Rowan Callick on the Hong Kong protests and freedom, democracy and authoritarianism in China

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Rowan Callick is a highly regarded Australian and British author and journalist with The Australian newspaper. He’s one of the pre-eminent journalists and writers specialising in Asia-Pacific affairs, having lived and worked in the region for decades, including 4 years as China correspondent in Hong Kong. Rowan has won two Walkley Awards for his coverage of China and the Asia-Pacific, and has published three books on contemporary China, including Party Time, The Party Forever, and Comrades & Capitalists: Hong Kong Since the Handover.

In this interview, Rowan reminisces on the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China, and examines the historical roots behind the 2019 protests which saw millions of Hong Kongers demonstrate against a proposed extradition bill, which would have enabled extradition to mainland China. We reflect on the history of democracy in China, social media and the digital surveillance state, and the growing authoritarianism of Xi Jinping towards separatist movements on the peripheries of mainland China.

Melbourne, 15 July, 2019

Melbourne, 15 July, 2019

Rowan Callick on the Hong Kong protests and freedom, democracy and authoritarianism in China
Monday 15 July 2019, Melbourne

00:00 Nick: Welcome to Bloom, a podcast about anything and everything, which features conversations with people who have led meaningful, interesting, and flourishing lives, in order to better understand the world around us. I'm lucky to be joined today by Rowan Callick, a highly regarded and acclaimed Australian and British author and columnist with the Australian newspaper. He is one of the pre-eminent journalists and writers specialising in Asia-Pacific affairs, having lived and worked in the region for decades, including four years as a China correspondent in Hong Kong.


00:28 Rowan has won two Walkley awards for his coverage of China and the Asia-Pacific, and has published three books on contemporary China, including Party Time, The Party Forever and Comrades and Capitalists, Hong Kong since the Handover. Rowan, thank you for your time today.


00:42 Rowan: Thank you. It's great to be here.


00:43 Nick: So, today we are going to be reflecting on the extraordinary and still unfolding situation in Hong Kong, which has been ruled by mass protests and demonstrations against a proposed extradition build with China, proposed by the Beijing appointed Hong Kong executive.


00:56 The fugitive offenders and mutually legal assistants in criminal legislation bill would subject Hong Kongers and those passing through the city to the jurisdiction of courts within the legal system of mainland China which are controlled by the communist party.


01:09 Now, this has understandably rankled with the people of Hong Kong for a variety of reasons, which we'll uncover through the interview, but before we get there, as previously mentioned, you lived and worked in Hong Kong as a China correspondent for the Australian Financial Review at the time of the 1997 handover. Can you take us back to the colour, movement and feeling on the ground during that historical moment, including the hopes of average Hong Kongers for their city, as it was handed over from Britain to the People's Republic of China, and perhaps what it's been like for you to see millions marching against what's been called encroaching authoritarianism from Beijing 22 years later?


01:43 Rowan: It was pouring with rain. What everyone who was there remembers most about that night, just a terrible downpour, and so you saw the British troops playing bagpipes in the rain and Prince Charles, Chris Patton, the last governor, and the Chinese representatives, Jiang Zemin and the party secretary of course and so on.


02:20 It was a really tumultuous time. I went to hear Martin Lee, the leader of the Democratic party speaking on the - from the balcony of the legislature, and I wrote a book soon after as you say, in which I posseted three possible futures. One is kind of carrying on as they were; one is becoming just another Chinese provincial city as Li Quan Yu said it was fated to do; and the other was kind of becoming a model for a Democratic rule of law China model for its sovereign.


03:15 I kind of plumped in my book for the middle way that it would kind of carry on as before, and that happened and mostly - mostly - but because the National Peoples’ Congress in China retains, which is the kind of ultimate legislature controlling all of People's Republic, they contain the final say for legal appeals. What this has meant is that any big constitutional issue has come to them and they've interpreted it in line with the Chinese constitution which is basically a one-clause constitution. It's actually quite an exemplary constitution, outlining lots of human rights and very much in line with liberal democratic constitutions, but the first clause says that in effect China is ruled by the communist party, so then the rest falls away. So, the interpretation is there by the NPC and those interpretations have started to raise questions about whether China will actually ultimately allow Hong Kong to continue with its own system, this one country/two systems formula that Deng Xiaoping negotiated with Margaret Thatcher how long this will continue.


