How Beijing is likely to respond to escalating Hong Kong protest violence

AMNA NAWAZ: Police in Hong Kong tightened
their siege of a university campus tonight, where hundreds of protesters remain trapped
inside. It’s the latest bout of violence the city
has seen in nearly six months of protests. In other parts of the city, protests fueled
by the stand-off continue. Nick Schifrin has the latest. NICK SCHIFRIN: Overnight and through the morning
darkness, the streets of Hong Kong remained a battlefield. The police pushed to retake the campus of
Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University. And students used any means necessary to hold
their ground. Through masks that protect them from tear
gas, they plead for help. WOMAN: I really hope that someone could give
a helping hand. NICK SCHIFRIN: In a predawn raid, Hong Kong
police arrested a student journalist and repeatedly asked the student to stop recording. Some protesters fled on motorcycles. The police arrested more than 400 trying to
flee. Protesters tripped over barricades and were
tackled to the ground. This is the crescendo of six months of protests
that started against the law that would have extradited criminal suspects to mainland China. But, today, demonstrators are calling for
fundamental reform. And mainland China is threatening to escalate. For the first time since the protest began,
this weekend, Chinese soldiers left their Hong Kong barracks and cleaned up debris wearing
T-shirts and shorts. And, today, China’s ambassador to the United
Kingdom blamed the West for instigating the protests and warned the protesters. LIU XIAOMING, Chinese Ambassador to the United
Kingdom: To restore law and order, violence must end, and the violent perpetrators must
be brought to justice. This is the only way to safeguard the interests
of the public and secure a better future for Hong Kong and cement the foundation of one
country, two systems. NICK SCHIFRIN: The two sides are on a cycle
of escalation. Police say they’re defending themselves and
warned they could begin using live ammunition. But protesters say they are responding to
police brutality and demand the city give in to their demands. OLIVIA, Protester: We want a peaceful Hong
Kong to be back, but I think, before that, the government has to listen to the people,
and the police has to stop whatever they’re doing. And I hope that Hong Kong can go back to the
previous Hong Kong as soon as possible. NICK SCHIFRIN: For more on what this standoff
means for Hong Kong, and mainland China, we’re joined by Kurt Tong, who just finished a 29-year-career
in the State Department. He was the most recent U.S. consul general
to Hong Kong, who served there from 2016 to July 2019. He’s now a partner at the Asia Group, an international
business consulting firm. And welcome to “NewsHour.” Thanks very much. KURT TONG, Former U.S. Consul General to Hong
Kong: Thanks, Nick. It’s a pleasure to be here. NICK SCHIFRIN: What is the significance of
this we’re looking at right now, this standoff in this university, one of the first times
where we have seen protesters actually try and hold a little bit of ground? KURT TONG: Well, I think that’s right. It’s a departure in strategy by the protesters
to establish, essentially, a situation where they’re under siege, rather than using their
old philosophy of move like water, have a protest, and then leave before they could
get arrested. So I think it creates some new risks, both
for the protesters, but also for how the police handle it. NICK SCHIFRIN: So the police handling of not
only this moment, but throughout this process, the protesters have talked about things like
police brutality. That’s the language that they use. And we do see videos of police beating up
protesters, for sure. Do you believe that some of the police actions
over the last few months have fueled the protests? KURT TONG: I think that’s right. I think that the police have been under intense
pressure. Personally, I don’t think that they were particularly
well-trained for this kind of circumstance. And so they’re having an emotional response
to people coming at them violently and, in some instances, responding inappropriately. Inappropriate is a such a weasel word. I mean responding violently in ways that they
shouldn’t have. That is something that the protesters are
now calling for an investigation of. And that probably makes sense to do that. It is important to remember, at the same time,
that the protesters have, if you will, taken first blood in terms of making this a violent
situation. NICK SCHIFRIN: Of course, behind the police,
literally in a garrison in the middle of Hong Kong are PLA soldiers, or Chinese soldiers,
and we saw them out in T-shirts and shorts… KURT TONG: Right. NICK SCHIFRIN: … in response to this in
the last day or so. Talked to some people who fear that it could
be some kind of test run of some sort. Do you share that fear, that the Chinese military
could respond in some way, if this violence continues? KURT TONG: The fact of the matter is that
there is a significant military presence in Hong Kong, which is not designed for crowd
control or for police activity. China, of course, has immense police resources
across the border that are not, again, prepared for working in the Hong Kong environment under
Hong Kong law. So I think that the options for the mainland
in terms of direct intervention are limited and bad. And so I don’t anticipate that happening. But they have from time to time — for example,
earlier this fall, they released a video of them practicing this kind of activity. And I think that was — that was intended… NICK SCHIFRIN: And we have seen the rhetoric
increase from Chinese officials, including Xi Jinping. KURT TONG: And that’s intended to scare people. NICK SCHIFRIN: Scare people as a level of
deterrence. You don’t think it will go beyond that? KURT TONG: I certainly hope not. And I think it would be a mistake if it did. NICK SCHIFRIN: Which brings us to the U.S.
