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Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow the World — Dr. Mark L. Clifford

Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow the World — Dr. Mark L. Clifford

The Charles Mizrahi Show

Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow the World — Dr. Mark L. Clifford

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One of the wealthiest and freest cities in Asia is in crisis. Right now, Hong Kong’s civil liberties are being eroded by China’s communist government. Dr. Mark L. Clifford has witnessed this tragedy firsthand. And he joins host Charles Mizrahi to discuss Hong Kong’s recent protests, how he’s working to promote freedom in the city, and his latest book.

Topics Discussed:

  • An Introduction to Mark L. Clifford (00:00:00)
  • Hong Kong Handoff (00:02:55)
  • Change in the Air (00:8:13)
  • Protest Culture (00:10:17)
  • History of Hong Kong (00:14:45)
  • Tensions High (00:18:17)
  • Eruption of Violence (00:24:43)
  • Jimmy Lai’s Story (00:30:59)
  • Controversial Olympics (00:41:14)
  • Committee for Freedom (00:48:31)

Guest Bio:

Mark L. Clifford, Ph.D., is the president of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong and an award-winning writer. He is a former board member of Next Digital, the largest media company in Hong Kong, and owner of the pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily.

In addition, Clifford has served as the executive director of the Asia Business Council and editor-in-chief of The Standard and the South China Morning Post in Hong Kong. He has written for The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, and CNN and won several academic, book, and journalism awards.

Resources Mentioned:

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Read Transcript

MARK CLIFFORD: It wasn’t so long ago that Mao killed somewhere around 50 million people through starvation in political campaigns. China is capable of this kind of totalitarian behavior, and we’ve got to confront it. We’ve got to try to expose it for what it is. And we have to try to starve the beast — as it were — of the money, ideas, technology and even the markets that it needs to keep growing.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: My guest today is Mark Clifford. Mark is president of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong. His latest book, Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow the World: What China’s Crackdown Reveals About Its Plans to End Freedom Everywhere, is causing big waves around the world. A resident of Hong Kong for close to 30 years, Mark gives us a gripping history of China’s deteriorating relationship with Hong Kong and its implications for the rest of the world.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: I recently sat down with Mark, and we talked about how a city once famed for protests so peaceful that toddlers joined grandparents at rallies became a place where police have fired tear gas, rubber bullets and even live ammunition at their neighbors.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Mark, thanks for coming on the show. I greatly appreciate it.

MARK CLIFFORD: Thank you, Charles. It’s a real pleasure to talk to you.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Mark’s latest book is Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow the World: What China’s Crackdown Reveals About Its Plans to End Freedom Everywhere. Mark, I want to tell you: This book is a bit chilling — to say the least.

MARK CLIFFORD: Well, my experience over the last couple of years — being on the sharp end of the Chinese stick as it punished Hong Kong and the company that I was involved with — has been pretty chilling, too. And I think people should know about that.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah. So, you speak from authority — in the sense that you lived in Hong Kong for close to 30 years. And what was your position there?

MARK CLIFFORD: I did a number of things. I was the editor-in-chief of both English-language newspapers there. I ran a pan-Asian business association of CEOs. And I was on the board of Next Digital — the company that published the pro-democracy newspaper known as Apple Daily — which was shut down by the government in an extraordinary turn of events.

MARK CLIFFORD: Right now, we have seven people in jail. And even if people are listening to this a bit later, it’s pretty unlikely that they’re getting out of jail any time soon. Most of them are being held without bail — with no trial, of course. They’re essentially judged as guilty on this vague and sweeping national security law that has chilled Hong Kong.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: OK, let’s set the stage for where we are today and where we were prior to 2019 — when China decided not to honor the agreement it made back in … when was it?

MARK CLIFFORD: They made the agreement in the 1980s. But the key moment was in 1997 — when Britain gave Hong Kong back to China. It had been a colony for 115 years.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: If I’m not mistaken, it was 1984 when I heard that Hong Kong was going to be given back to the Chinese by the British. And the handoff was supposed to take place in 1997. At the time, Hong Kong was … well, I’m not going to do it any justice. What was Hong Kong?

MARK CLIFFORD: Hong Kong was one of the freest, most open places in the world — certainly economically. It was a kind of “anything goes,” wild, wild East environment. It was on the edge of China but benefited from British rule of law, administration, justice and, above all, civil liberty: free speech, freedom of worship, freedom of assembly — all the freedoms that you and I would take for granted here in the States.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: I was in Hong Kong in 2016, and it was such a happening place. It was so cosmopolitan. I remember that upstairs in the hotel, where we had drinks, there were people from Germany, France and all parts of the world sitting down together. We were sharing a drink. Looking out the window at the harbor, you saw boats going to America — going everywhere. Goods were being produced in China and sent out.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: You were at the focal point of capitalism and freedom. I don’t want to say it was idyllic, but you couldn’t pick a better place on Earth — in terms of having such a beautiful mix of vibrancy, freedom and capitalism. Am I sizing that up? You lived there for 30 years, and I didn’t.

MARK CLIFFORD: It was pretty idyllic. You mentioned the harbor and sitting up in a building. There are 7.5 million people crammed into a buildable area that’s much smaller than New York. And overlooking this extraordinary harbor is a series of islands and steep mountains — up to 3,000-foot peaks. So, it’s a mixture of San Francisco and Manhattan. But as you said, it’s perhaps the most cosmopolitan place on Earth. There were people from everywhere.

