Hong Kong in Protest

A ChinaFile Conversation

On June 16, an estimated 2 million people took to the streets to protest the Hong Kong government’s handling of a proposed extradition bill. This followed two massive demonstrations against the bill earlier in the month, including one where police used pepper spray and tear gas against protesters. The controversial bill would allow Hong Kong to extradite to the mainland those accused of crimes under the People’s Republic of China’s Communist Party-led legal system. While Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has suspended the bill, she has refused to withdraw it.

What do the protests mean for the future of Hong Kong? And what do they say about Hong Kong’s relationship with the mainland? —The Editors


What defines China? This month’s massive protests in Hong Kong, whose triumphant return from colonial rule to Chinese sovereignty in 1997 only put off the ultimate question of what happens in 2047 after the expiry of the “one country, two systems” promise, brings that question into stark focus.

With a quarter of Hong Kong’s population in the street displaying pure distrust of China’s legal system and rampant antipathy to the Communist Party and its rule, it must be clear to Beijing that there simply won’t be a smooth slide from “a high degree of autonomy” into being just a second- or third-tier Chinese city. Something will eventually have to be clarified.

Beijing politically, doctrinally, and emotionally can’t and won’t look at geographically peripheral areas like Hong Kong, Taiwan, Tibet, and Xinjiang as anything but inseparable parts of China. But what does that mean in terms of practical and pragmatic policies?

The Xinjiang answer, where authority is stamped on a people and a place with the draconian force of surveillance, repression, mass detention, and fear, is one model. It has been effective for China; its authority is clear, there’s a fearful calm, and the international community is largely muted. But Beijing must know the confluence of forces that has allowed it to have its way in its far west—the potent “anti-terrorism card,” the remoteness, the lack of regular international media scrutiny, and the ugly Islamophobia shared at least on some levels by many other governments—won’t be replicated in Hong Kong or Taiwan.

Its need for continued economic growth through Western trade and investment is also far more dependent on Hong Kong and to a lesser extent Taiwan than Xinjiang. That very need for growth sets up the conundrum, however. China’s dream of a powerful “Greater Bay Area,” with Hong Kong as one key shining star in a glittering south China conurbation of 70 million people depends on further and greater integration—integration that Hong Kong’s people showed with their passion, prayers, tears, and unity is not a dream shared on both sides of the border.

The most positive result from Beijing’s point of view is to continue the various forms of compromise that have served it well so far. In Xinjiang, the world community will fudge its principles of human rights. In Taiwan, some form of the “let’s agree to disagree on what being part of one China means” fudge will serve the pragmatists on the island and on the mainland well, even if many of the Taiwanese themselves and hawks within China’s military and Party each push for more clarity (though, of course, demanding very different results).

And in Hong Kong, the powerful push for stability, financial clarity, and freedom from bother and tumult which has motivated the territory’s elites for many decades will win out again, until the 2047 deadline for clarifying and changing the status comes too close to ignore.

But by that time, perhaps China, and the world too, will be very different.

Hong Kong protesters have once again achieved what had been unimaginable a few weeks ago: forcing the Hong Kong government (and Beijing, behind it) to back down through nonviolent resistance. Before the Hong Kong government announced the suspension of the legislative process for the extradition law amendment on June 15, Chinese Ambassador to the U.K. Liu Xiaoming distanced Beijing from the bill, saying Beijing had never directed Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to introduce it. This was obviously just a face-saving device to make the back-down look like a retreat of the Hong Kong government, not of Beijing. In late May, Politburo Standing Committee member Han Zheng, together with other high-ranking officials in charge of Hong Kong Affairs, enthusiastically backed the bill and urged Hong Kong business leaders—some of whom had expressed doubt about it—to support it. It is undeniable Beijing had been behind the bill. The defeat of the Hong Kong government by protesters is a defeat of Beijing.

Indeed, Beijing miscalculated the resistance that the bill would incite. It probably expected that following the massive crackdown on Hong Kong’s civil society after the 2014 Umbrella Movement and the 2016 Mong Kok uprising, Hong Kong society has lost its will and capacity to resist Beijing, as many core activists and leaders have been put behind bars or gone into exile.

