News Brief: Hong Kong Protests, China Tariffs, Placido Domingo

DAVID GREENE, HOST:

For the last 10 weeks, pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong have been demonstrating everywhere…

(SOUNDBITE OF PROTEST)

GREENE: …From the streets to Hong Kong’s bustling international airport.

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

That’s the sound of clashes between protesters and police outside the airport yesterday. All this started when the Hong Kong government proposed a law that would allow people charged of crimes to be extradited to mainland China. The protest movement has broadened now, and the demands are for true democracy in Hong Kong. The founding chairman of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy party, Martin Lee, described just how high the stakes are for protesters.

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

MARTIN: Officials in mainland China appear to be ramping up efforts to counter the narrative coming out of Hong Kong. These officials are doing things like propagating conspiracy theories about who’s behind the protests and encouraging counter demonstrations that have become violent. Yet even as China ramps up this pressure, their options are limited.

GREENE: And let’s go to China now. NPR’s correspondent in Beijing, Emily Feng, is on the line. Good morning, Emily.

EMILY FENG, BYLINE: Good morning.

GREENE: So China was doing very little publicly in the early stages of these protests – right? – almost acting like they weren’t happening. That seems to be changing.

FENG: Right. They realized the protests were not going to go away. And that poses obvious problems, but one of the bigger ones is that people back home in mainland China are going to learn of the protests, and they might be sympathetic. So now Beijing’s made this calculation. They’re going to signal to their people back home that things are under control and make sure they have the right narrative, that this is a protest that’s being organized by radical elements in Hong Kong and take the risk that they might anger protesters in Hong Kong more.

GREENE: So is that strategy working? I mean, is the narrative that the government wants people to have the one that people seem to be believing? Like, what are people saying in mainland China?

FENG: Yes, almost 100%. The widespread belief here – talking to people in Beijing – is that the Hong Kong protests are, at best, self-destructive and, at worst, criminal. And one of the most popular conspiracy theories out there right now is that the U.S. CIA was the one that incited and funded activists in China and Hong Kong to protest. And pro-Beijing supporters now have this hero to rally around because last night there were big protests again at Hong Kong’s international airport and they got really ugly.

A Hong Kong mob beat up two men they suspected of being mainland Chinese agents and even zip-tied one of them to a luggage trolley as they hit him.

GREENE: Wow.

FENG: Well, it turns out that man was an employee at one of China’s most nationalistic state tabloids. And his outspoken editor-in-chief immediately took to Twitter and Chinese social media to denounce the assault. And so when I woke up today, phrases like what a shame for Hong Kong and I support the Hong Kong police, you can beat me all you want, went viral in every single major Chinese social media platform.

GREENE: Wow. So this really is moving to a new phase. And I suppose this could get even uglier if China responds in some heavy-handed way. Is – how likely is that?

FENG: Still unlikely. But Beijing has other options at its disposal. It could put pressure on companies in Hong Kong – it already has. And most importantly, it could mobilize ordinary citizens to do Beijing’s bidding. I talked to Minxin Pei early today. He’s a politics professor at Claremont McKenna College in the U.S. And he says he can imagine a scenario in which…

MINXIN PEI: There are tens of thousands of young men. They don’t wear uniforms. They’re so upset about what’s going in Hong Kong. And somehow they become voluntary groups to maintain order. We’re talking about ordinary Chinese people, patrons, getting themselves involved in protecting Hong Kong.

FENG: So that would give Beijing plausible deniability that they have a hand in any crackdown. And it’s also why it’s so important that Beijing gets the message right in China.

GREENE: Interesting. We’ve seen reactions like that involving people that are not in uniform from countries like Russia as well. NPR’s Emily Feng talking to us about the situation in Hong Kong and the possible response from China. She’s in Beijing. Emily, thanks so much.

FENG: Thank you.

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GREENE: All right. Now we turn from China’s tensions with Hong Kong to China’s tensions with the United States.

MARTIN: So much tension. The Trump administration announced yesterday it’s going to postpone implementing new tariffs on some Chinese-made goods. These tariffs were supposed to go into effect next month, and they would’ve affected products like cellphones and laptops. And that could’ve meant higher prices on items that Americans want to buy during the holiday shopping season, which President Trump told reporters that he wants to avoid.

GREENE: All right. NPR’s Scott Horsley has been following all of this and joins us. Hey, Scott.

SCOTT HORSLEY, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: OK. So how did this postponement of these tariffs come about?

HORSLEY: Well, remember, David, the president had abruptly announced these terrorists just a few weeks ago…

GREENE: Yeah.

HORSLEY: …Out of frustration with the slow pace of trade negotiations with China. They were set to take effect on September 1, so importers and retailers were kind of bracing for that. And then yesterday morning, the president’s trade representative announced that some of the tariffs – including those on items like cellphones and laptops and also some toys and clothing and video game consoles – those tariffs would be postponed until December 15.

Now, it certainly seemed like the timing suggested the administration was trying to avoid hitting consumers during the busy Christmas shopping season. And President Trump did confirm as much when he was talking to reporters yesterday.

