of us and we just talk about Hong Kong and China. I feel like it’s a very healthy relationship we don’t shy away from talking about these issues and try to understand where the other person’s coming from? I and I do learn a lot and I think that she did learn like from a different perspective as well.

Anderson: At the University of Michigan, is it a good environment to promote this kind of conversation and relationship?

Wu: Yeah. Like, I mean, as long as people come with an open mind, it’s like you can do it anywhere.

And I think that like in our school, we have a very strong China center. Like that always provides an Avenue for people to discuss issues like that. But just on a day to day basis, like you interact with friends. You don’t come off as accusing the other of like holding a specific to and usually people are very happy to chat with me about what’s on their minds.

Wu: Now in April, 2020 there are still assemblies and protests here and there, but you can’t imagine how many are staying home instead of marching on the streets alongside with hundreds of thousands of people. That being said, reputable polls show that public opinion has largely remained unchanged. The public is still very much dissatisfied with the government and law enforcement.And you may think that major crisis, like a pandemic would create a rallying around the flag effect, but in fact, the majority of Hong Kong people think that the administration, mishandled the crisis and seven-tenth(70%) would credit the people themselves are doing a good job and slowing the spread of COVID-19.

Anderson: I am Hans Anderson. This has been connecting Pacific. Thanks to Laura and Bernie for making this happen and thank you to my crew, Justin, Debing, and Siyin. Thanks to all of you for listening.

Where did the 2019 Hong Kong protests come from? What has been fueling the protests? What
is Hong Kong fighting for? What does it really want from Beijing? What do mainland Chinese
think of Hong Kong protests and why? How do Hong Kong protests affect the U-M campus?

We asked two U-M students from Hong Kong and one professor who was born and raised in
mainland China to share their memories and answer the above questions.

On this episode:

  • Nicole Wu, Ph.D. student in political science
  • Edgar Chung, undergraduate student in the College of Engineering
  • Xiaohong Xu, assistant professor of sociology

Host: Hans Anderson
Producer: Debing Su
Project Assistant: Siyin Zheng
Sound Editor: Justin DeGroat

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