05:04 The accession of Xi Jinping rapidly changed things because he has no patience really with the time of Deng Xiaoping. Deng Xiaoping talked about in foreign policy hide and bide; hide your real strengths, bide your time; and Xi Jinping has had enshrined into the national and party constitutions his thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era, and it's the new era now and this is an era in which he has no patience for one country/two systems; only for one country/one system. He is purifying, purging China, centralising, personalising power. So, things are changing rapidly and that's what we're seeing.


06:00 So, that's kind of the - a bit of a surprise result in the last few years. No one predicted Xi Jinjing. So, before Hong Kong was really - and I would give credit to Beijing, they'd pretty well left them to it mostly until the last few years but under Xi now all bets are off.


06:30 Nick: Yep. So, could you maybe step our listeners through the timeline of events in 2019 in terms of the most recent protests and some of the key figures at play on the ground now? I mean, what has the situation looked like in the last 2 months and why has it drawn such international attention?


06:45 Rowan: Oh, it's drawn international attention because of over a million people in the streets. Where did we last see this? I'm trying to think in Venezuela, has there ever been? I don't know. I haven't been to Venezuela but I think maybe despite the terrible events there, we hadn't really seen a million people in the streets. So, I think it's the number, about 7 million people live in Hong Kong including all age groups, so to see a million adults in the streets is - and these are streets many people around the world know because Hong Kong is much visited and people are aware of it.


07:31 Hong Kong was - just a little backstory. Hong Kong has been derided, both by the British and by the mandarinate, if I can put it like that, of China. People whose language and culture are that of Northern China really has been money grubbing, that basically as long as people in Hong Kong are allowed to make money, they're happy.


08:05 Nick: They're not interested in civil and political rights.


08:08 Rowan: They're not interested in the rest; they couldn't care less. The arts, culture, freedoms; you know, they are not bothered, as long as they're able to make loads of money, eats lots of their delicious food, buy property, they're happy. This was in my view the biggest calumny against those people, so this is what we've seen, and then what happened? It's kind of the frog in the...


08:39 Nick: ... boiling pot of water.


08:40 Rowan: ... water; it's just boil and boil. What happened was a group of students started demonstrating what became known as the umbrella movement five years ago, and lots of young people on the streets. This caused a lot of rethinking, ‘oh maybe people in Hong Kong do care about these things’, but it was always obvious because for example the anniversary of the sending of troops to quash the demonstrations in and around Tiananmen on June the 4th, 1989, aroused huge concerns in Hong Kong; not primarily because of this is going to happen here, but out of a genuine feeling of empathy with those who had suffered. Every year, masses of people had been turning out to Victoria Gardens to commemorate that event, hundreds of thousands. I've been amongst them myself several time, so that's a clue.


10:03 Then, we had the umbrella movement; lots of young students, and we saw then the rather split democratic movement in Hong Kong - several parties, different names, different ideas of how to get there - had not succeeded, although the legislature is loaded against them but even in reaching the capacity that they could because they were so divided.


10:40 We saw then a new entry of young Hong Kongers into not only street politics but after that into legislature politics, and now we're seeing the next wave which is a fairly united, well organised demonstration against what they see as a really troubling move to be able to send to China for trial in courts there, people who have committed or alleged to have committed offences by China. They've seen in the last 2- or 3-years people kidnapped out of China.


11:29 Nick: The famed booksellers for instance.


11:30 Rowan: Booksellers, raging to Xiao [Jianhua] the founder and prime mover of a company which has made a lot of big families in the party rich and probably is perceived to have known too much, he was kidnapped from the Four Seasons apartment building and has not been heard from since; taken into China.


12:02 Nick: This represents the removal of that, it's called The Great Fire Wall that they had; the buffer between Hong Kong's jurisdiction, legal and criminal system and that of China's.


12:15 Rowan: So, don't worry; so, the thinking is oh well, these people have been abducted. In the future, no need for the abductions; look, just go through the courts.


12:22 Nick: A trumped up charge of historical...


12:23 Rowan: Australia itself has had extradition laws awaiting ratification by our parliament but the parliament has declined to ratify them so the government hasn't finally placed them before the parliament yet, and may not now do so, I think.


