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Will Hong Kong Unravel?

A ChinaFile Conversation

On August 7, Beijing’s top official in Hong Kong, Wang Zhimin, called the protests a “life and death war” and compared them to the “color revolutions,” such as those that toppled governments in Ukraine and Georgia. Coming a week after Hong Kong police charged 44 people with rioting and days after strikes paralyzed parts of the city, the comments are the latest salvo in an intensifying dispute between Hong Kong protesters and their government. Over the last few months, millions of Hongkongers have taken to the streets—some calling for more democracy, or the shelving of a controversial extradition law, or the resignation of embattled Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Meanwhile, Beijing has hinted it’s willing to use force to break up the protests. “Should the chaos continue,” said a spokesman for Beijing’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, “it is the entire Hong Kong society that will suffer.”

What’s next for Hong Kong? And what is the likelihood the protests will end peacefully, or descend into further bloodshed? —The Editors

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No matter how the anti-extradition protests end, Hong Kong will be radically different. Many taboos that formerly constrained protesters’ actions have been broken. During the 2014 Umbrella Movement, some protesters tried to storm the National Day flag-raising ceremony in Golden Bauhinia Square on October 1, but many more protesters thought such action could trigger a furious response from Beijing, including an intervention by the People’s Liberation Army (P.L.A.). In the end, the storming did not happen, and the ceremony went uninterrupted. Also during the Umbrella Movement, some protesters tried to break into the Legislative Council—but other activists, who feared that such an act would cost the movement public sympathy, stopped them.

This time it’s different. On July 1, protesters stormed into the Legislative Council. They vandalized the meeting chamber and defaced the emblem of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region. On July 21, protesters reached the front door of the Liaison Office, the highest representative of China’s central government in Hong Kong, and defaced the national emblem with ink bombs.

After these previously inconceivable actions, public support for the protesters’ cause only grew. Establishment figures and organizations, including the Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce, echoed protesters’ demand for complete withdrawal of the extradition bill and an independent inquiry into the conflict. Thousands of bankers and civil servants rallied to make the same demands on August 1 and August 2 respectively. A survey conducted between July 24 and 26 shows that 79 percent of citizens support an independent inquiry into the conflict, and 73 percent support complete withdrawal of the extradition bill. A general strike materialized on August 5, for the first time in more than half a century.

Despite the escalation, Beijing has still refrained from deploying the P.L.A. The P.L.A. commander in Hong Kong reportedly met with a Pentagon official a day after the June 12 clash in the Admiralty neighborhood to assure him that the P.L.A. would not intervene. On August 2, when a journalist asked about the rumor of P.L.A. intervention into Hong Kong, Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Hua Chunying denounced that “they are nothing more than rumors. Such malicious rumors are designed to spread fear.” Beijing, despite its heated rhetoric against Hong Kong protesters, is still rational enough to not actually use the P.L.A. to stamp out protests and destroy Hong Kong’s status as an autonomous, international offshore financial hub serving China’s economic interests.

The recent protest is a continuity of the Umbrella Movement in 2014 and the Fishball conflict in 2016, after more than three years of tranquility bought by draconian repression. The government might once again successfully extinguish the protests through mass arrests and police brutality. But larger, more militant protests are destined to erupt in the future. Hong Kong is seeing the rise of a long resistance. It will have ups and downs, but it will never die.

Yet again on Tuesday, Beijing reiterated its strong support for embattled Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office Spokesperson Yang Guang made clear that, as far as Beijing was concerned, Lam wasn’t going anywhere. “The opposition’s scheme to force Chief Executive Carrie Lam to resign is doomed to fail!” Yang said.

Political support is one thing. Genuine authority to act is another. Only top officials in Hong Kong and Beijing know whether Lam has truly been empowered to take the bold steps needed to resolve this crisis. If she does have the power, she should act immediately and decisively. She needs to show the people of Hong Kong she is willing to take the lead in finding a compromise.

