For two weekends running there has been mass protests in Hong Kong. The first saw up to a million people take to the streets, and brought the situation in Hong Kong into the global spotlight. The protest last Sunday drew close to two million people.
In between there has been continual protesting on a smaller scale. There has been a strike. On Wednesday tens of thousands of protestors surrounded the city’s Central Government Offices. When some protestors attempted to storm the Legislative Council leading the government to declare a riot which was put down by the Hong Kong police with extreme force. More protests followed, including by journalists shocked by the crackdown and the city’s mothers. On Saturday a protestor fell to his death after attempting to hang a protest banner across the facade of one of the city’s landmark shopping malls. Whilst it remains unsure whether he fell or choose to take his own life, the incident was videoed and shared on phones across the city.
At the centre of the protests have been a bill to amend the city’s laws to allow for extradition to China.
The Hong Kong government, with Beijing’s backing, continues to insist on three blown arguments. Firstly, that the bill is in the interests of facilitating justice in a criminal case of a Hong Kong man wanted in Taiwan for murder, despite current laws allowing for one-off extradition arrangements, Taipei’s opposition to the bill and having declared it would not seek extradition under the amended code.
Secondly, that the bill will close an existing legal loop-hole inherited from 1997, when the former British colony became, in treaty law, a semi-autonomous Special Administrative Region of China. However, confirming the understanding of many Hong Kong democrats, the last British governor and Foreign Secretary at the time, Lord Patten and Sir Malcolm Rifkind, refuted this by stating categorically and with reference that the arrangement as agreed was both deliberate and necessary to ensure a firewall existed between the two very different legal systems operating in Hong Kong and on the Mainland.
Thirdly, it continues to be advanced that the legislation is necessary to ensure the maintenance of Hong Kong’s international reputation. Historically a haven for money laundering, Hong Kong has received criticism for lacking the network of extradition treaties required to facilitate international action. However, the need for a mechanism to allow persons to be legal extradited to a regime known for its arbitrary and politicised legal system must be weighed against the risk to this poses not only to the person but also to the rule of law in Hong Kong. It is worth noting that given Hong Kong’s Chief Executive is appointed by Beijing, and that Hong Kong is understood to exist purely by Beijing’s grace, it is not politically feasible to foresee any situation when Hong Kong might refuse an extradition request should Beijing want it. With the authoritarian and repressive direction China has taken under the presidency of Xi Jinping, who has used the law to systematically remove any domestic opposition whether they be labour rights lawyers, social activists, intellectuals, journalists or within the Communist party itself, there is no reason to suppose Beijing will not make use of the opportunity to do the same in Hong Kong.
It is therefore unsurprising that the bill, which was initiated in February, has drawn widespread opposition from both within Hong Kong and abroad. And yet the Hong Kong government, whilst going through the motions of listening to the people, seemed intractable in its determination to pass the bill, paying scant regard to those concerns expressed. Revisions to the bill were allowed rather than made, and then seemingly only as required to ensure political backing from within the pro-Beijing camp. Compounding this has been the arrogant and patronising style of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Dismissive of journalists and the public at large, she was unbothered to previously declare public opinion to be unimportant to her.
If reports of an emergency meeting being called on Friday in neighbouring Shenzhen between Mrs Lam and senior officials from Beijing are correct, it is likely the decision taken to postpone the bill, announced by Mrs Lam on Saturday, was made in Beijing. The hope, no doubt, was the announcement would put people off protesting on Sunday, drawing international attention away from Hong Kong and helping to preserve support for Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing parties. That 2 million people nevertheless protested will not have gone unnoticed in Beijing.
The apologies issued by Mrs Lam, both preceding Sunday’s march and after, are notable for what they do not include: there is no attempt to recognise the arguments of the opposition, nor to admit that there are good reasons for concern. Mrs Lam has only acknowledged a failure of communication and the bill is postponed and has not been withdrawn. Most telling of all was the style and the language she employed: that of a communist cadre undergoing self-reflection.
So what is next for Hong Kong? Despite forcing the government to back down and embarrassing Beijing, a seeming victory for the Hong Kong people will likely prove hollow due to Hong Kong’s relationship with Beijing and the nature of Communist Party rule.
It is right that Mrs Lam should shoulder much of the blame for the immediate protests. But behind the protests swells a deep and growing distrust of the regime in Beijing and what it represents. In its determination to unite China and legitimise its authority the Party has sought to impose its own narrative on China. It tolerates no alternatives. This has lead to a fundamental conflict between experience and memory and what Chinese people are told they must accept. For this conflict between competing narratives, and for insisting that Hong Kong must remain undemocratic and for imposing its own politics of intolerant, Beijing is to blame.
Mrs Lam is not the cause of the problem, but is rather indicative of it. With Beijing now distancing itself from her — Beijing has notably failed to mention her in recent announcements on Hong Kong — and with little public support in Hong Kong, her position is untenable. However, as with each of her three predecessors, all of whom found themselves in similarly untenable positions, she cannot resign. As Hong Kong people are becoming increasingly aware, even the rights, of the leader to resign, will be subordinate to the party anywhere Beijing has sway. Untrusted and made powerless by her own people, she will nevertheless remain in post until such time she might be replaced by Beijing without it seeming a defeat.
The greatest fear of the People’s Republic of China is the Chinese people. Lacking a democratic mandate, Beijing will not allow the people of Hong Kong to set an example. Expect arrests and a tightening of the hidden noose. Hong Kong will be punished through the further expropriation of core Hong Kong assets; Huawei will replace Apple, and Chinese apps WeChat and Weibo will be pushed hard. The city’s connection with relatively free foreign online and messaging platforms, and in particular encrypted messaging services, will be targeted. Most insidious though will be a ramping up of United Front work within the community. Correct thinking, as Beijing likes to call it, will be pushed through all means available.
Despite this, Hong Kong people will themselves take away from this week renewed strength that they are not alone. After several years of state-fostered divisions and the imprisonment of activists and protest leaders, they have rediscovered the solidarity and community spirit so evident during the 2014 protests. This time however the protest has required no leadership nor organisation — it rose spontaneously, the act of a fearful, frustrated and desperate people. And their example has drawn the world’s attention to Hong Kong.
In any other country should 2 million people take to the streets in a single city to protest against the government one would expect there to be a change towards accommodation. The tragedy of Hong Kong is that every action taken by the government that claims to represent them is ultimately determined in Beijing. Hong Kong remains a colony, but of a regime that very legitimacy is depending on ensuring it can never be free. In Hong Kong there is a lesson to both China and the world: the China Model of authoritarian capitalism is not as strong as it must outwardly present itself to be, as all authority reliant on oppression is only ever a wisp away from revolution.
(This article is published on The Stands News on 17 June. Photo by AP Photo/Vincent Yu)