12:47 Nick: Yep. Yep, and of course, I mean, many Australians without the extradition treaty will remember the treatment of Chinese Australian business figures like Stern Hu were sort of over in China and then spent a number of years in jail as well with little transparency in regard to the charges against him.


13:10 Rowan: Yes, Matthew Ng is a particularly terrible case because he was charged with something which is not only not an offence in Australia but is viewed as an admirable business policy and he was charged. That was bribery, which he took over a company and then the chairman of it was invited to join the merged board and that was assumed or claimed to be bribery and he was jailed for a period of 11.5 years, and his 14-year-old daughter effectively committed suicide.


13:54 Nick: Extraordinary.


13:55 Rowan: She was so upset at what was happening to her beloved father. Matthew thankfully is back here in Australia now.


14:05 Nick: Yep. So, in many ways I think this, what's happening in Hong Kong, is the most significant geopolitical event in the world at the moment and it's an extremely complicated and high stakes chessboard which throws into high relief many civilizational, political and economic contests. It's symbolic of a new democratic power at work in the 21st century, through the digital revolution and social media as you referenced. Contrasted with the emergence of the digital surveillance state in China and which also foreshadows China's growing authoritarianism and intolerance towards separatist movements on its peripheries, notably in Xinjiang, Tibet, Taiwan and now Hong Kong. So, can you reflect on some of these broader points, the broader significance of what's happening in Hong Kong now with regard to China?


14:50 Rowan: Yeah. So, really it asks the question of what is China. It's a really difficult question. China; the English word comes from chin, the kingdom which was the kingdom of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor whose tomb is guarded by the famous Terracotta Warriors, some of which can be viewed here in Melbourne right now at the National Gallery, a very marvellous exhibition.


15:23 China has been really a child of imperial dynasties until 1911 when the final imperial dynasty was overthrown, and people were known as fundamentally the name of the dynasty. So, I'm a Chin-ren, I'm a person of the Chin; I'm a Ming-ren, I'm a person of the Ming.


15:52 Then, in the late 19th century, Chinese intellectuals felt it was time to modernise China, so they came up with a name for China, Zhong Guo, kind of central country/central kingdom; and also who are we who are living here, who are most of the people we see around?


16:16 So, the kind of - so, they used a name from the past, Han, and they applied that to most of the people living in China. Then, the rest - so, then this became caught up in party ideology, communist ideology, and so 1949, the communist party won the civil war against the nationalists and took over, and so this was all instituted now that the Han who were about 94% of the population and the other 6% - 54 or 55, I forget so called minorities; they're called minorities, ethnic groups - and you can see an idea, but you could see the way in which China is kind of a Han nationalist state, in line with that thinking that emerged in the late 19th century.


17:20 When you go to the annual fortnightly sessions of the National Peoples’ Congress; when you come out of the great hall of the people, they're spilling over into the square. The square is locked off from other people. The busses are there to take the delegates back to special delegate hotels, but meanwhile they're roaming around and the 6% are wearing special costumes to show that they are colourful minorities, agreeing to participate in this.  The Han are wearing western style business attire. So, this gives a pretty good clue to thinking.


18:15 What we're seeing now is that these boundaries around the borderlands of China are being cemented. Xi Jinping is someone who has his eye on history. As I said, he has personalised and centralised power. He has purified and purged the party and now he's making sure that the country already at the late Qing pretty well at the physical outside extremes of its borders, not going to let any go. Mongolia though was kind of let go by a deal between what we call Mongolia, Outer Mongolia, between Mao and Stalin. So, China doesn't claim that; it does claim Taiwan which has actually not been ruled very significantly at all by any mainland Chinese dynastic control. You could say it was ruled to an extent by the Qing but the Qing was a foreign dynasty, Manchus who invaded China.


19:36  Anyway, there's Taiwan there which is a kind of crusade now in the mind of Xi Jinping to reassume or to assume according to your thinking, assume Taiwan into the whole Hong Kong, Macao, Portuguese for hundreds of years and the first European settlement really in the whole of east Asia, Macao, Hong Kong and then Tibet, Xin Jiang in the north west where a million people or so have been plunged into re-education camps. These places are being firmly not only put under control, the aim is more Han people to live in those places; the aim is to Sinicize the religions of those places, so the five big religions of China are now required to be Sinicize and so the references are all internal rather than universal or external. So, Tibet and Buddhists must think China, and Xin Jiang, Muslims must think China and...