MARK CLIFFORD: And it wasn’t just East-meets-West. It was East-meets-West-meets-North-meets-South. And because it was the free place on the edge of China, it’s where a lot of money, ideas and goods transited to and from China. It was like nowhere else on Earth. And I think that, because it represented freedom, it was seen as a challenge to China.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, when China took over in 1997, it made a statement that Hong Kong was going to remain what it was, right? Two systems?

MARK CLIFFORD: “One country, two systems” — a Chinese system in the mainland and the capitalist-British-style system in Hong Kong.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Right, OK. So, you had this agreement — it was really a carving-out. In Hong Kong, you had democracy through all the years and a thriving business community. And the people were just wonderful.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: I remember when we flew in. I had never been there. So, the black cabs with the steering wheel on the other side — for us Americans — had such a taste of England. And yet, it had its own unique flavor. The person I was with lived in Hong Kong. He kept telling me: “See that? That was a fishing village 50 or 60 years ago” and “My parents owned that.” Looking at what Hong Kong is [now], you can’t visualize what it used to be.

MARK CLIFFORD: Just one clarification: It was free, but there wasn’t democracy. And I think this was the problem. The Brits held off until very late. It was the last governor, Chris Patten, who tried to introduce more democracy. Part of the slowness was the British colonial establishment, but people forget that much of it was also China. Every time Britain tried to introduce more democracy, China told it to back off. China was very threatening. It didn’t want democracy.

MARK CLIFFORD: But China promised that, after 1997, the people of Hong Kong would be able to have universal suffrage. And it was not a country, right? It was a city. So, what that meant in practice was that someday — under the Chinese — the people of Hong Kong were supposed to be able to elect their mayor and city council.

MARK CLIFFORD: We call it the “Chief Executive” and “Legislative Council.” That’s what this whole thing was about: The right to elect the mayor and city council and be free — to not have to worry about the midnight knock at the door from the jackboots.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: OK. So, now the economy is doing great. People are doing great. It’s an amazing, happening place. It’s cosmopolitan. All of that comes to a crashing halt … When do you start seeing the change?

MARK CLIFFORD: Immediately after 1997, it was clear that they were communists. They couldn’t help it. [China] killed its own students in the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. And almost immediately, it started trying to introduce national security legislation in Hong Kong. And fair enough, every country has national security legislation. The laws were outdated. But the people in Hong Kong didn’t trust the communist Chinese to do the right thing. And about a half a million people came out in the streets in 2003.

MARK CLIFFORD: I think this really shocked the Chinese. They seemed to have this naive idea that, after the handover from the British, the newly-liberated Hong Kong people would be so grateful to the leadership in Beijing for having removed the yoke of colonialism that they would embrace everything Chinese — communist or not.

MARK CLIFFORD: Obviously, the people in Hong Kong, who were used to freedom — if they didn’t have democracy, they had freedom — weren’t going to take that lying down. And so, you had a half a million people come out in the streets in 2003 and a series of demonstrations over the years. Demonstrations and protests became part of the Hong Kong culture.

MARK CLIFFORD: But things came to a climax over the last decade. First, we had the so-called “Umbrella Movement” of 2014 — when students took to the streets and basically had a sit-in in downtown Hong Kong for 79 days. Interestingly, the government refused to negotiate. And we were stalemated for a few years. And then, in 2019, things really hit the fan.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: By the way, prior to 2019, these demonstrations — from what I knew of, and you can tell me otherwise — had no rubber bullets, tear gas or any ways to disperse the crowds. Parents would bring their small children in baby carriages. It was peaceful. There was mutual respect. It was within the rights of the people — or so they thought — to demonstrate. You didn’t have to worry about your security or risk being arrested. Is that accurate?

MARK CLIFFORD: Absolutely. The demonstrations in Hong Kong were among the most peaceful anywhere in the world. It was everybody from eight weeks old to 88 years old — probably older. Everybody came out. It was a family affair. And it wasn’t surprising because in every single free election that Hong Kong had — starting in 1991 and ending in 2019 — roughly 6 out of 10 people voted for the pro-democracy candidates. It was very clear: Hong Kong people wanted democracy. So, this wasn’t some fringe movement. And you saw that in the streets. There was never a window broken, and there was basically no litter left. It was extraordinarily peaceful.

MARK CLIFFORD: That started to change in 2014. That was the beginning of the Umbrella Movement. The firing of police tear gas sparked a lot of anger. And it set the pattern for the police. They went from [the most] regarded — they were often called “Asia’s finest” — to the most hated group in Hong Kong. It’s really sad because the police used to be seen as protectors. And, as you say, they were just helping people exercise their right to demonstrate and … No more.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Why was it called the Umbrella Movement?

MARK CLIFFORD: Because as the first 87 rounds of tear gas were fired — late in September 2014 — some people put up umbrellas to try to protect themselves from the tear gas. It was not very effective, but it did make for a good photo. And one of those [photos] was the yellow umbrella of a lone protester, vainly holding up his umbrella as the clouds of tear gas enveloped him. It was a picture that went around the world, and it became the Umbrella Movement.

MARK CLIFFORD: That shows you that these were not violent people. They were coming to the demonstrations with umbrellas. And it turned out that they weren’t much protection against water cannons, pepper spray, rubber bullets and sometimes live bullets.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Let’s fast forward to 2019. Everything changes. Actually, before we go into 2019, did anyone think that the mighty dragon was going to let Hong Kong exist the way it did for close to 60 or 70 years? Did anyone think that was going to be possible?