But the resilience of Hong Kong’s civil society surprised the world. An estimated one million protesters turned out peacefully and orderly on June 9 and two million on June 16. Anonymous militant youngsters organized themselves through social media to defy tear gas and rubber bullets, effectively paralyzing the government headquarters and Legislative Council on June 12, the day when the bill was supposed to go through second reading in the Council. By the night of June 12, it was clear that there was no way the government could push through the bill without larger bloodshed.

The resistance and Beijing’s retreat illustrate two things that are worth our notice. First, Beijing still faces large constraints when cracking down on Hong Kong. It simply cannot repress Hong Kong as harshly as it represses Xinjiang and Tibet. It has had to back away from the edge of deadly conflict first in 2003 during the Article 23 legislation regarding treason and sedition, and again now. Beijing still needs international recognition of Hong Kong’s autonomy and its special trading status, and a bloody crackdown would jeopardize that recognition. Second, the younger generation of protesters, having grown up under the inspiration of the Umbrella Movement, have become the new core force of resistance. The guerrilla street battle on June 12 shows that they are more courageous, agile, and spontaneous than the Umbrella occupiers. They are the new antibody of Hong Kong society against Beijing’s encroachment. These two factors will continue shaping the course of conflict between Hong Kong society and Beijing in the years to come.

I arrived in Hong Kong on June 4 and witnessed a most turbulent, volatile 12 days on the streets. The million protesters on June 9 were energized, remarkably peaceful, and focused on opposing the bill. The crowd doubled in size on June 16, emotionally intense, personal, angry.

Packed like sardines, we patiently walked the six-eight hours in the summer heat. I saw many young parents, some with their children, clutching signs—“Don’t Shoot,” “Our children are not rioters,” “Withdraw your accusations”—triggered by the excessive force inflicted by police on protesters on June 12.

The mood is different from other protests I have seen in Hong Kong. Now, few expect the government to listen. People are bold, resolute, and defiant. “No matter what the outcome, let the world hear our dissenting voices and register our anger,” protesters seemed to be saying. The organizers appeal directly to a cosmopolitan, global audience.

Those opposing the bill represent a wide spectrum of age, class, profession, ethnicity, and political conviction, including lawyers (even the practical-minded Law Society), chambers of commerce, diplomats, journalists, religious organizations, and schools. They are the professional backbone of Hong Kong society, whose voices have been compromised, if not silenced, since 1997. I am also moved by new immigrant groups, thousands of homemakers and mothers, and the hundreds of small businesses who shut their doors in support.

Strong emotions are evident among Cantonese-speaking communities across continents. Rallies in 29 cities in North America, Europe, Australia, and Taiwan reminded me of the Umbrella Movement in 2014.

In May, the singer Denise Ho proudly announced that “we are Hongkongers.” What binds Hongkongers as a human collective to speak truth to power?

Generations have experienced Hong Kong as a land of opportunities and refuge. The proposed extradition bill would discourage participation in the life of the city out of fear, thus shrinking the social connections and diverse cultural resources Hongkongers have used to forge distinctive identities, livelihoods, and lifestyles. This collective is now united to defend their cherished humanity.

The rapid erosion of “two systems” is given much attention. What about the “one country” side of the formula? China today is not the country that many Hongkongers and mainland Chinese pinned their hopes on back in the 1980s. Its authoritarian presence to mold society is felt in every aspect of life in China, tested in the jailing of Occupy Central activists in Hong Kong, and insinuated in different parts of the globe. The extradition bill enhances China’s power of calculated arrest and prosecution. Once adopted, an isolated Hong Kong could be the frontline of China’s global reach rather than a space for mediation. The world community must seriously reflect on this conceivable scenario.

If the world stands by Hong Kong, a David and Goliath situation will materialize. Together, we may have multiple slings to sustain a vibrant, civil human collective.