What would a negotiated compromise look like? There are four immediate steps the Hong Kong government could take:

  1. Lam should immediately announce the withdrawal of the extradition bill. If the bill is truly dead, there is no reason why it can’t be formally withdrawn. Formal withdrawal would signal that the government is serious about finding a way out of the current crisis.
  2. Lam should sack both Secretary for Security John Lee and Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng. Political accountability at the highest levels of government is long overdue, and must be part of the government’s efforts to win back public trust.
  3. The Hong Kong government should form an independent commission to investigate credible allegations of the use of force by the Hong Kong police. This move will be politically difficult. But other cities have used such a mechanism to investigate allegations of police violence in ways that have been fair to all concerned. Hong Kong can do the same.
  4. After taking these steps, Lam should form a crisis resolution committee, composed of individuals from across the political spectrum, including representatives from the protests. This committee should be charged with fostering dialogue on the current situation, and on building trust.

A true compromise will also require flexibility on the part of the democratic camp and the protest movement. Lam’s resignation, for example, is probably not achievable at this stage. And much-needed discussion on restarting the political reform process also probably has to wait until after the immediate crisis subsides.

Difficult though it may be, the protesters should respond positively to any serious offers of dialogue from the government, especially those that are backed by confidence-building measures such as those laid out above. After all, the protesters are also incentivized to negotiate. Beijing has repeatedly warned that, if necessary, it will take action to restore order. Those warnings should be taken seriously.

Lam is far from an ideal interlocutor for a protest movement that deeply dislikes and distrusts her. Still, better to deal with her directly now than to be forced to respond to an even less accommodating Beijing if and when the crisis escalates.

As Hong Kong heads towards its tenth consecutive weekend of protests, the city seems ever closer to chaos. The dominant image of Hong Kong in the world's eyes is a city shrouded in tear gas. Meanwhile, the rhetoric from Beijing has been hardening, with the latest statements indicating no mood for compromise. What’s next?

With Beijing clearly calling the shots now, it would seem their first step will be breaking the weekly cycle of protests. Beijing will have a clear deadline in mind: the 70th anniversary of the founding of the PRC in October. Beijing does not want violent protests in Hong Kong marring the ceremony. Beijing’s emphasis on the need to maintain law and order in Hong Kong, and their support for Hong Kong's police force, suggests Beijing will continue to rely on the city’s police and legal system to suppress the protests: consider recent bluster about the PLA as a none-too-subtle reminder rather than a genuine threat.

Hong Kong's police will likely abandon their previous strategy of “dispersal”—firing tear gas and rubber bullets to break up crowds of protesters—in favor of one of containment and arrest. “Banning” planned public protests means anyone participating in such gatherings will be in breach of the law and subject to arrest. We should expect the police to attempt to corral crowds and carry out mass arrests: hundreds, if necessary. If the protest is a violent one, people will be arrested for “rioting,” a serious charge carrying a jail term of up to ten years. The hope is that this strategy will result in the frontline protesters demonstrators’ being arrested and removed from the battlefield, with the majority of others—many of them university students—deterred from further protest.

The challenge police face is that protesters over the past weeks have rarely stayed still long enough to be arrested. Following their Bruce Lee inspired “Be water” philosophy, crowds disperse before police have a chance to move in: Police will need to be nimble to catch them.

Assuming the protests end, Beijing will likely address the underlying economic issues they see as driving the discontent in Hong Kong. This, as I have argued, rather misses the point. The heart of the current protests is political, not economic. Action must be taken to convince Hong Kongers that their government is listening to them. The extradition bill must be formally withdrawn. The government must appoint an independent commission of inquiry, essential to heal the rift that has grown between the police and the community. Finally, Beijing should restart political reform consultations for election of the chief executive by universal suffrage. This is the great unresolved issue from 2014’s Umbrella Movement, and has continued to drive discontent in Hong Kong.

Alas, Beijing’s latest signals suggest that no such compromises are likely. This does not bode well for the prospects of a resolution to Hong Kong’s predicament.

Beijing has issued an ultimatum to Hong Kong by labeling the months-long anti-extradition protest a “color revolution,” and by airing videos of Chinese troops and police practicing riot-control in Hong Kong-like urban settings. Those threats are unlikely to deter further protests.

If Beijing views the challenge from Hong Kong as a “battle of life and death,” so do protestors: some carry a death note in their backpacks.

And some Hong Kong youth see the anti-extradition struggle as a “last stand.” Beijing has incrementally eroded Hong Kong’s political and civil liberties for two decades. The proposed extradition bill would further undercut the city’s independent judiciary, the last firewall that protects Hong Kong from the mainland’s questionable criminal justice system.