MARK CLIFFORD: In retrospect, it’s easy to say: “How could you possibly think that the communist Chinese would really allow democracy? OK, they signed an international treaty with the British in 1984. They had a mini constitution for the Hong Kong people filled with great promises. But who could possibly believe them?”

MARK CLIFFORD: Well, I think the China of the 1980s and 1990s was a more hopeful time. It was a time when China was continuing to open. Economically, it was growing very rapidly. It was trying to get into the World Trade Organization and trying to get the Olympics. The first of the Olympics — the 2008 Olympics — were awarded a few years after the 1997 handover. And I think people wanted to believe. People even believe that Hong Kong might set the pattern for China.

MARK CLIFFORD: And Jiang Zemin, who was the president of China in the 1990s, famously said — and it’s the title of one of the chapters in my book: “[The] river water does not mix with well water.” What he meant was Hong Kong shouldn’t mix with the mainland because Hong Kong might infect the mainland with its principles of freedom. So, things were more in flux in China than they are now. And it wasn’t clear that they would go down this totalitarian road.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, just a history lesson for me … In 1898, Britain got the lease on Hong Kong. The only time it was under occupation was during WWII — by the Japanese. So, from 1898 to 1941, it was a British colony. And then, from 1945 to 1997, it remained a British colony.

MARK CLIFFORD: A little more history … Britain took over Hong Kong Island itself in 1841, during the First Opium War. Then, it got another chunk of territory in 1860 during the Second Opium War. And those were both supposed to be forever, in perpetuity.

MARK CLIFFORD: Then, in 1898, it got this bit of land that had the 99-year lease, thus setting the way for the handover. So, it was actually 156 years of British rule — a long time. It was punctuated by the first British defeat since the American Revolution — when the Japanese came in 1941.

MARK CLIFFORD: So, it was a long time to be a British colony. And while people were throwing off their colonial yokes, getting rid of their colonial masters and becoming independent everywhere else in the world, that was never an option for Hong Kong. Hong Kong had another 40 or 50 years of colonialism after most other Asian countries had gotten their independence.

MARK CLIFFORD: So, it was this weird, long colonial twilight. [Hong Kong] was able to develop without having to worry about a lot of things because the British were protecting it. And so, it developed a very robust, open and free civil society — particularly in the last 10 or 15 years of British rule.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: 20 years ago — when you mentioned that it had the protests — I remember thinking that Hong Kong would never kill the goose that laid the golden egg. There was too much money there. There was too much vibrancy. The world wouldn’t stand for it. It was thriving. It was making money. And why would China ever do something to destroy that?

MARK CLIFFORD: Well, now we’ve got a totalitarian leader — Xi Jinping — who wants it both ways. He wants vibrancy, creativity, innovation and a new economy. And at the same time, he wants absolute control. I think this is obviously a major problem for Hong Kong, but it’s a big problem for China as well. Because the kind of growth ambitions it has depends upon a more open society and freer flow of information.

MARK CLIFFORD: I’m already hearing that people in China — particularly the elite — might not like the COVID-19 restrictions, but they are increasingly concerned about being cut off from the flow of people, ideas, knowledge and technology. So, Hong Kong is the canary in the coal mine. We see not only how China wants to behave when it comes to the rest of the world but also the costs and damage that Hong Kong has endured. And it’s going to start spreading to the mainland more broadly.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: OK. So, in 2019, everything changes. And you are upfront and personal with this one. Your book does a great job in the first chapter. You really suck the reader in. You’re walking through the streets, and things are not good. It’s June 4th, 2019 — the 30th anniversary of the killings near Tiananmen Square. I’m going to let you set the stage.

MARK CLIFFORD: Yeah. So, every year on June 4th, there has been a vigil at Victoria Park — named after Queen Victoria, the reigning British queen when Hong Kong was taken. Sometimes, there’d be a few thousand people. Sometimes, there might be tens of thousands of people. And in 2019, there were about 150,000 people. It was packed. But again, it was very peaceful. There were families.

MARK CLIFFORD: In the subway, on the way home, I saw a man with his young son. And the son was watching the Tank Man video — the Tiananmen video where the lone protester stands in front of a tank and stops it from going down Chang’an Avenue right after the killings. The kid was about six years old and still wearing a schoolboy uniform — white shorts and white shirt. And I said: “Hey, what’s going on?” And the guy, who was in his mid- to late-30s said: “We can’t forget our history. We have to remember our history.”

MARK CLIFFORD: I thought: “Wow, these guys have just lost another generation.” The father was probably in his mid- to late-30s. So, he would’ve been about his son’s age at the time of the Tiananmen killings.

MARK CLIFFORD: Here we are, a generation later, and a six-year-old school boy is watching the Tank Man video to learn how his government — the bosses up in Beijing — run things. And if it means running over a protester — the guy in the video was not run over — they’ll do that. And on the other hand, the kid was learning that you could stand up to these people and protest. They had just come from the Tiananmen vigil.

MARK CLIFFORD: So, that was an interesting sign for me. It showed that tensions were running high. Because a new bill had been introduced, which would allow “the river water to mix with the well water,” as it were, and allow extradition from Hong Kong to China. And although they’re part of the same country, there’s a hard border control. It’s harder to go from Hong Kong to China than it is from the United States to Canada. Hong Kong has its own currency, tax system, government and laws.