Every once in a while, fate smiles upon a scholar. Months ago, I scheduled a visit to Hong Kong for mid-June, only to find that I would be arriving in town just as yet another massive protest over Hong Kong’s controversial extradition bill was to begin. As my plane landed, more than two million protesters from all parts of this diverse city massed for what would become the largest protest in Hong Kong history.

Having already achieved the unthinkable of the pausing of the bill, with no timetable for a restart, the protesters went on to achieve the unimaginable: an apology from the aloof and uncompromising Chief Executive Carrie Lam. The affair deeply damaged Lam, and her political future is now very much in doubt. Observers here told me that, if she survives, it may be because Beijing simply does not want to go through the difficult process of identifying and installing her replacement.

Beyond its immediate political ramifications, however, the extradition bill fiasco also highlighted a deeper problem: the refusal of the government to engage in normal, reasoned, fact-based debate over its proposals, especially with those outside the pro-Beijing camp. Until protesters hit the streets in record numbers, senior government officials felt free to openly lie about the merits of its proposals, even on matters that journalists and experts could easily fact-check, such as whether the absence of any extradition agreement between Hong Kong and the People’s Republic of China constituted a “legal loophole.”

For the most part, the government also declined to engage with the substantive concerns raised by informed critics, including the Hong Kong Bar Association and the Law Society, instead preferring to continuously rehash its tired talking points.

“We have no politics,” Margaret Ng, the former Legislative Councilor for the legal functional constituency, told me over coffee in Central. “There is no normal debate.”

Why did the government take this approach? Secure in its LegCo majority, Lam and her administration likely saw no need to engage in any meaningful way: their supporters in LegCo would no doubt toe the line when the time came to vote on the bill. Why bother to win over skeptics when the democratic deficits in Hong Kong’s political system were enough to assure passage?

As it turned out, Lam and her colleagues underestimated popular discontent with the bill, and were finally forced to—temporarily, at least—hold back. But it took several massive protests to get Lam to pay attention to what should be her primary constituency: the people of Hong Kong.

One can hope that Lam has learned some hard political lessons about the need for dialogue, transparency, and basic honesty. After all, though the Chinese Communist Party put her in office, she still works for the people of Hong Kong. They are the ones who will have to live with her decisions, for however much longer she remains in office.

A lot has already been written about the problems, in terms of lack of human rights standards and procedural guarantees, with the extradition bill proposed by the Hong Kong government, which I will not repeat here. The mobilization of civil society, which made history with two massive marches—the largest of which surpassed both the 1989 march in protest against the Tiananmen crackdown and the 2003 march against national security legislation—shows that legal security and the autonomy of the judiciary are at the very heart of Hongkongers’ identification with their city.

What I would like to briefly mention are the connections between the current mobilization and the 2014 Umbrella Movement, during which students and other groups occupied roads in the center of Hong Kong to request more democratic institutions, as set out in the Basic Law. In some ways, the current mobilization is rather different from 2014: Many people in Hong Kong may support democracy, but virtually everyone, across different sectors of society, supports safeguarding the rule of law. In this sense, the movement illustrates the contrast between Hongkongers’ so far unsuccessful efforts to obtain more democratic governance and their limited success in safeguarding basic freedoms and the rule of law.

However, there are also deeper connections between the two. The use of street occupation as a technique of protest, time-honed tools to resist tear gas (umbrellas, cling-wrap, and goggles), and the hugely creative visual creations, often based on Chinese characters, are reminiscent of 2014. But in a more substantive way, the protests have outlined the inadequacy of Hong Kong’s institutions. Carrie Lam is the fourth Chief Executive unlikely to serve out a second term. C.H. Tung was defeated, half-way into his second term, by the Article 23 protests of 2003. Donald Tsang survived his tenure (1.5 terms) but was tainted by corruption after leaving office. Beijing dropped C.Y. Leung after the Umbrella Movement. Although seemingly unconnected with constitutional issues, it is therefore no coincidence that this movement has reignited calls to restart political reforms.

