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China Ramps Up Pressure On Protesters In Hong Kong


For the last 10 weeks, pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong have demonstrated from the streets to the international airport. And all this started when the Hong Kong government proposed a law allowing people charged with crimes to be extradited to mainland China. But the protest movement has broadened, and the demands are now for true democracy. The founding chairman of Hong Kong's pro-democracy party, Martin Lee, told NPR the stakes for protesters are high.


MARTIN LEE: The young people are prepared to give up their young lives to defend the city. Some of them have written wills already.

GREENE: Now, officials in mainland China have been pushing a counter narrative. They're propagating conspiracy theories about who's behind these protests and also encouraging counter demonstrations. Yet even as China ramps up pressure on the protesters, their options may be limited. We turn now to NPR's correspondent in Beijing, Emily Feng, who's on the line. Hi, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Hi, good morning.

GREENE: So China was almost acting like this wasn't happening in Hong Kong for a while. But that seems to be changing now.

FENG: About two weeks ago, they broke their silence, and now it's been nonstop narrative discrediting the protesters in Hong Kong. And the reason why they did this is they made a calculation. They realize that their citizens were going to hear about the protests sooner or later, and they wanted to get the state narrative out there, that these are radical protesters, criminals who have some kind of foreign support who are protesting on the streets.

GREENE: So is the state narrative out there? I mean, is the strategy of the Chinese government working as you listen to people in the country?

FENG: Oh, yeah. People I talk to here have - you know, they widely believe that these protests in Hong Kong are criminal, if not self-destructive. And there's a really popular conspiracy theory out there right now that the U.S. CIA was the one who started the protests. And Beijing got this big PR win last night when Hong Kong protesters once again stormed the airport, and things got really ugly. A mob beat up these two men that they thought were pro-Beijing spies, and they actually zip-tied one of them to a luggage trolley.

GREENE: Oh, wow.

FENG: It quickly turned out that the man that they tied up was an employee of one of the most outspoken nationalistic state tabloids in China. And its editor-in-chief immediately took to social media to denounce the assault. So when I woke up today, Wednesday morning, these slogans, things like what a shame for Hong Kong and I support the Hong Kong police, had gone viral all over Chinese social media.

GREENE: Wow, an event like that just helping the Chinese government spread that counter narrative it sounds like. But what about more response from China? I mean, could there be some kind of heavy-handed response in Hong Kong?

FENG: There could be, but the question is, in what kind of form? And the rumor, of course, is military intervention. The police and Chinese paramilitary forces have been drilling on the border with Hong Kong. But, again, I think a military crackdown is unlikely because the question is, what happens the day after a military invasion? The Hong Kong government would basically stop functioning. There'd be bloody clashes in the street. Beijing would probably turn to other options that put pressure on Hong Kong companies and protesters without doing it.

So I talked to a guy named Minxin Pei earlier today. He's a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College who says that he can imagine a scenario in which tens of thousands of young men take to the streets. They're not wearing military uniforms, but they're patriotic volunteers, and they're there to protect Hong Kong. So that kind of grassroots movement might be an option that would give Beijing plausible deniability that they had a hand in any kind of crackdown. And it's also, you know, that having that option on the table is a reason why China really wants to get its propaganda message in China right.

GREENE: So trying first at least some sort of less overt form of pressure or crackdown.

FENG: Exactly.

GREENE: All right. We'll see what happens next. That's NPR's Emily Feng speaking to us from Beijing. Thanks so much, Emily.

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

Emily Feng
Emily Feng is NPR's Beijing correspondent.