MARK CLIFFORD: The idea that somebody could be extradited into the so-called “judicial system” in China was too much for Hong Kong people. It was too much for a lot of business people, too. Because most Hong Kong business people have done business in the mainland.

MARK CLIFFORD: Business in the mainland is opaque and relies on bureaucratic discretion — which means it’s an invitation to bribery and corruption. Hong Kong businessmen did not want the threat of being extradited into China because they made somebody mad — even if they hadn’t done anything illegal. So, there was a lot of quiet business support in the form of money.

MARK CLIFFORD: That night, there were 150,000 people in the street. The following Sunday — I think it was June 9th — there was the first big rally against this extradition bill, and there were 1 million people on the street. One million people in a city of 7.5 million people.

MARK CLIFFORD: And people from Mainland China weren’t coming to these demonstrations. The following weekend, the government said that it would shelf the bill. And still, the next day, 2 million people came out. Can you imagine? Two million people in a city of 7.5 million. Proportionally, it’s sort of like 80 million Americans descending on Washington.

MARK CLIFFORD: So, the government realized that it was in deep trouble. In an open society, when the government fell, someone would get elected as the new prime minister with a new government, or the government would negotiate.

MARK CLIFFORD: Generally, when most people don’t like what you’re doing in your government, you negotiate. And remember, this is about pretty minor stuff — an extradition bill here and electing the mayor in the city council there.

MARK CLIFFORD: But what did Hong Kong do? It doubled down. And the police violence escalated dramatically. In fact, in the week between the demonstration of 1 million people and the demonstration of 2 million people, the police had been particularly ferocious and brutal. Actually, a report by a human rights group came out that was called: “How Not to Police a Protest.” It was appalling.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Let me interject for a second. Were these Hong Kong policemen?

MARK CLIFFORD: That’s a great question. Yes, they were Hong Kong policemen. There may have been some mainlanders. My understanding now is that there are a lot of mainlanders in the force. And that certainly seems [true] when you look at how they walk and their physiques.

MARK CLIFFORD: And more importantly — this is interesting to me, at least — the senior Hong Kong police had, in many cases, been groomed in the mainland for decades. They had been going to the mainland police and were seconded there. They’d been training there.

MARK CLIFFORD: Interestingly, the Communist Party is an underground party in Hong Kong. So, we don’t actually know who is a member. But we’re pretty sure they’ve been ideologically indoctrinated — if not inducted — into the party. So, although they were Hong Kong police, they weren’t really Hong Kongers anymore. I think they’ve been “mainland-ized,” as we would say, by the Communist Party in mainland China.

MARK CLIFFORD: But it was a whole different world from what we’d seen before. I saw it on the streets. It used to be that you could talk to the police. They were very friendly and seemed like they were there to help ensure that everyone was safe, healthy and happy before they protested and went home. Well, no more. They wouldn’t talk to you. They wouldn’t meet your eye. I first noticed this at that demonstration in June 2019.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, when did the wheels come off the cart? When did it start escalating? When did we start seeing the violence? What precipitated that?

MARK CLIFFORD: Well, I think the fact that the police were so heavy-handed enraged ordinary Hong Kongers. And for the first time that summer, significant numbers of Hong Kongers said, in opinion polls, that they believed violence was necessary — in some cases — to affect political change. And again, this is one of the most peaceful, law-abiding and practically crime-free places in the world. But I think it was the government response.

MARK CLIFFORD: Where I think the wheels really came off — and the pro-Beijing people would have a different answer — was in late July, in a kind of remote town. It was one of the satellite towns that was, like your friend said, a fishing village 50 or 60 years ago. They built these huge towns to house people.

MARK CLIFFORD: And a group of thugs — they’re called “triads” — probably run most of the organized crime in Hong Kong. They often work closely with the police — or they have, historically.

MARK CLIFFORD: And they attacked a group of innocent people who were getting off the subway at the end of the line. Some of them had been coming from demonstrations, and some were just coming home from work. They beat a pregnant woman. The scenes were appalling. Everybody knew — for hours ahead — that something was going to happen in the town Yuen Long that day. But somehow, the police were nowhere to be seen. This was a place where you called the police and they were everywhere. It was very well policed.

MARK CLIFFORD: Police show up half an hour later. A local pro-Beijing legislator shows up and is joking with the guys who’ve been doing the beating. And he seems to be congratulating them on video. There’s no accounting for that.

MARK CLIFFORD: In fact, a journalist — who used public information to track down some of the license plates of those involved — was prosecuted and put in jail. Actually, I’m not sure she was jailed — she was prosecuted and convicted.

MARK CLIFFORD: So, I would say that the Yuen Long attack — where you seemingly have the government and organized crime in a mob attack to beat civilians and cover it up — was a significant turning point. There were others as well. There was something a month later.

MARK CLIFFORD: And again, this was all on video. Much of it was captured by the brave journalists of Apple Daily and pro-democracy publications in Hong Kong. The police stormed into these subway cars and started beating the holy crap out of people. It was unbelievable footage. It looked like a group of thugs — something you’d see in some Third World horror movie.

MARK CLIFFORD: This was happening in Hong Kong. It’s a small city with a lot of communication. A lot of this was live-streamed and photographed. People were like: “Our own government is beating us and our kids?”

CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, what happened next?

MARK CLIFFORD: Interestingly, there was a series of events that were increasingly violent. And the city came close to a standstill. There was a siege of one of the universities. The kids were using slingshots, bows, arrows, flaming bows and arrows, Molotov cocktails and all sorts of crazy things. Not nice. But again, the government was not negotiating at all.