As the contributions above demonstrate, the suspension of the extradition bill—a bill the passage of which had previously seemed all but inevitable—was a significant achievement. However, it is important to form a clear-eyed assessment of where this leaves Hong Kong, and of what will continue to take place once international attention dissipates.

The office of Chief Executive has been irreversibly tarnished. As has been repeatedly pointed out, both in this Conversation and elsewhere on ChinaFile, the office is not answerable to Hong Kong’s population. As a result, as Tom Kellogg observed, Carrie Lam did not even condescend to engage in any substantive debate. This arrogance has incensed and united the fractious political opposition. Beijing, as discussed above, also has little reason to be pleased with Lam’s performance. Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing legislators are no less upset. Lam had assumed that she could rely on their unconditional support, thanks to the Central Government’s Liaison Office. Yet she failed to inform them of her decision to suspend the bill, causing them to expend considerable political capital for nothing. As a result, Lam and her successors will be increasingly marginalized both by Beijing itself and by its local agents.

Hong Kong’s police, once “Asia’s Finest,” have also been sullied. Secretary for Security John Lee and Police Commissioner Stephen Lo repeatedly defended numerous instances of police brutality and misconduct, including the use of rubber bullets, violence against journalists, and conducting arrests using confidential patient information. The two bodies tasked with investigating police abuses in Hong Kong (the Complaints Against Police Office (CAPO) and Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC)) are irredeemably compromised by their lack of independence (the former) or lack of robust investigative powers (the latter). Absent an independent inquiry or continued international scrutiny, police impunity—as well as a continued slide into becoming openly partisan enforcers—will continue.

And what of the Hong Kong public? Many demonstrators will likely face prosecution for public order-related offences, years after the event. Opposition political parties and civil society NGOs will likely encounter increasingly arbitrary obstacles to operating in Hong Kong, due to the growing political partisanship of the civil service. And the Legislative Council continues to be stacked against pro-democracy candidates, particularly after the government purged six democratically elected politicians in 2016 and 2017. (Further disqualifications of politicians, based on shifting political “red lines” dictated by Beijing, seem likely for the 2020 elections.) These tactics are much less glamorous to the international press, but will have a more profound effect in stifling civil liberties in the territory. Once the rest of the world moves on from self-congratulatory platitudes about people power in Hong Kong to another crisis, it is all too likely that the brave Hongkongers who took to the streets in protest will once again be left to fight alone.

On June 9, 2019, more than one million people marched in protest against the fugitives amendment bill, which would allow the extradition of people in Hong Kong for trial in mainland China. The local community has no confidence in China’s judicial system, which the Communist Party guides. When the Carrie Lam administration indicated that the legislative process would proceed as scheduled, and that the contents of the bill would remain unchanged, young people surrounded the Legislative Council on the following Wednesday and prevented meetings to start deliberations on the bill; police used violent tactics to disperse the crowd. Though on June 15 Lam agreed to suspend the bill, she called the Wednesday incident “riots.” Her arrogance prompted two million people to protest the following day.

The crisis demonstrated China’s increasing interference in the territory and Hong Kong people’s worry about the erosion of the “one country, two systems” model. They also resent the Lam administration for often toeing the Beijing line and failing to defend local interests. The accumulated anger finally burst.

The pro-democracy movement demands the withdrawal of the bill, retraction from labeling the Wednesday confrontation as riots, release of the people arrested, an investigation into the police violence, and the resignation of Lam. Pro-Beijing leaders in Hong Kong immediately responded that it would be impossible for the Chinese leadership to remove Lam. Beijing is not likely to concede to mass movements, especially in view of the effect on mainland China.

The first chief executive, C.H. Tung, stepped down for health reasons; the second, Donald Tsang, ended up in jail; his successor, C.Y. Leung, was denied re-election; and now with the crisis of Lam, Beijing certainly finds it hard to defend its choices and the system of selecting the Chief Executive.

