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Interview With Carl Zha On The Neoliberal Economic Decline Fueling Hong Kong Protests

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Hosts Rania Khalek and Kevin Gosztola welcome Carl Zha, the host of “Silk and Steel,” which is a weekly podcast on the history, culture, and current events of China and the Silk Road.

Zha provides a primer on what has unfolded with the protests in Hong Kong. He describes how they started, the role an extradition bill has played, the poverty and inequality fueling protests, and the protesters’ demands. He also provides a thumbnail history of the colonial history around China and Hong Kong.

He goes on to recall some of the incidents and flashpoints that have occurred, including violence that has been committed by Hong Kong protesters.

The National Endowment for Democracy and the Oslo Freedom Forum have provided tactical support. Zha addresses the way in which the U.S. government and U.S. groups are aiding Hong Kong protesters and what that means for the protests.

Later in the episode, Zha discusses the nativism inherent in the protests that is directed against mainland Chinese people, and he also highlights the controversy that erupted around the NBA in the past week.

To listen to the interview, click on the above player or go here.


As Carl Zha recounts, the protests started with a murder. A 19 year-old Hong Kong man murdered his pregnant girlfriend in Taiwan. There is no extradition treaty between Hong Kong and Taiwan so he could not be brought to trial. But he stole from his girlfriend’s bank account. He was charged with theft and sentenced to prison.

Hong Kong is operating under British colonial laws that were preserved even after the “One Country, Two Systems” rule. It does not have an extradition treaty with mainland China or Taiwan. So, in response to the murder, an extradition bill was proposed, and it had to cover mainland China as well. That spurred the campaign against the legislation.

Protests in Hong Kong led to the government taking a step back. Action on the extradition bill was suspended. Yet, as Zha recounted, that was not enough for protesters.

“On the day the Hong Kong government that the bill would be suspended, the protest actually escalated into violence. A group of protesters stormed the Hong Kong legislature building then broke in and they tore down the Hong Kong flag and replaced it with a British colonial Hong Kong flag with a union jack on it.”

“Some protesters took selfies and said, hey, look, we’re inside the legislature and posted on Instagram,” Zha added. “They are in trouble legally so they are trying to flee to Taiwan. That became another demand from the protesters’ side. Now they demand amnesty for all the protesters who got arrested under riot charges.”

The biggest demand of the protesters, however, is universal suffrage. They want this for the Hong Kong chief executive position and the Hong Kong legislative council.

Zha said no deaths had occurred during the protests. A couple of protesters threw themselves off of a bridge to pressure authorities to accept demands and died.

“We actually have protests around the world in Latin America, in Asia, in Iraq, and people have died,” Zha said, comparing the police response in Hong Kong to violence that has not sparked nearly as much outrage.

Much of the coverage of the Hong Kong protests has ignored the separatist and xenophobic nature of demonstrations.

Hong Kong is still a very wealthy city but compared to mainland China, according to Zha, it used to be 27 percent of the entire Chinese GDP.

“I remember growing up in China in the 1980s. I just remember Hong Kong as a magical paradise. People are wealthy. They have so much money.”

Recently, mainland China grew more wealthier while the Hong Kong economy is not comparatively doing as well. Zha said Hong Kong is facing what the wider Western world is facing economically.

“Hong Kong used to be a manufacturing center. In the 1980s, after China opened up, all the Hong Kong capitalists then moved their factories from Hong Kong into China, where labor costs are much cheaper. And so all the manufacturing of Hong Kong got hollowed out.”

What was left in Hong Kong was finance and real estate, and Hong Kong youth face diminishing economic prospects, especially because of skyrocketing housing prices. That is partly a result of the Hong Kong government, which derives most of its revenue from land sales to developers.

“Hong Kong always gets extolled in Western neoliberal circles as this beacon of free will and capitalism,” Zha noted. “Well, this is what you get.”

But all the discontent is channeled into ugly nativism, very similar to what is happening under President Donald Trump. Many people in Hong Kong blame mainland Chinese immigrants for their economic predicament.

For more from the interview, click on the above player or go here.

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola

Kevin Gosztola is managing editor of Shadowproof. He also produces and co-hosts the weekly podcast, "Unauthorized Disclosure."