MARK CLIFFORD: The siege ended. Quite a few people were arrested. Amazingly, almost no one was killed throughout all this violence. Someone was killed by a rock thrown by demonstrators — tragically and horribly. There were also a number of suicides and some unexplained deaths. But anyway, it was more property damage than anything else.

MARK CLIFFORD: But interestingly, on November 19 — after about five months of intense and escalating demonstrations — elections were held. They were District Council elections. It’s one level down from the city council — like a ward politician.

MARK CLIFFORD: Of course, the Beijing people thought that with all this violence — Hong Kong is conservative — there was a silent majority of pro-Beijing people. Again, the pro-Democrats got 6 out of 10 votes. They swept the elections. The turnout was incredibly high. This gave them political power at a grassroots level that they’d never had before. But it also gave them a lot of say in electing the next Chief Executive.

MARK CLIFFORD: This stunned Beijing. So, what stopped the violence were elections. Isn’t that what democracy is about? I don’t want to be fighting. If you and I disagree, I don’t want to be fighting you out on the streets. We’ll have a vote. We’ll have a competition of ideas. It’s sometimes better in theory than in practice, but it’s better than fighting people in the streets. So, I think the elections were a really important circuit breaker in this.

MARK CLIFFORD: But again, rather than Beijing, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong — Carrie Lam — said: “OK, you made your point. We’ve had this horrible summer. We’ve had these demonstrations. Some people have died. A lot of people have been hurt. 10,000-plus have been arrested. Yeah, maybe we should listen to what the people want.” And now, the people have voted. It’s very clear what they want.

MARK CLIFFORD: But instead of doing that, Beijing doubled down. It sent a couple of hardline guys to take over key Chinese government posts. And these guys … One of them made his career busting up Christian churches in an interior province of Zhejiang. This was a guy who was a cross-breaker.

MARK CLIFFORD: The other guy was a similarly hardline Communist Party apparatchik. You send people like that down to Hong Kong and you’re going to get more hardline tactics. And six months later, we had a national security law — which is the reason my colleagues are in jail right now.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Who’s actually in jail? Who are the seven people in jail?

MARK CLIFFORD: The most notable is Jimmy Lai — who was the founder of Apple Daily. He has a remarkable story. I’ll tell you a little about the other six, but let me spend a few minutes on Jimmy.

MARK CLIFFORD: Jimmy came to Hong Kong as an illegal immigrant at the age of 12, smuggled in on the floor of a small fishing boat. First, he went into Macao and then across the Pearl River Delta. He was a child laborer. He lived in a textile factory and taught himself English by reading the dictionary. He doesn’t have anything more than a fifth-grade education, but he was one of the great Hong Kong success stories.

MARK CLIFFORD: He ended up doing well enough that he became an owner of a textile factory. And from there, he went on to fast fashion. He founded a retail chain called Giordano — which is like Uniqlo or H&M. It was before its time in the 1980s. It was a publicly-traded company. He was a Hong Kong guy. Hong Kong had been great to him. He came there when he was a kid. It made him. And then, the events of June 1989 — when the Chinese killed so many students and pro-democracy demonstrators in Beijing — radicalized him.

MARK CLIFFORD: He said: “OK, I’m going to start a magazine.” Pretty quickly, his next magazine became the No. 2 magazine in Hong Kong. It was a mixture of paparazzi and celebrity gossip with a pro-democracy bend. He was a very outspoken guy. And in 1993 — four years after the Tiananmen killings — he penned an editorial column attacking Lee Pung, the premier of China, as the “Butcher of Beijing.”

MARK CLIFFORD: And the Chinese government reacted with absolute fury. It started finding all sorts of reasons to harass his clothing business — for the stores he had in the mainland. The mainland was just opening up. Everybody wanted to get to the mainland to get rich with their businesses. And eventually, Jimmy had to choose: Do I go in on this fledgling little magazine, or do I stick with this publicly-traded company? I’ve got shares in it that are worth hundreds of millions of dollars.

MARK CLIFFORD: And he did what almost nobody ever does [when up] against the Chinese. He said: “Forget it. I don’t care about my business interests.” He sold his shares and got out of business. And he was basically untouchable by the Chinese in his media business in Hong Kong.

MARK CLIFFORD: Then, he doubled down and opened the newspaper Apple Daily — which has nothing to do with the Apple computer. He’s a Catholic. And he said: “Well, Eve ate the apple. And without the apple and this knowledge, there would be no news. So, let’s call it Apple Daily news.” Then, he did the same thing in Taiwan — which he mistakenly thought was going to pave the way for democracy in the mainland.

MARK CLIFFORD: So, he became a really successful publisher. But he irked the Chinese too much because he was so pro-democracy. The first time I met him was in 1993, before he started the newspaper. He was explaining why he’d do it and said: “Look, 1997 is coming. All the other media owners are running scared. They’re not going to give the Hong Kong people — the Hong Kong consumer — what she or he wants. I’m going to open up a newspaper that gives them what they want.”

MARK CLIFFORD: And he did. And that was too much of a challenge for the authorities. But for 26 years, he published. And for that, he’s in jail.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, you worked for the Next Digital? That’s how he was your colleague?

MARK CLIFFORD: I was on the board of directors. I was an independent member of the independent non-executive directors. So, I was not running day-to-day operations. I wasn’t in the newsroom. I was actually in there to help transition from print to digital.