response. The U.S. has, in fact, warned China not to
go further than it has gone. And we have saw Secretary of State Mike Pompeo
today in the State Department say two things. One, he endorsed the idea of that police investigation. And he also gave a little bit of a reference
to some — one of the protesters’ key demands. Let’s take a listen. MIKE POMPEO, U.S. Secretary of State: We call
on Chief Executive Carrie Lam to promote accountability by supplementing the Independent Police Complaints
Council review with an independent investigation into the protest-related incidents. As the United States government has said repeatedly,
the Chinese Communist Party must honor its promises to the Hong Kong people, who only
want the freedoms and liberties that they have been promised in the Sino-British Joint
Declaration. NICK SCHIFRIN: Must honor its promises and
police investigation. Is that an adequate U.S. response? KURT TONG: I think that’s a good response. Certainly, I think what Secretary Pompeo said
is right. And that — we need to keep in mind that there
is some limits to the reach of the United States to influence events within Hong Kong. But, certainly, calling for a thorough investigation
of what has taken place is a natural thing to do in this circumstance and an important
thing to do. And the reference to the 1984 Sino-British
Joint Declaration, I think, is spot on. It’s really important for everyone in this
circumstance to really think carefully about, what are we trying to achieve? What are they trying to achieve? What are the protesters trying to achieve? What does China want? What does Hong Kong? What does the United States want? NICK SCHIFRIN: And quickly, in the time we
have left, U.S. officials are weighing even more drastic options, for example, even removing
some diplomats from Hong Kong, some kind of sanctions. Would those moves be positive, do you think? KURT TONG: I think that it depends on who
the sanctions are on. Removing diplomats, I don’t think, is necessary
unless it’s unsafe. The — I would… NICK SCHIFRIN: Could it send a signal, though,
to remove diplomats? KURT TONG: It could. But it — would it be effective? I would question that. I think that the bigger question here is,
whatever the U.S. does, a matter of U.S. policy should be carefully designed to really have
an impact on the situation in a positive way, not an emotional response to short-term exigencies,
but, rather, how do we reinforce this idea of a Hong Kong that’s part of China, but is
very different from the rest of China? To be specific on that, it’s important that
the United States not do something that actually ends up hurting the Hong Kong people more
than the intended target, which would — in the case of a bad situation there would be
the Beijing government. If Hong Kong is — no longer has autonomy,
then we should treat it like it no longer has autonomy. But if it has autonomy, I don’t think we should
take away our recognition of that autonomy because of a short-term situation, because
Hong Kong serves the United States’ interests, being a great place to do business and a communication
point for dealing with China. And it’s also a place where seven million
people live, that — most of whom we like. And we don’t want to take away their livelihood
just to spite Beijing. NICK SCHIFRIN: Kurt Tong, until July consul
general in Hong Kong, thank you very much. KURT TONG: Thank you.

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