21:02 Nick: Catholic Bishops must be approved by the state...


20:03 Rowan: ... and so on, yes. So, this is a really bold move if you like by Xi in the time, you mention, of global internet; he's created cyber sovereignty using the internet as a tool of control rather than of freedom, but of course there are people in China who use virtual private networks and find out all sorts of stuff, people are travelling all the time; people in China, many hugely intelligent, independent minded people.


21:43 So, this is a big roll of the dice by Xi to cement the power of the party before he sees it comes under ever greater siege, but what is it for is a difficult question. You know, he would say it's for China or for its own sake, so he sees the party as representing all that is best in China - past, present, future - and he personally embodies the party.


22:25 So, this is - he talks about his red jeans, his red heart because he was born son of a former vice president and vice premier and long marcher, so it's a bit of an existential battle in the - it's been played out quite substantial in the borderlands.


22:47 Nick: Yep. So, there's an adage which says that journalism is the first draft of history and I think a lot of the commentary we've said is focused on the particulars of the recent protests, but you did mention the historical roots which are feeding into the anti, well Han or anti Beijing sentiment in Hong Kong, are a result in Hong Kong at least of 156 years of colonial rule by the British which has sort of imparted notions of universal suffrage, civil political rights, democracy and so on. So, I mean, contrary to what the party would admit, over the past century and a half, there has been a long and significant history of democratic movements within China and Hong Kong which have been marked by powerful, symbolic demonstrations such as those we've just seen and talked about, and these recent protests are happening at a particular auspicious time which I hope you can give some life to in the ensuing discussions, but it's 100 years since the May 4th movement in 1919; 30 years since the Tiananmen Square massacre on 4th June 1989; and as you've already mentioned, five years since the Umbrella movement. So, I was wondering if you could reflect on the ongoing yearning and striving for democracy in China, including Hong Kong, with reference to those key events, and I guess how it abuts or jars against the Chinee or the CCP's conception of China, you know, where it says that democracy and that sort of stuff doesn't work for the Chinese people?


24:27 Rowan: Chinese people have had elections in themselves. Quite soon after the last Qing emperor abdicated, there was an election. There were elections right through until the late 40's actually with increasing participation.


24:43 You'd have to say variable effectiveness but elections with considerable participation happened in China and of course, we've seen in Taiwan since the late 80's people who call themselves Taiwanese. They don't really call themselves Chinese but most people there call themselves Taiwanese but you can describe them as having Chinese ethnicity. Those people have shown huge appetite for elections and for liberal democracy generally.


25:28 We saw in the 38 years between the end of the Qing and the decisive victory and the civil war, we saw all sorts of shoots emerging in China; of modernisation, of education for women, of a strong interest in human rights and so on. So, people have said oh, China didn't have a role in the drawing up of the international framework under which we now operate; it's not really true because actually China had quite a big role and Chinese lawyers were very involved in the framing of the UN human rights documents and so on.


26:33 Nick: Really? Wow.


26:34 Rowan: So, it's just that they weren't Chinese Communist Party. It wasn't People's Republic which succeeded, and many of those people would have been students who were on the streets of Beijing in the May 4th movement who were informed by some of the thinking that was raging through Europe at the time and that tore Europe asunder to some extent in the early 20th century. That thinking was everywhere, including in China.


27:25 We saw the 1980's the most liberal and open decade of the seven decades. October the 1st is the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic. The 1980's were the most open decade. It was the decade following - by no coincidence, following the death of Mao in '76. This is the time when people thought we can carve out an alternative future. There was a lot of discussion about this.


27:59 One of the leaders in that kind of thinking was Liu Xiaobo, very striking, and in some ways an aesthetic type of person, in some not, but a very striking thinker and someone around whom lots of people coalesced.


28:30 We saw him keep pursuing these thoughts. He was jailed after 1989 and then jailed again when he came up with Charter 08 which was signed very rapidly online by huge numbers of people, with the sort of framework for what I think could be described as a social democrat type China in which party and state were separated. The separation of party and state was starting to be considered when Zhao Ziyang was party secretary and then he fell in 1989 because he was perceived to have done too little to quash the protest movements then, and he died still in-house arrest.