MARK CLIFFORD: By the time we were closed, we had 600,000 paying digital subscribers in a city of 7.5 million people. So, we were pretty proud of that. But the government came in and froze our bank accounts. Jimmy was already in jail.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Let me just get the timeline on this. So, this was happening in August?

MARK CLIFFORD: The first raid was in August 2020 — right after the national security law [went into effect]. Jimmy ended up being denied bail and put in jail one year ago this December. And then, [there was a raid] last June. So, about eight months ago, 550 armed police members came in and took away the CEO and the editor in chief. They rounded up some editorial writers — including one guy that they stopped at the airport. He was on his way to London. There are seven of them in jail. So, right now, it’s the Apple Daily seven.

MARK CLIFFORD: And other than Jimmy — who has been convicted on some pretty bogus charges, such as lighting a candle — nobody else has been tried, let alone convicted. They’re being held indefinitely under this vague and sweeping national security legislation. Their crime seems to be that they believed in democracy and reached out to supporters and the rest of the world.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: And Jimmy’s not a young kid. He’s a 74-year-old man. He’s in jail and is languishing there. And that’s where he’s going to be staying for what seems like the foreseeable future.

MARK CLIFFORD: Yeah. He’s a 74-year-old diabetic. He’s a devout Roman Catholic and sustained by his faith. He always preached nonviolence. And yet, every time they produce him for one of the court appearances, they put about 35 pounds of shackles on him. They make him shuffle around and try to humiliate him.

MARK CLIFFORD: Going back to something you said at the beginning … For a long time, Hong Kong had been this free and open place. If you think about it, Jimmy and his colleagues have been doing the same thing for 26 years. And it was fine. Then, one day, it wasn’t fine.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: I want to interrupt you for a second. I’m sorry, Mark. I think this is really important for listeners to know. And I didn’t know a lot of this until I started doing research for the show. Hong Kong is the world’s tenth-largest exporter and ninth-largest importer. It has a major capitalist service economy, characterized by low taxation and free trade. And the Hong Kong dollar is the eighth-most-traded currency in the world.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: It’s an island of 7 million people. It’s the home of the third-highest number of billionaires in any city in the world. There must be something in the water. It has the second-highest number of billionaires of any city in Asia and the largest concentration of ultra-high-net-worth individuals of any city in the world.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: The city has one of the highest per-capita incomes in the world. And it’s this tiny place where they’ve been doing this for the past 70 years. Jimmy and his crew weren’t doing anything exceptional — or so they thought — until it became something.

MARK CLIFFORD: Yeah, thanks. I think those are really important numbers. This concentration of entrepreneurial energy and capitalist spirit needs freedom to survive. And it’ll be interesting because there are still a lot of billionaires and rich people there. They also like stability and predictability. But it’ll be interesting for them to be in a place where you don’t have a free flow of information anymore. So, we’ll see how far Hong Kong gets.

MARK CLIFFORD: But Jimmy and those guys were just doing what they’d been doing for 26 years. I don’t think we’ve ever seen a free, prosperous, modern city that saw its freedoms destroyed overnight. Even Stalin took advantage of a post-war period where Soviet troops were already in Eastern Europe before he took over. What was the reason for China doing this?

CHARLES MIZRAHI: OK. Let me add two more things before I ask you a question. Because I think this is fascinating. The city has the largest number of skyscrapers in the world. And its residents have some of the highest life expectancies in the world. The dense space has led to a highly developed transportation network — with public transport rates exceeding 90%. Hong Kong is ranked fourth in the Global Financial Centers Index. Amazing.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Now, during this time, I remember seeing a statue —or some type of figure — of the Statue of Liberty at one of the protests. And I recall the Hong Kong people asking the United States for help. Am I getting that right?

MARK CLIFFORD: Yeah. I think Hong Kong and Taiwan are two of the only places in the world that, if they could have voted in the 2020 U.S. election, would have overwhelmingly voted for Donald Trump. I think they felt that the Trump administration saw more clearly than its predecessors the clear and present danger that China faces. And at the demonstrations, there were dozens of U.S. flags. There was important legislation going through the U.S. Congress in late 2019.

MARK CLIFFORD: I think that, to some degree, Hong Kongers still look to the U.S. for protection. The U.S.’s options and power have shown to be less than what the Hong Kong people would have liked. But I don’t think that game is over yet, either.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: OK. So, we recently had the Olympics in China for the whole world to see. At the time, Nancy Pelosi said that athletes should not speak out against the Chinese government — even though there were 5 million Uyghurs in prison and concentration camps. Hong Kong has been trampled upon. Innocent people were in jail. What is the world doing to turn the tide? Are they doing anything?

MARK CLIFFORD: That’s a great question. We’re now in a stage where we’ve seen some initial legislation and sanctions — particularly against senior officials in China and Hong Kong, who are involved with the atrocities against the Uyghurs.

MARK CLIFFORD: By the way, I think that at any given time, there are probably close to 1 million workers in internment camps. Whatever the exact number is … Even one would be too many. This is the largest internment we’ve seen since the Nazi period.

MARK CLIFFORD: The Hong Kong stuff we can see a little more clearly because there’s more media in Hong Kong. They’re very connected to the rest of the world — at least for now. But the Uyghurs are living in this very remote, western area of China and are subjected to horrific prison conditions. They’re not even formally considered prisoners. They just can’t leave. And they’re locked up, raped and tortured. It’s all in an attempt to exterminate their culture and way of life.