The peaceful marching of one million on June 9 and 2 million on June 16 did not move the government. Young protestors have escalated their actions in response to government indifference. On the handover anniversary on July 1, protestors stormed and vandalized the Legislative Council building. On July 21, they defaced the national emblem outside Beijing’s Liaison Office; on August 3 and 5, they threw the national flag into the harbor in the tourist district of Tsim Sha Tsui. On August 3 and 4, teenage girls tossed bricks at police stations.

If the authorities had agreed to formally withdraw the extradition bill and open an independent investigation earlier in June, it could have avoided this escalation. Instead, the authorities have used excessive and illegitimate force to beat up and arrest protestors. Police officers have hit protestors with batons and aimed their guns with rubber bullets at protestor’s heads. They have charged at least 44 protestors with rioting, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years in jail. And since July 21, organized gangsters have been mobilized to attack black-clad protestors with wooden sticks, metal rods, and knives.

But this repressive strategy, instead of stopping the protests by arresting the roughly 1000 “violent protesters,” has only inflamed dissent. Among the 589 arrested so far include not just protestors, but also journalists, medical volunteers, and NGO observers. Indiscriminate and illegitimate police violence has only enlarged popular support for the protests, even among moderate professional groups like civil servants, finance employees, accountants, architects, surveyors, and flight attendants.

What intensified police and thug violence may achieve is to convince protestors to adjust their protest methods. On social media, protestors are discussing dispersed methods such as strikes and boycotts, which are less vulnerable to physical arrests and attacks. The general strike on August 5 successfully mobilized 350,000 people, and may be repeated. There is also talk of weekly consumer boycotts targeting pro-Beijing businesses.

For protestors, there is no retreat. They may “go home to sleep” if the PLA does roll into Hong Kong, but they will persist with different protest methods.

What’s next for Hong Kong? Probably more of the same or worse, because there is no solution in sight for the conflict-of- interests driving the current upsurge of mass dissent. Whatever underlying livelihood issues there might be, the provocations derive from Hong Kong’s relationship with Beijing. Dissent has been building since the 1980s, when Hong Kong was preparing for the 1997 return. The authorities in Beijing and their appointees in Hong Kong have engaged in a masterful exercise of kicking the can down the road for nearly 40 years.

The arguments derive from the 1997 contract Beijing struck with Hong Kong, and wrote down in the Basic Law, the territory’s constitution. It contains many promises: about universal suffrage, guarantees for the familiar rights and freedoms, that Hong Kongers would rule themselves with a “high degree of autonomy,” and so on. But it has taken two decades for everyone to understand that these promises created expectations that Beijing had no intention of fulfilling.

Beijing reserves the right to interpret the Basic Law and define what the promises mean.  Only recently have Hong Kongers realized that they and Beijing are speaking two different political languages.  As a result, Hong Kong is being forced to accept political ways that were supposed to remain in Mainland China.

Beijing appoints all of Hong Kong’s leading officials, who must speak as Beijing does. “Talking about independence,” says Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, “has nothing to do with free speech.”

Self-determination is another problematic. Local democrats adopted it thinking it was safe. But local election candidates have been disqualified on grounds that self-determination and independence are the same. Both challenge China’s rule over Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong government’s attempt to pass the extradition bill sparked the current protests. But Lam or her officials have never acknowledged that the opposition derives from fear of being subjected to mainland standards of justice. Officials continued to say that opponents were misguided and “misunderstood” the proposed legislation.

Now officials say that some protesters are advocating for regime change because they call for “liberation.” But the word protesters are using is “reclaim,” meaning to recover Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms.

Older generation pro-democracy politicians are trying to issue a correction. ‘We are not challenging Beijing’s right to rule Hong Kong,’ they say. The current protest has five demands. They include the unconditional withdrawal of the extradition bill and a relaunch of the electoral reform project abandoned in 2014.

But younger generation protesters have leverage: Officials are now essentially pleading for peace. Protesters say if they stand down, their demands will go the way of all others before them.

Everyone knows that officials intend to clear the streets before the nationwide celebrations to mark the 70th anniversary of the victory of the Chinese revolution on October 1. With no solutions in sight, Hong Kong looks set to spoil the party. Rumor has it that another big protest march is being planned for October 1.