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Scenes From The International Desk: Quiet In Hong Kong's Chaos


The Hong Kong protest movement is now more than six months old. And that is six months closer to the year 2047, when Hong Kong will officially join the Chinese fold. Our correspondent Julie McCarthy has been there for many of the key moments during the protests. And there was one scene that never made it into a radio story that she keeps coming back to. This week, we're asking our international correspondents to bring us their favorite tape that hit the cutting room floor, and Julie McCarthy is here with hers.

Hi, Julie.


SHAPIRO: OK, so take us into this scene. Where were you? And who were you talking to?

MCCARTHY: Well, we're on the streets in Hong Kong, and we're talking to a woman. She happens to be a lawyer, and she identifies herself only by her first name, Christine (ph). That's common here. People feel retribution from the police or they just feel harassment - fear of harassment. And she's out cleaning the streets of the bricks and the debris that protesters at City University had thrown all over the road. And I arrived just as the protesters on campus hurl this crude gasoline bomb in the direction of this cleanup crew.


MCCARTHY: And out of nowhere, the riot police descend. And people are scattering, and the kids are screaming. And this chaos just sort of erupts, and we're standing in the middle of it. But we're having this conversation about one country, two systems and what it means.

SHAPIRO: So there's riot police and gasoline bombs and people screaming, and you're having a thoughtful conversation about the future of the country (laughter). What did Christine tell you?

MCCARTHY: (Laughter) Right. Well, she defines this governing formula - one country, two systems - in a way that really puts the accent on one country - China - rather than on the two systems of the Communist Party and Hong Kong's semi-democracy. Here she is.

CHRISTINE: If you want to enjoy two system, you need to respect one country. This is mutuality. Nobody ask you to swear to the Communist Party. Just enjoy Hong Kong itself here. This is what we should do here.

MCCARTHY: She's saying, you know, as long as you honor China, the rest is going to fall into place.

SHAPIRO: We don't often hear these kinds of voices. It's not a politician or a protester, just kind of a neighbor who's cleaning up bricks who isn't that freaked out about the clock ticking toward 2047.

MCCARTHY: No, but people like Christine often don't really make themselves readily apparent because she's clearly, you know, pro-Beijing. The clock is ticking down to 2047, and that's what this turmoil is all about. And when Britain handed back Hong Kong in 1997, China agreed to keep the status quo for 50 years. OK, Hong Kong, keep your democratic institutions until 2047. But Christine takes this one step further by saying, you know, just follow the rules, abide by the one country, two systems formula. And you'll be pleasantly surprised.

CHRISTINE: You should do it well, and then ask for another 15-year extension. Definitely, the Chinese government would give it to you.

MCCARTHY: Do you believe that?

CHRISTINE: I certainly believe if you maintain one country system with due respect to sovereign (ph), they will give it to you.

MCCARTHY: Due respect to the sovereign in Beijing.

CHRISTINE: Yes. The Chinese government integrity - territorial integrity is the most important.

MCCARTHY: Now, if you ask a young protester, you know, what do you think about asking for an extension? They'd say, you know, Chinese President Xi Jinping is already accelerating this date. Beijing's grip is already tightening over Hong Kong. It's all coming faster than the agreed to 50-year transition to 2047. They feel cheated, and they're nervous.

SHAPIRO: So very different perspectives on the future of Hong Kong.


SHAPIRO: What do you take away from the conversation you had with Christine?

MCCARTHY: Well, Christine provides a window into this wide gulf in attitudes in Hong Kong. And, Ari, within that gulf lies all the tension of the struggle here and reflects this bigger, global struggle of democratic impulses in deep conflict with authoritarian rule.

SHAPIRO: That's our correspondent Julie McCarthy in Hong Kong.

Thank you.

MCCARTHY: Thank you.

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

Julie McCarthy has spent most of career traveling the world for NPR. She's covered wars, prime ministers, presidents and paupers. But her favorite stories "are about the common man or woman doing uncommon things," she says.