MARK CLIFFORD: And the world is coming to grips with that. There are a lot of people in denial still. They don’t think it’s that bad. Or, they say: “What do you expect of the communist Chinese?” Or, they still want to believe there’s some reform going on. I think this is where America is going to have to start confronting some issues. There are businesses that think the Chinese market or production is too important to not engage on its terms.

MARK CLIFFORD: As Americans, we have to start thinking about whether or not we want [to take] pension funds from healthcare workers, ambulance drivers, firemen and policewomen. Do we want that money going into China? Do we want to embolden the military capabilities of a country that has basically said it’s going to confront and dislodge us?

CHARLES MIZRAHI: But Mark, we’re in a situation where Intel put out a memo about suppliers and sourcing its inventory from the area where the Uyghurs are from. And it had to walk that back. Other major corporations had to walk back on anything dealing with human rights for people under Chinese control.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: So, here you have major corporations … Forget about pension funds and investing there. Here, the supply lines are so delicate. Through COVID-19, we’ve seen how many of our pharmaceuticals, everyday items, printed books and electronics are made in China. These kinds of atrocities are being overlooked. Is that a fair statement?

MARK CLIFFORD: Yeah. We need to make not only your listeners — who are probably very educated people who know much of this — but Americans at large realize where stuff is coming from and the compromises that companies have made.

MARK CLIFFORD: I’m thinking of Daryl Morey from the Houston Rockets, who tweeted an innocent statement: “Stand with Hong Kong.” It was a general expression of support for democracy and freedom. But it cost the NBA billions of dollars. It probably cost Morey his job.

MARK CLIFFORD: And here we are. The NBA — which can stand for Black Lives Matter and all sorts of great issues domestically — doesn’t want to stand up to China. Well, I think we’ve got to start standing up to China — or else China is going to flatten us.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: I remember my father used to say: “When it’s either the principles or the money, it’s always the money.” It’s never the principles. Everyone likes to say: “It’s the principle of the matter.” But when big money is involved, it’s always the money. Unfortunately, that’s the way of the world, and we’re seeing this here.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Having lost my grandmother’s family in the Holocaust to the Nazis, I find it amazing that the world could participate in the 1936 Berlin Olympics — where Jews were not allowed to participate, Hitler walked out and Jesse Owens was put to the side. Marty Glickman, a Jewish runner, was supposed to run. And he lost the opportunity to win a medal. All of this was to appease a dictator who was not hiding what he was going to do. For that brief span of time, the world came together. I think the Winter Olympics were in Germany as well. And here — nothing.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: It reminds me of what Elie Wiesel, a Holocaust survivor, said when he was asked: “What can the world learn from the Holocaust?” He said that “you can get away with it.” And it seems like, at this point in time, China is following the same playbook. It’s getting away with it. How would you respond to that?

MARK CLIFFORD: It is. I think we need to raise awareness for these atrocities. As you know, it took a long time for people to believe that Nazi death camps existed. The level of denial that most of us have is kind of human nature. Why rock the boat? People have all sorts of reasons for why they don’t want to make tough choices. And it will be a tough choice to start disengaging from China. But as you said, when it’s money — especially big money — [on the line] it triumphs over principles.

MARK CLIFFORD: I think something that’s unique to the United States is it’s big enough, powerful enough and has such a powerful strain of liberty, justice and freedom in its DNA — and, of course, our constitution — that sometimes, we do the right thing. And we’re seeing a real consensus in Congress — and among the American people — that we need to have a much tougher attitude toward China.

MARK CLIFFORD: It’s like turning an aircraft carrier. You don’t do it on a dime. It’s going to take concerted action over many years — if not decades. This is a long struggle, but I think we can prevail. We have to prevail. People don’t demonstrate in the streets for more autocracy. They don’t go out and demonstrate in the Red Square or Tiananmen Square, saying: “Bring on the dictatorship!” It doesn’t happen. People want freedom.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Mark, you are president of the Committee for Freedom in Hong Kong. Tell me what that is and what you plan on doing. Well, it’s obvious, right? Gain freedom in Hong Kong. But what are you doing toward that end? And who is helping you?

MARK CLIFFORD: We were set up about a year ago because our friends, colleagues and other Hong Kong people were in jail. And we thought: “This is crazy.” You go from this — I don’t want to over-romanticize it — very beautiful, free-wheeling and open city to one where people you know are thrown in jail because the communist overlords decide that they can and don’t like what they’re doing.

MARK CLIFFORD: And whether they published a newspaper for 26 years or were in politics, they go in — sometimes in the dead of night — drag people out and throw them in jail. We thought: “We have to try to do something about this.”

MARK CLIFFORD: So, we’re very focused on political prisoners. We love to see them released. That’s our goal: released to be free in Hong Kong or leave Hong Kong — if that’s what they want. And to do that, we are waging an awareness campaign and working with legislators in the U.S. and U.K for now. But I think that, over the next year, [we’ll work with legislators] in Europe — and perhaps Asia as well. Because I think governments are the ones that are going to have to make the choice.

MARK CLIFFORD: Getting back to the previous question, business is going to do what business does. I don’t think there’s going to be a lot of self-restraint on the part of businesses to not go into China, be overly reliant on it or sacrifice their ESG or human rights principles for it. So, I think we’re going to have to see government prohibitions on money, technology and, to some extent, ideas flowing in and out of China.

