STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
How, if at all, could a new U.S. law change the fight for democracy in Hong Kong? China's government has summoned the U.S. ambassador for a conversation. It is safe to say that Chinese officials are telling Terry Branstad of their displeasure. President Trump signed a law passed by Congress. That law promises sanctions on Chinese officials who violate human rights in Hong Kong. David Rennie is with us this morning to talk about that and more. He is The Economist's Beijing bureau chief. Welcome back to the program, David.
DAVID RENNIE: Hello.
INSKEEP: First, I have to ask, as best you can tell, is Beijing symbolically upset or seriously upset by this law?
RENNIE: No. They are seriously upset, and you can tell that because if you're based in Beijing and you have off-the-record conversations with pretty senior Chinese officials, as I have in the last few days, they are full of the idea that all of these protests are being whipped up, paid for, organized by the CIA or by the British government, by hostile Western forces; that it's a plot to contain and destroy China by trying to foment a revolution in Hong Kong.
INSKEEP: They have promised consequences if the United States goes ahead with implementing this law, which could end up sanctioning some Chinese officials. Could it also affect the broader U.S.-China relationship and particularly the trade talks over U.S. tariffs?
RENNIE: You can see when you talk to the Chinese that they feel a bit stuck. It's very interesting the extent to which when they fulminate about senators, members of Congress, the Vice President Mike Pence or the secretary of state - and they say how outrageous this new law is. They say how outrageous - some recent very tough speeches about China that you've seen from the vice president and the secretary of state.
The one thing they don't do is really go after President Trump. They pull their punches, and the reason for that is that they would like to do a quick and dirty trade deal without making really painful concessions about, you know, the way they do capitalism or the way that they operate. And they think that in that fight, Donald Trump might be something of an ally in a way that the machine around him - the kind of the American deep state, as they see it - is not an ally.
INSKEEP: Wow. So they are looking still for an opportunity to get out of the trade war without the fundamental changes the U.S. is demanding. But let me circle back to the other part of this. Hong Kong and this theory by Chinese officials that this is a United States plot, a CIA plot - isn't there a huge piece of evidence against that just in the last few days? Because Hong Kong held local elections, and while they are for advisory positions, local council positions, they were overwhelmingly won by pro-democracy forces, by people who were against the power of the central government. How are Chinese officials explaining that, and how are they responding to it?
RENNIE: Well, it's very telling that the kind of state propaganda machine, which we've seen, you know, for months now - this drumbeat of propaganda about the violent protesters, how they're bent on revolution, how they're in cahoots with the Americans - after this election result - which was not just a kind of landslide; it was a wipeout - you know, you saw 17 out of 18 councils change hands against the pro-Beijing parties. They went silent.
So the real crisis for the Communist Party in Beijing is that the people of Hong Kong, they have this hybrid identity. It is legally part of China, but it is one of the great Western world's cities. It's a vibrant financial city. I'm sure many of your listeners have been there. And if asked to choose between that Western, liberal, uncensored, free speech style of life and being part of a kind of rising China and a - much more like another city in China, the people of Hong Kong are making it absolutely clear that even as China gets richer and stronger, they want to be part of the Western world, not part of that mainland China. And that's a gigantic snub to an otherwise very self-confident Chinese government on the mainland.
INSKEEP: Now, I do know that the pro-Beijing chief executive of Hong Kong gave a kind of humble statement, saying that she would respect the results of the elections. But what does that actually mean? Is China actually likely to give ground here?
RENNIE: The really tragic truth is that it could turn out to be a Pyrrhic victory because these district council elections - they're symbolically a gigantic kind of sign of discontent by the people of Hong Kong. But these district councils, they control things like refuse collection and bus stops. They don't have much power. And it is entirely possible that the Communist leaders in Beijing will look at this election result and say, OK, then we are never giving these people meaningful democracy because look what they do when they have any ability to choose their leaders. And so it may be, tragically, that although in many ways, we should share this kind of fantastically brave election result, it may be the last time they get to vote in that way.
INSKEEP: David Rennie of The Economist, thanks so much.
RENNIE: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.