29:30 So, that thinking of separating party and state re-emerged in Charter 08 and its drafting led to Liu Xiaobo being jailed for attacking state security, one such strange charge, and then he of course died two years ago around the time, of liver cancer still incarcerated. It's the most shocking chain of events. Many people in China admired him and will continue to do so.


30:15 Nick: Yeah, and a lot of commentary has kind of centred around this question of one country/two systems, and how it's really been dead for sort of five years now and even longer arguably. Could you kind of outline quickly what one party/two systems was meant to look like and maybe speak about the 2047 transition date and I guess the significance of Xi in all of that, in personalising power and ruling into perpetuity?


30:45 Rowan: So, it's about the law mainly because this is the - China has no separation of powers. There's only one source of power and the courts, the army for example is the party's army; it's not even the state's army, it's the party's army. The courts are run by political and legal committees all over China; committees of the party decide policy and ultimately decide convictions or sentencing for controversial matters; not every, but controversial ones.


31:25 So, the one - this is the one system but as you said in your introduction, Hong Kong has had since 1840/1841 when the Opium Wars took place between Britain and China and China was required to cede Victorian Island, and then in 1897 ceded what became called Kowloon and New Territories which is on the mainland of China. Victoria is Hong Kong's main island off it, everyone knows, and any other islands which comprise Hong Kong.


32:16 So, since Britain attained actual sovereignty over Victoria Island and treaty control of the rest, British legal system has been holding sway there. So, people have got used to being able to appeal to courts, even against ill-treatment by the authorities. They've become used also to a pretty lively independent free media. This is the regime which introduced at a time under British control when corruption was a by-word in Hong Kong involving local property developers, involving British public servants; the whole place was awash with corruption. The independent commission against corruption was introduced there and that's been a model followed in the rest of many places in the world, including here in Australia.


33:34 That soon cast fear into people and it's been very successful, and it has been independent. That word is completely unacceptable in the PRC. So, in a PRC controlled Hong Kong, you would have a commission against corruption but not an independent commission, and so the reliance can place in it is different. People in Hong Kong have come to rely on the law, on the courts, to look after their interests. They haven't always been well looked after by the administrators both the British, the succeeding administrators, but they've had the law, they've had access to independent information through media and of course it's a free port as well. So, these range of freedoms are part of what life in Hong Kong is and the identity of people there.


34:47 Nick: So, I mean, you flagged there's that looming culmination of the 50 year transition from the handover in '97 until 2047, so we're looking forward now, in which the one country/two systems model will be replace by simply the One China model which is Hong Kong is just another provincial city within China. Given as you mentioned the sort of growing security of identity and prominence of identity in provincial regions like Hong Kong and Taiwan, particularly amongst the youth, how do those two timelines cohere because you've got on the one hand two growing demographics and populations in those peripheral Chinese provinces who have a stronger sense of themselves as Hong Kongers or Taiwanese rather than ethnic Han or mainland Chinese, and yet in 2047 you've got this sort of ticking clock of another 28 years and Hong Kong will be melded into Greater China. So, what does the future hold over the next 28 years, given we're seeing so much protest and angst now?


35:44 Rowan: Yeah, the question is what will China look like in 28 years. I don't know. Xi Jinping has through - he's got three big roles in order of power, the most powerful party secretary and then head of the military commission and the third is president which enables him to travel internationally given the appropriate protocol and so on, but through abolishing term limits for the presidency, he's now able to stay in power for in effect, it means for however long he wants. It's going to be risky for him given the number of people who have been purged and jailed on corruption charges to - his life will be a risky one, I think, post retirement if that may happen.


36:45 So, we can see if he may want to stay in office for a considerable time. He is now aged 66, I think. At the same time - so, Xi represents one pole and you can see his popularity in China. China continuing to have considerable economic success, international success, and you can see nations around the world flocking to the Chinese political leaders, liking the Chinese model of cyber control, of nationalism, of strength at the centre; the belt and road initiative is effectively a tool of weaponizing China's economic rise and heft.


