Chinese oppression of freedom

This graphic represents China’s oppression of freedom during the Umbrella Revolution and the current protests erupting in Hong Kong.

Protesters in Hong Kong are now entering the third month of demonstrations.

These protests began as a reaction to a proposed extradition bill, but have grown into a movement no one saw coming   not even Hong Kong.

Before Hong Kong became a part of China, they were a British colony for over 150 years, according to the BBC.

“The two sides reached a deal in 1984 that would see Hong Kong return to China in 1997, under the principle of ‘one country, two systems.’” Helier Cheung and Roland Hughes with the BBC said in an article on Sept. 4.

This principle meant Hong Kong would have their own autonomy, except in foreign affairs and military operations.

“As a result, Hong Kong has its own legal system and borders, and rights including freedom of assembly and free speech are protected,” Cheung and Hughes said.

However, there have been multiple protests in the past ten years stemming from the growing oppression of the Chinese government.

In 2000, Missouri State University began an exchange program with China. What started as a few dozen grew to over 700 students. 

MSU students can also go to China, but Director of Study Away Programs Elizabeth Strong said her office is now warning students about the dangers of going to Hong Kong due to ongoing protests.

Strong said no MSU students are currently studying in Hong Kong.

On the opposite end, about a half a million Chinese students study outside of China every year, according to Michael Borich, a faculty member of the media, journalism and film department.

Borich taught in China for two years and sponsored multiple Chinese students.

When he came back to the U.S., Borich and his wife wanted to continue their involvement in Chinese culture.

“We wanted to stay really involved in the Chinese community, so my wife and I have been attending the Christian Chinese church in town for about 12 years now,” Borich said.

He stays up-to-date with Chinese media by reading the Chinese Daily, an English language newspaper.

“China is a master of propaganda and misinformation,” Borich said. 

Protests for autonomy persist

Keeping up with the media and community in China, Borich shared his knowledge on the protests occurring in Hong Kong.

“It’s almost like if you were to write a ‘Jason Bourne’ movie,” Borich said. “I mean it’s got all this complexity and skullduggery.”

These protests are nothing new to the country, though. According to Borich, China has seen similar issues in the past.

“There has been this ripple across China for quite awhile, really since the early ‘90s, which is, I think, a pushback against the authoritarian government,” Borich said.

This pushback is what resulted in protests throughout the streets of Hong Kong.

Borich called these protests the “young people’s revolution” which began a few years ago during the Umbrella Revolution.

“The Umbrella Protests was when the protesters had very colorful umbrellas, and when the government troops fired tear gas and rubber bullets, they would open their colorful umbrellas to shut out the smoke,” Borich said. 

Those protests began because the people of Hong Kong wanted more autonomy. Borich said during that time, China was encouraging its government officials from Beijing to exert more control over Hong Kong.

“But what has happened in the last couple of years, that independence has been slowly 

eroding and ‘Big China’ is starting to become more controlling of Hong Kong,” Borich said.

This time, the protests began after Hong Kong proposed an extradition bill. If enacted, the bill could force people who commit crimes in Hong Kong to be prosecuted or serve jail time in China.

Hamish Lam, a Hong Kong native currently living among the protests, said it is getting worse. A Standard reporter-in-training, Scott Campbell, reached Lam by phone.

“The focus of the protest has switched to being against police violence,” Lam said. “Even after (Chief Executive Carrie Lam) said that the (extradition) bill was retracted, the protests actually didn’t die down.”

Lam said the chief executive does not represent the public, in his opinion.

“We have almost no power to say whether we want her to be the chief executive,” Lam said.

One of the biggest differences in the current Hong Kong protests and the Umbrella Revolution is the amount of media coverage through international news outlets.

During previous protests, Borich said the government was able to control the media from the inside and the outside.

“So you’ve seen, because of new technology, the Internet, students studying abroad   students want China to be open like the rest of the world,” Borich said. 

Aside from media being an issue for China, Borich said they are also concerned about their students studying abroad.

Borich said the students who study in North America or Europe often realize how much freedom they are missing out on.

Undercover infiltrators

Borich said there is credible evidence that the Chinese government has been infiltrating the protesters in Hong Kong.

“They send operatives who say, ‘I am pro-democracy,’ and then they start creating violence,” Borich said.

Borich said these operatives break into buildings and cause damage so that the government can show the other citizens how “violent” the protesters are.

“So it looks like, ‘Oh, I thought the protesters were nonviolent but look   they’re fighting, they’re rioting,’” Borich said. 

