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Hong Kong Protests: The Bigger Picture

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

For more now, we talk with Professor Michael Davis. He teaches law at the University of Hong Kong and has lived in Hong Kong for nearly 30 years. Good morning.

MICHAEL DAVIS: Good morning.

CORNISH: Now, I understand you actually just got back from being out in the protests yourself. What are you seeing? I can imagine many of your students.

DAVIS: I guess what really struck me when I went out there - and I think about Beijing's sort of viewing and arguing that these are a bunch of hotheads and troublemakers and this and that. It was just basically - they're everybody's kids. There's not - almost not a hothead among them. If it wasn't for democracy, it could as well be a rock concert. There's just a lot of young people out there, and so any sense that they're hotheads is just off point.

CORNISH: Let's get a little more context because much of this goes back to the treaty between China and Britain that laid the groundwork for how Hong Kong would be governed after its handover. Now, you've said the protesters, they're not calling for independence - right? - they want China to follow through on commitments enshrined in the mini-constitution known as the Basic Laws. But just how far does that document go in terms of voting rights as we know it?

DAVIS: Well, the document is pretty clear. It says in Article 45, that the ultimate aim for electing the chief executive is universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee. And a lot of Hong Kong people want the nominating committee to produce genuine choice for the voters.

CORNISH: Now, this is not the first time that China has made changes to Hong Kong's election laws. Is there a sense that Beijing will never actually follow through on universal suffrage?

DAVIS: Right. It's been dragging its feet for years. They use some words in the Basic Law about gradual and orderly progress. But, you know, now in their most recent episode, they're doing the opposite. It's not progress, gradual or otherwise; it's almost falling backwards because it's now in effect wanting to give the sort of credibility or legitimacy of election to somebody that they've basically chosen themselves. Or at least they've narrowed it down so much that voters don't have a choice.

CORNISH: Can you talk a little bit about Beijing's response so far?

DAVIS: Well, Beijing has sat on the sidelines in a sense 'cause they were quiet for several days. But what happened, rather, was the Hong Kong government, the police apparently had gotten riot training or something. And so when the students were occupying an area around the government offices and didn't want to move, so they were moving the students. And then at some point, they decided they wanted to clear the area, and they were using pepper spray. And then another group of people wanted to enter the area by climbing over some obstacles across a highway, and then the police decided to stop them by using tear gas. Now, some cities in the world may see tear gas every now and then. Hong Kong really never has.

CORNISH: Can you talk a little bit about how much of this has been brewing for a while? I mean, people obviously have had concerns about Hong Kong's governance in recent years.

DAVIS: Yes. This goes all the way back to handover. There were - a democracy movement, even after the Sino-British Joint Declaration was signed in the late '80s - and then in the '90s there was a lot of push for more democracy in Hong Kong. Over the years, Beijing keeps dragging its heels, and the Hong Kong government, in effect speaking for Beijing, does that.

What's really different here is that Beijing seems to have now appointed itself to be directly in charge. Rather in the past, it was the Hong Kong government was carrying out policies. Protests could occur. People could talk to the Hong Kong government, but now the Hong Kong government is almost frozen in the headlights. It just doesn't know what to do because Beijing has laid down the rules on this.

CORNISH: What's at stake for China here? I mean, how concerned should they be about the scale of these protests?

DAVIS: This is not Beijing. Hong Kong is a separate system. They have tolerated free press that criticizes Beijing all the time in Hong Kong for years, freedom of association, freedom of religion, really pretty much everything you have in the United States. And therefore when they're responding to public dissent in this society, they shouldn't treat it like the mainland. If they do, I think they will do more damage than good.

I personally would like to see the Hong Kong government, which is always perceived to be representing Beijing instead of Hong Kong, to sort of accept that it's done - handled this badly and turn around and try to help Beijing to understand, what are the concerns in Hong Kong? To me that's the way to climb down from this.

CORNISH: That's Michael Davis. He's a law professor at the University of Hong Kong. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

DAVIS: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.