37:53 Naturally, it's attracting people and we're seeing autocrats around the world coming together, admiring Xi as probably the model. So, Xi talks about Putin as 'my most intimate friend', this Erdogan in Turkey and so on.


38:20 Is the future theirs? This is a really existential question for the world. You know, is the future one of people having a greater say in closer to where they live? Is it a future of living under the umbrella of an all-consuming state that will look after people as it were as long as you're willing to cede an amount of autonomy to the state?


38:58 I think this is an open-ended question but it's not - many people think right now that's the way the tide is going. I'm not convinced that this is going to necessarily be the future for ever and ever. We've seen the tide come in and the tide come out, even in China itself. While probably the subject that is least debatable in China, even with those many highly individualistic, freethinking people don't want to hear the word 'federal', China is the only substantial country in the world in size terms which is not a federation but who knows? Maybe at some stage, China will have to/may consider some kind of federalisation, but at the moment the tide is certainly going against it in the other direction, but we're also seeing those countries in east Asia that are bordering China of 14; not all intimate friends, you know?


40:25 So, a Chinese academic friend of mine, Jiu Feng, talks about China as a lonely rising power. So, while there are those autocratic friends like Erdogan, Putin and so on, it's still hard for China to locate many in our region that are going gang busters in the same direction. So, we'll see what happens.


40:55 We can all co-exist and we need to because we're all much more engaged than ever we were in terms of people’s movements, in terms of movements of capital, of the supply chains and so on. We need to learn how to coexist, even though our systems are different, but it's a great question: which system will ultimately prevail? Maybe none will prevail. Maybe we'll just continue to co-exist; but within China, will those borderlands start to be able to breathe a little more in their own right? It's hard to say, but I think the history - one thing history shows us is it's very hard to expunge the motivations of historical loyalties, of religions loyalties. So, to those Buddhists who are living in Tibet are unlikely I think to be Sinicized for example, so we'll see how it plays out.


42:10 These are important questions and in Australia, we tend to look at it purely through the prism of will we get a coal shipment to land it in Da Lian or something. This is a very - it's interesting, but this is a long way from the centre.


42:28 Nick: Yeah. Just the final question is at crisis points like the one in Hong Kong at the moment, what should Western democracies including Australia be doing to express solidarity with those who feel that they are being repressed in Hong Kong, but also at I suppose a governmental level to dissuade China from going down a path of something which could catastrophically end up like another Tiananmen for instance.


42:53 Rowan: The Chinese Communist Party spent a lot of money on seeking to control the debate overseas as well as locally because there are echoes. There's no doubt that the tone of the debate internationally is felt in China. We've seen strident criticisms - this week actually - of remarks made by and complaints made by foreign countries about treatment of its own citizens, not that the word citizen is very much used in China.


44:46 The alternative is to say nothing and to in fact seek advantage by saying nothing, but there's not a lot of evidence that saying nothing achieves much. China believes that even speaking about what's happening in China is unacceptable. If you speak in a critical way of course; if you speak in a complementary way, of course that's something different, but if you speak critically, this is interference in domestic affairs. Hong Kong is part of Chinese sovereign territory, so people talking critically about what's happening in Hong Kong is viewed by the state as unacceptable.


44:47 It's unlikely that by saying things western countries are going to achieve change; but by saying nothing, by standing by, then the West is constantly seeding ground, including back in our own countries. So, if we are not prepared to say anything against behaviour we'd regard as egregious anywhere - I'm not just talking about in China, but in other places, it's a personal view - then I feel that we are conceding the right even to speak and to act domestically and to an extent, betraying our own; betraying those international values that we've made our own.


46:00 Are there international values? I believe that there are and this is part of the battleground, is that the view that's being pushed by Xi particularly is that of a shared destiny for humankind and by shared, the view is each state and each government particularly has carriage of its own set of rights or values.


46:40 The question of universal values is a very important one. If that is abandoned and some of the judgements I've seen by the UN's Human Rights Council seems to indicate that there's a big battleground there as well, then we're in some considerable trouble and we have to rethink lots of things, even in our own country, if we can't find the courage to speak internationally.


47:40 Nick: Rowan Callick, thank you very much for your time.


47:42 Rowan: Okay. Great to be with you, thanks.