Whether Lam is allowed to stay or forced to stop down later, her administration will be much weakened. The business community had been surprised that to deter the pro-democracy movement and the dissidents, Beijing and the Lam administration were willing to pay the price of damaging the business environment and alienating the international business community. The pro-Beijing parties are now concerned about their challenges in the District Council elections in November and Legislative Council elections the following year, and they blame Lam for her misjudgment and faulty handling of the issue.

Hong Kong people distrust the Lam administration, which has already squandered its political capital. It will have to rely heavily on Beijing’s endorsement, without which the establishment will desert her. This implies that her administration will only be too eager to please the Chinese leadership.

Hong Kong people have won this time. The controversial bill has been shelved, and probably will not be raised again. Hongkongers are surprised by their community’s mobilization and solidarity. They are not optimistic about turning the tide against increasing interference from Beijing, but they are proud of their achievements. The pro-democracy movement has no leadership, and much depends on the spontaneous responses of the people.

Over the past week, the Hong Kong people have written a new chapter in their long and rich history of protest. And that chapter presents a challenge to a narrative that, in many people’s minds, had been established in the five years since the Umbrella Movement protests of 2014.

That narrative had two main strands, both of which were flawed.

The first was that the Umbrella Movement had failed: The protests disbanded in December 2014 with none of the protesters’ demands met, and the following year the Legislative Council voted down a proposal for limited elections of Hong Kong’s chief executive. However, to call the Umbrella Movement a failure ignores the rich cultural legacy of the Umbrella Movement: the artwork, cinema, documentary filmmaking, and other cultural artifacts that flourished in Hong Kong during and in the years following the movement. It also ignores the extraordinary political awakening to which the movement gave birth: Umbrella Movement activists formed several new political parties, including Demosistō and Youngspiration, and politicians from those parties won seats in the Legislative Council elections of 2016, which saw record high voter turnout and the pan-democrat legislators winning an increased number of seats over their pro-Beijing opposition.

The second strand of that narrative arose from what happened in the wake of those elections: The legislator oath-swearing controversy prompted Beijing to re-interpret the Basic Law, giving the Hong Kong authorities a weapon they then used to disqualify eight elected pan-democrat legislators. And the repression continued: Candidates were barred from standing for office, a political party was banned, and the government pursued a long and aggressive campaign in the courts to prosecute and jail the Umbrella Movement protest leaders and other activists. In the face of this ongoing campaign of “lawfare”—the weaponization of the legal system against dissent in Hong Kong—the Hong Kong people were largely quiet. The Hong Kong government seemed successfully to have subdued the population.

And so, these two strands of narrative concluded, following the failure of the Umbrella Movement and the silencing of dissent, protest must be dead in Hong Kong.

Well, the people of Hong Kong responded to that last week.

Hongkongers have reminded us that Hong Kong cannot be ruled by authoritarian means. There is a fundamental need at the core of the Hong Kong people’s psyche for their rights and freedoms to be upheld and for the unique Hong Kong identity to be maintained. Bursts of popular outrage are triggered whenever a threat to that emerges, and there is every reason to expect that to continue. A new chapter in Hong Kong’s history of dissent is being written, but what will that chapter say? If the last week has shown anything, it is that the Hong Kong people insist on writing their own narrative.

Zero for four: That’s Beijing’s track record for successfully picking Hong Kong’s chief executive. Less than two years into a five-year term, Carrie Lam is fighting for her political survival. She almost certainly will not be elected to a second term. Indeed, none of Hong Kong’s chief executives have served the maximum two-term limit.

Hong Kong’s political system is designed to produce failure. A 1,200-member Election Committee, many of whom have close ties to Beijing, chooses the chief executive. The committee is supposed to represent the city of 7.5 million. It does not. The gap between the administration and most of Hong Kong’s people has widened since Chinese rule began.

Hong Kong has a chief executive who isn’t elected by the people and doesn’t represent them. She cannot belong to a political party. Hong Kong has a Legislative Council dominated by special interests, with seats reserved for accountants, lawyers, bankers, and others, and weighted against democratic forces. All this is deliberate, and in line with the pre-1997 British colonial approach to government. It was a top-down style of governance that China’s leaders embraced during the handover negotiations. The system is inadequate in a prosperous, tech-savvy, well-educated 21st century city.