Lam confirmed this theory. He said the police are putting knives or bricks in protesters’ bags so when they get searched, government officials will find the weapons and the protesters will get arrested. 

“Some participants actually captured images of the undercover police throwing molotov cocktails, and that person is actually bearing a gun,” Lam said. “The next day, at the police press conference, the police came out and said this is not a gun that our policemen are equipped with.”

However, citizens of Hong Kong are not allowed to carry guns. Lam said after researching the gun, people found out it was a part of police equipment. Multiple international news outlets reported on this incident, including Newsweek, on Aug. 12.

More than a trade war

Dandan Liu, the coordinator of the office of China programs, vice president of research and economic development, said these protests have no impact on MSU’s China programs.

“It’s not impacting our students at LNU-MSU or Chinese students here in Springfield,” Liu said.

Unlike Liu, Borich said everyone in China is paying attention to the protests and every Chinese student is impacted. He added this may be because Chinese students want freedom for themselves.

Borich sees Springfield as connected to China because students and teachers come from and go to China. 

He said the protests go beyond Hong Kong, it is affecting the rest of the world, and America.

“It may seem, to the West, that it is a struggle for freedom and independence but there are strategic interests for the United States, there are economic interests for global corporations,” Borich said.

According to the U.S. State Department, 85,000 Americans live in Hong Kong. Borich said if Americans do business in China, their office is most likely not in Beijing or Shanghai, but in Hong Kong.

“It is one of the world’s financial centers and one of the most densely populated areas of the world,” Borich said. “There are more concentrations of wealth in Hong Kong than anywhere in the world because you have these big international banks, a tax-haven for American corporations.”

Borich said the United States Congress constantly cries for supporting worldwide democracy, but it is more “complex.” He said this complexity is because China says America is behind the democracy protests.

“What happens to Hong Kong is going to have a great effect on the United States, but our government has to be careful because of Trump’s trade war with China,” Borich said.

Borich said the Hong Kong demonstrations have thrown another complexity into America’s relationship with China.

Lam said the protests so far have not impacted the American companies in the area, but that could soon change.

“I think everyone understands that people in Hong Kong are not that violent,” Lam said. “I don’t think these few months will really change people’s minds in terms of whether Hong Kong is a safe country   I think it’s more the approach and attitude of the government.”

Lam said if the government continues to oppress protesters, it could affect the “willingness of foreign businesses and foreign people staying in Hong Kong.” 

Because China has such a big market, Borich said what happens there will affect the economics in the United States, whether that be through protests or a trade war.

“I know the trade war is affecting farmers,” Borich said. “Iowa has a huge market in China and now because of the trade war, China is not buying very much soy beans, beef, pork, milk and so on.”

The Des Moines Register wrote about Iowa farmers suffering due to the trade war on May 10.

While Borich said the trade war affects all Americans in a very obvious way, he said the way China handles these protests for autonomy will impact the relationship between the two countries.

Borich said if Hong Kong is not solved in a way the U.S. sees fit, the trade war will continue, and eventually Americans will feel the effects “in the pocketbook.”

No end in sight

Aside from affecting the country as a whole, the Hong Kong protests also hold significant weight in Springfield.

MSU has partnerships with 11 cities in China, going as far north as the Liaoning Province and as far south as Hainan. However, the university does not have a partnership with Hong Kong.

He said while the trade war and protests are taking place, it is important to remember that the people do not always represent the government.

“We tell Chinese students remember to separate the government from the people,” Borich said. “Students would say to us in China, ‘We really like you, you’re good Americans, we just don’t like your government.”

Lam said the longevity of the protests surprised a lot of people. He said the people of Hong Kong are known for not resisting. But, the millions of people taking to the streets are breaking that stereotype.

“It’s really hard to say how long this will last,” Lam said.

While Borich has high hopes for the protests, he does not know when the demonstrations will end.

“I don’t think it’s going to be solved any time soon,” Borich said. “Once these young people have experienced a taste of freedom and openness, they don’t want to go under the thumb of ‘Big China.’”

Reporter trainee Scott Campbell contributed to this report.

The Standard reached out to MSU’s Multicultural Center, the Director of the Multicultural Center Yvania Garcia-Pusateri, Stephen Robinette with the office of China programs, the Vice President of International Programs Jim Baker and the Director of International Services Patrick Parnell for an interview, none of which responded.

Sophomore studying Broadcast Journalism! Former Web Producer at KOLR10 in Springfield.