MARK CLIFFORD: I don’t see why we want to support someone who, I think, has an ambition to rank up there with Hitler — in terms of totalitarianism. I’m not suggesting that he’s planning to kill 6 million people. But China has done worse before.

MARK CLIFFORD: It wasn’t so long ago that Mao killed around 50 million people through starvation in political campaigns. China is capable of this kind of totalitarian behavior, and we’ve got to confront it. We’ve got to try to expose it for what it is. And we have to try to starve the beast — as it were — of the money, ideas, technology and markets that it needs to keep growing.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: And what about your contacts who are still in Hong Kong? What is the mood of the 7 million people in Hong Kong now?

MARK CLIFFORD: Well, I’ve got to be honest with you. I can’t have too much direct contact with them because I’d be putting them at risk. But I think the mood — in general, so it’s a couple of steps removed — is that they’re weary. They’re tired. They’ve been locked down for about two years for COVID-19.

MARK CLIFFORD: Hong Kong, like China, is pursuing this “zero COVID-19” policy — which means everything gets locked down. A couple of hamsters in a pet shop might have had COVID-19, so they killed all the hamsters. Now, I see a couple of cats have it. First, they came for the hamsters. Then, they came for the cats. Next, they’re coming for me. I think that’s how people feel.

MARK CLIFFORD: So, it’s a very tough time. And it’s hard to separate the national security law, restrictions and political arrests that have come with that from COVID-19 lockdowns. It’s a convenient excuse to squeeze people. People are tired, discouraged and demoralized right now.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Have you been successful in getting the word out there?

MARK CLIFFORD: There’s a great receptivity. We’ve had some campaigns around the Olympics. We showed these fantastic illuminations on a number of buildings — beginning with Tower Bridge in London, the Chinese Embassy in Washington D.C. and NBC at Rockefeller Center — calling for the release of political prisoners, an end to Chinese repression and the sponsors —NBC and the like — to pull back.

MARK CLIFFORD: I can’t say that we’ve had success in terms of behavior change, but we’ve had success in that the ratings for the Olympics are at a record low. Nobody is watching. And I think the sponsors and NBC realized that if you dance with a dictator, you’re dancing with the devil.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: It’s amazing that there are so many movements in this country on the liberal and progressive side over what most people would call ridiculous assumptions and concerns. When it comes to real human rights, where are these protests? Where are the demonstrations?

MARK CLIFFORD: Yeah. That’s something that we as a country need to grapple with — why people think human rights aren’t as important if it’s a Chinese person, Asian or somebody that’s somewhere else.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Yeah. The name of the book is Today Hong Kong, Tomorrow the World: What China’s Crackdown Reveals About Its Plans to End Freedom Everywhere. Outstanding. Mark, all the success to you. I wish you the best. Keep fighting the fight. It’s great to have a long-term horizon, but the people in jail now don’t have a long-term horizon.

MARK CLIFFORD: Yeah. Sadly, most of the people who have been jailed are under 28. So, you’ve got a lot of teenagers, kids and even young boys and girls in some cases. And they have a long fight ahead of them. I’m just old enough to remember the Berlin Wall going up in 1961. I lived in Berlin for the better part of a year in 1980 and 1981. And I never thought I’d see the Berlin Wall come down.

MARK CLIFFORD: So, you have to have a long-term perspective when you’re fighting a dictatorship. But nothing ever lasts — and certainly not autocracies. I’m not predicting the imminent collapse of China — far from that. But there are many signs of internal weakness. And I think the fact that it’s shutting itself off from the rest of the world is ultimately going to be very damaging for the country. If we can speed up that process, so much the better.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Do you fear for your safety?

MARK CLIFFORD: I’m in the States. I happened to be out of Hong Kong when Jimmy was put in jail.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Let me ask: Do you think you would have been put in jail?

MARK CLIFFORD: Well, there was a time when I was the only director who was in Hong Kong and not in jail. I think the authorities are probably happy I’m not there because arresting an American is not something they like to do. But I’m not going to chance it and go back. So, yeah, I guess I fear for my safety. But I’m not afraid because I’m in America.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Amazing. So, the committee is the Committee for the Freedom in Hong Kong. I’ll put a link to the website in the description if listeners want to get in touch, see what you’re doing or offer moral support — whatever they can do. This book is chilling because if they can take a city as great and prosperous as Hong Kong and destroy it overnight, what won’t the Chinese government do?

MARK CLIFFORD: It’s a great question. Unfortunately, we don’t know the answer. Because under Xi Jinping and the wolf warrior diplomacy, it seems like nothing is off bounds for them. It seems like they have no shame. Usually, when an Olympic host country comes up to the games, it makes nice a little bit, releases a few political prisoners and pretends that it’s on the road to reform. China doesn’t even pretend anymore.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Even the Nazis took away the signs that said “Jews can’t go into the parks” off the benches and started cleaning up some of the synagogues with graffiti. But here, it’s front and center for the world to see. And the world is yawning. So, keep fighting the good fight, and all the power to you. I wish you the best. Hopefully, you’ll prevail soon.

MARK CLIFFORD: Thank you, Charles. I really appreciate your interest. It’s been great talking to you.

CHARLES MIZRAHI: Thanks for listening to this episode of The Charles Mizrahi Show. If you’re a new listener, welcome! If you’ve been listening for a while, we’re glad to have you back. Either way, we’d love to know what you think of the show. Please leave a review if you listen on Apple Podcasts. Reviews make it easier for others to find the show. You can also see the video of the interview on The Charles Mizrahi Show channel on YouTube.

 

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