Twenty-two years after the British retreat, the consequences of this failure of governance may become impossible for Beijing to keep wishing away. Protests are not isolated events. The 2003 march against proposed national security legislation drew some 500,000 participants. The 2014 Umbrella Movement, with its 79-day shutdown of parts of the Central and Admiralty business districts, will take its place in Chinese history as a time when truth was spoken to power. A pattern of ongoing resistance reflects antipathy toward the extension of mainland rule. A generation too young to remember the 1989 Tiananmen killings has grown up with a sharply defined sense of Hong Kong identity—one at odds with the People’s Republic.

The extradition bill happened to be the spark for fuel that was primed to ignite. That some two million people, more than one out of four of the city’s residents, came out the day after the extradition bill was shelved reflects the depth of anger. Lam and her government have retreated, pulling back not only the extradition legislation but a bill to protect the national anthem, and delaying the push forward with a massive reclamation project off Lantau. They have shown no signs of rethinking their approach to governance or of restarting the stalled political reform process.

As the gap between ordinary Hong Kong people and an insulated political and business elite widens, failure looks like the only option. Lam’s hope for survival is that she is probably the best of an administrative elite that has shown no skill in governing. Someday, perhaps Hong Kong will find a leader who represents the interests of its people rather than genuflecting to Beijing. That time is not yet at hand.

One of the most quoted of the Cold War CIA’s Moscow Rules noted: “once is an accident, twice is a coincidence, but three times is enemy action.”

The latest mass uprising marks the third time since the handover that Hongkongers have thronged the streets in protest. Half a million rose up against Tung Chee-hwa in 2003. Up to a million protesters participated in Occupy Central in 2014, and two million protested this time.

As both the local and national governments have charged, are foreign forces the enemy behind the repeated waves of unrest?

“Foreigners” had nothing to do with provoking any of them, unless you consider Beijing officials foreigners: Beijing pushing Article 23 legislation, and a white paper curtailing constitutional reform provoked the first two uprisings. But the latest protests reacted to a local initiative that Beijing reluctantly supported. As soon as the business community realized the implications of the legislation, particularly the asset-freezing provision, they objected. Money began to flow out, alarming financial experts. A highly contested land sale to a local-mainland joint venture was forfeited, a virtually unheard of action. True, the vast majority of foreign business associations opposed the legislation, but that seemed of little effect until local business began to react.

All three events share one thing in common: an incompetent local administration. The enemy is within. This seems quite a come-down from pre-1997, when Hong Kong’s civil service was lauded for professionalism. What changed?

The Tung regime set up a two-tier civil service, separating career-track from contract staff, who went from occasional short-term help to long-term, less well paid routine staff. These contract workers, mainly young, felt pressured to keep their views to themselves unless and until promoted to career-track. These young civil servants stifled views that might provoke senior civil servants and political officers—very different from the pre-1997 ethos. The British promoted local staff on their ability to avoid public crises, and frequently coopted those who criticized various failings in governance. Leo Goodstadt, head of the advisory body the Central Policy Unit leading up to the handover, was formerly a prominent government critic.

The push for civil service reform withered under the corrupt regime of Donald Tsang and his Chief Secretary for Administration, Rafael Hui. Both ended up in jail. The Leung administration distrusted and alienated local civil servants, who perceived Leung as a long-time pro-Beijing loyalist. Tsang and Lam, and many other heads of departments and bureaus tapped to move from civil servant to government official, thus crossing from civil servant to partisan leaders, clouded the distinction between professionalism and partisanship, and helped spark the protests. The myth that the Chief Executive is a non-partisan leader died under the marching feet of millions of protesters, not the “black hands” of foreigners. The “Chinese wall” between professional civil service and its ethos of political neutrality and partisan leadership of Hong Kong must be restored.