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World

What China Wants In Hong Kong

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Protests continued this week in Hong Kong as millions of people there continue to push for autonomy from China and call for free elections. The massive protests have been going on since June and shut down the airport. The way China responds will be critical.

Susan Shirk is chair of the 21st Century China Center at the University of California San Diego and a former deputy assistant secretary of state in the Clinton administration. Professor, thanks so much for being with us.

SUSAN SHIRK: Sure. My pleasure.

SIMON: What do you think some of the options the Chinese central government is weighing now?

SHIRK: Well, of course, the big decision is whether to allow the Hong Kong police to handle the demonstrations and to gradually try to wind them down or to send the paramilitary force of the People's Liberation Army - whether or not to send them over from the mainland into Hong Kong. And my own view is that Xi Jinping will be very reluctant to take that latter course.

SIMON: And why?

SHIRK: Because people will die if the PLA - even the People's Armed Police, even if they're in plain clothes, they come over, I think they have less experience with these kinds of demonstrations that have become violent. And, really, what they can do is to use more lethal force. That's a decision that Xi Jinping then will own. And, of course, everyone will be comparing it to the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. And meanwhile, the people of Hong Kong will become even more resistant to being absorbed into the People's Republic.

SIMON: And what's the effect of words from President Trump in this situation where he seems to have encouraged President Xi to meet with the pro-democracy demonstrators but also lauded President Xi as a great leader - great, strong leader, in fact?

SHIRK: I don't think it's helped. I think it's kind of complicated and confused matters. The Chinese Communist Party and propaganda authorities have blamed the demonstrations on American interference. I mean, the whole idea that the United States could bring millions of Hong Kong people out on the streets, of course, is ridiculous.

But in a highly controlled information environment, I think there probably are a lot of people who believe that. But that means in turn that supporting the demonstrators without any comments about, of course, avoiding violence or, you know, hope that it can be resolved in a peaceful manner - that's not good either because that just plays into this myth that it's driven by U.S. support and interference.

SIMON: What do you see happening over the next few weeks?

SHIRK: I think there is a chance that the Hong Kong authorities and the police and the public itself will kind of gradually de-escalate the situation. When the students go back to school, that may reduce the numbers of demonstrators. And then the autonomy movement will live to fight the next fight. Remember; the autonomy's for 50 years.

SIMON: Yeah.

SHIRK: But Deng Xiaoping said at the time that that didn't mean it couldn't be renewed for another 50 years, say. So, certainly, I'd say that most people in Hong Kong - that's what they would like to see.

SIMON: Susan Shirk, who is chair of the 21st Century China Center at University of California San Diego and former deputy assistant secretary of state, thanks so much for being with us.

SHIRK: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.