GREENE: But, Scott, square this for me. Wasn’t President Trump saying all along that tariffs are not hurting the U.S. economy, that China is the one being punished? Is he basically reversing that now and saying, like, oh, yeah, tariffs could actually hit American consumers?

HORSLEY: That’s right. This is a tacit acknowledgment by the president that tariffs are paid, at least in part, by Americans, not by China. Trump has long disputed that. But the administration’s actions suggest his own economic advisers know better.

GREENE: So even with this delay, I mean, this is not a full reprieve for China in any way, right?

HORSLEY: No. This is a partial reprieve. The original target list was going to hit something like $300 billion worth of Chinese imports. Something over half of that has now been postponed until mid-December. But we still have about $112 billion worth of Chinese imports that are subject to new tariffs starting on September 1. And then there were some items that the administration dropped from its tariff target list altogether including, for example, Bibles. Turns out, we buy a lot of Bibles imported from China…

GREENE: I didn’t know that.

HORSLEY: …My colleague Alina Selyukh spent some time yesterday combing through the thousands of tariff line items and it’s – it’s idiosyncratic. I mean, nuts in a shell, for example, those tariffs are going to take effect in September. But nuts that have been shelled, they get a reprieve until December.

GREENE: (Laughter) That’s amazing.

HORSLEY: If it sounds a little nutty, imagine how the retailers feel. David French is a senior vice president with the National Retail Federation.

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DAVID FRENCH: It’s very difficult to operate a retail business when you don’t know, from month to month or week to week, what the prices of your goods in the future will be.

GREENE: So could this postponement impact U.S. trade policy in some way, Scott?

HORSLEY: You know, this is not the first time the president has threatened tariffs and then backtracked. And so other countries are having to think twice. You know, do they want to call the president’s bluff or simply wait him out?

GREENE: NPR’s Scott Horsley on the president’s tariff delay. Scott, thanks.

HORSLEY: You’re welcome.

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GREENE: So one of opera’s most recognizable and popular stars is now facing allegations of sexual misconduct.

MARTIN: The Associated Press published allegations yesterday from nine women who say that Plácido Domingo sexually harassed them. They say the misconduct occurred over three decades. Not long after the AP’s story came out, the San Francisco Opera and The Philadelphia Orchestra both canceled upcoming performances by Domingo. He is one of the most powerful artists in opera, which is a highly competitive, highly insular world. And the whole thing raises questions about how serious the consequences of the allegations might be.

GREENE: All right. We’re joined by NPR’s Anastasia Tsioulcas who’s been covering this. Good morning.

ANASTASIA TSIOULCAS, BYLINE: Good morning, David.

GREENE: So, I mean, as Rachel said, some operas are already making some decisions based on these allegations. Take us through exactly what he’s been accused of here.

TSIOULCAS: Sure. The Associated Press published allegations from nine women who allege that Domingo tried to pressure them into sexual relationships in exchange for jobs and performance opportunities. And many of those stories are very similar, David. The women say the – he would persistently approach them, express interest in their careers and urge them to meet him at his apartment or hotel room. And several of the women told the AP that there was unwanted physical contact ranging from kissing and groping to unwanted sexual encounters.

As one of them said to the AP, quote, “I was totally intimidated and felt like saying no to him would be saying no to God. How do you say no to God?”

GREENE: Oh, wow. Some of the allegations – right? – go back years, like, to the ’80s…

TSIOULCAS: That’s right.

GREENE: …So are the accusers bringing evidence back from, you know – from those times?

TSIOULCAS: Well, eight of the nine women made their allegations anonymously. They told AP reporter Jocelyn Gecker that they are still fearful of professional retribution. The AP says it corroborated the women’s stories with colleagues, friends – in one case, a husband. And the AP also says it spoke to more than 30 other people who say they witnessed inappropriate behavior from Domingo.

GREENE: What is the reaction to this in the opera world?

TSIOULCAS: Well the LA Opera, where Domingo has been general director since 2003, says it’s hiring outside investigators to look into the allegations. And New York’s Metropolitan Opera says Domingo will continue to sing there at least for now. The Met says it will wait to make any final decisions until after the LA Opera issues its findings.

I think it’s important to remember, though, David, Plácido Domingo is one of the most popular and successful opera singers ever. He’s 78 years old now, but he’s still a huge box office draw. He was, of course, one of The Three Tenors, alongside the late Luciano Pavarotti and Jose Carreras. And casual fans have some very fond memories of that group. He also has a very broad career. Along with directing LA Opera, he conducts orchestras around the world. He runs a very prestigious international competition for young singers. And he holds enormous sway in the business. And this is an industry that has enough professional gatekeepers as it is. I think the stakes here are pretty high.

GREENE: And so what’s he saying?

TSIOULCAS: He issued a statement yesterday to NPR that was not exactly a denial. It says in part, quote, “the allegations are deeply troubling and, as presented, inaccurate.” He also said, “I believe that all of my interactions and relationships were always welcomed and consensual.”

GREENE: NPR’s Anastasia Tsioulcas, thanks so much for your reporting.

TSIOULCAS: Thanks for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF NILS FRAHM’S “FUNDAMENTAL VALUES”)

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