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What Hong Kong's Future Would Be If The City Loses Its Freedom


Today, the Chinese government approved a plan designed to suppress subversion and terrorism in Hong Kong. Many in Hong Kong fear the suppression will actually be to civil liberties and that with a loss of freedom could also come enormous economic losses if trade partners revoke special status for the territory. That is exactly the signal coming from the U.S. this week. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said yesterday that Hong Kong was no longer autonomous from China. So what are the stakes here for the U.S. and for Hong Kong? Let's bring in Evan Medeiros. He's professor of Asian studies at Georgetown University and a former adviser to President Obama on the National Security Council.


EVAN MEDEIROS: Thank you, Mary Louise.

KELLY: I want to read you one line from a statement that the State Department released this morning. This was a joint statement by the U.S., the U.K., Canada and Australia. And it reads, quote, "The international community has a significant, long-standing stake in Hong Kong's prosperity and stability." Let me put that to you. What is that stake?

MEDEIROS: Well, the stake is three parts. It's a political stake. It's an economic stake. And it's really a strategic stake. The political stake is preserving the basic fundamental freedoms at the heart of the one country, two systems model that the Chinese in Beijing promised the British when Hong Kong was transferred in 1997. So that's protection for basic civil liberties - freedom of speech, freedom of press, freedom of assembly.

And then there - of course, economic stakes - you have over a thousand American companies in Hong Kong. The U.S. has over $30 billion in bilateral trade each year with Hong Kong. A lot of these companies have their regional headquarters in Hong Kong. So it's a very vibrant commercial and financial center for the United States.

And then there's the strategic interest, which is the Chinese are, you know, changing the deal. It looks like they're in the process of doing that. And so, you know, how is the international community, the U.S., its partners and allies going to respond to this illiberal action? And...

KELLY: Let's get to that, though - what it - what the response might look like. What tools does the U.S. have to influence events in Hong Kong?

MEDEIROS: Unfortunately, the U.S. doesn't have a great set of tools. I mean, when I was in the Obama White House, we struggled with this when there were protests in Hong Kong in 2014. And the tools were largely economic. But the challenge you face is you might hurt the people of Hong Kong and businesses in Hong Kong more than you hurt the mainland. And I think the mainland is banking on that because what they're trying to do is separate economics and politics, shrink political space, change the sort of vibrant political and social culture of Hong Kong but try and keep business normal.

KELLY: To your point about the risk of hurting Hong Kong and people in Hong Kong and companies in Hong Kong, is the big loser - however this plays out between the U.S. and China - Hong Kong and its treasured freedoms and civil liberties?

MEDEIROS: Absolutely. I mean, I think Hong Kong is irrevocably changed because of this. I mean, it was already on this pathway because of the violence in the past year to 18 months. But the fact that you're now going to have Chinese internal security services that will be able to operate unimpeded in Hong Kong, the fact that the Chinese will be able to use these new legal authorities that were created this week as a way to restrict freedom of press and freedom of speech - I mean, that's just going to change Hong Kong's character. The changes won't be overnight, but they will be gradual and incremental over time so in five, 10 years' time, Hong Kong looks just like another southern Chinese city.

KELLY: Evan Medeiros - he is professor of Asian studies at Georgetown University and a former member of the National Security Council in the Obama administration.

Thanks so much.

MEDEIROS: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.