Protests in Hong Kong took a turn this week as the city marked the anniversary of the city’s return to Chinese rule. In contrast to a much-larger peaceful demonstration, a breakaway group of protestors stormed and vandalised Hong Kong’s Legislative Council Building.
This marks the first significant act of aggression from members of what has otherwise been a remarkably peaceful mass of protestors. These protests are now weeks old and showing no sign of slowing down. So what are they about?
In February 2018, a Hong Kong man murdered his girlfriend during their holiday in Taiwan. After a cascade of legal disputes and negotiations, this horrific tragedy effectively became the catalyst for the series of colossal protests in Hong Kong that have paralysed the city’s government and unified its people in their demands for freedom and democracy.
The accused murderer was unable to be extradited to Taiwan to stand trial because Hong Kong and Taiwan do not have a formal extradition agreement. It was under the pretext of resolving this issue that Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, held by a pro-Beijing majority, attempted to pass a bill allowing the extradition of accused criminals to any country not covered by existing extradition legislation, including the People’s Republic of China (PRC).
The proposed bill arouses fears that the freedom of Hong Kong’s judiciary would be undermined if the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) were granted the authority to request extradition of Hongkongers to the mainland, a power which locals realise could be abused to detain dissidents and political activists.
In recent weeks, millions of protesters have demonstrated in the stuffy, neon-lit streets of the former British colony to express their vehement opposition to the extradition bill. After initially refusing to submit to the protesters, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam eventually succumbed to building pressure and announced that the bill would be indefinitely suspended, as of June 15.
Lam’s u-turn demonstrates that people power still has efficacy in Hong Kong. However, such a concession was not forthcoming in the Umbrella Revolution of 2014 when Hongkongers demanded universal suffrage, a freedom that could’ve seriously challenged the CCP’s authority. The differences between this year’s protests and the Umbrella Revolution illustrate the CCP’s attitude towards Hong Kong: that budging on legislation is out of the question in cases where the party’s prerogative to rule is contested.
Nevertheless, Lam’s concession failed to placate protesters, who have escalated their demonstrations in the weeks since. Among their demands are the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill, the resignation of Lam, viewed by many as a CCP puppet, and true democracy for Hong Kong. What started as opposition to a narrow extradition bill has morphed into a broader movement aimed at the perceived roots of threats to the city’s freedoms.
It’s certainly possible, and perhaps even likely, that dismal approval ratings and mounting pressure will force Carrie Lam to resign from the position of Hong Kong Chief Executive. Should this scenario transpire, her successor would inevitably be subject to pre-approval from the CCP; and hence, such a revision of Hong Kong’s leadership would constitute a change in name and face only. Lam has handled the recent turmoil with remarkable disregard for the wishes and wellbeing of most Hongkongers, but any Chief Executive in her position would have likely done the same.
With regard to the protesters’ demands for democracy, they may be asking for the impossible. Fully-fledged democracy, for better for worse, is a pipe dream under President Xi. As the party focusses its narrative, and hence public sentiment, on national rejuvenation and making up for the “Century of Humiliation”, the integration of Hong Kong into the authoritarian framework of the PRC not only carries geopolitical significance but also serves as an exercise in Chinese domestic propaganda and nation-building.
The extradition bill protests do suggest that, perhaps, the party and Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing camp underestimated Hong Kong’s public. The movement has once again exposed just how ardently Hongkongers cherish their current freedoms, and how they’re prepared to fight tooth and nail to protect them.
As the CCP continues to chip away at Hong Kong’s freedoms, the public’s desperation and resentment will only grow. From the party’s perspective, effective management of local flashpoints will require deft policy making and a shrewd propaganda campaign.
In accordance with the terms of the 1997 handover, Hong Kong is supposed to retain the same freedoms it enjoyed under British rule until 2047. However, without a major shift in public sentiment, Hongkongers will be just as resolutely opposed to CCP rule in 2047 as they are today. As the party tackles this challenge, increased censorship and education reforms in Hong Kong may prove to be useful mechanisms in wresting control of the city’s narrative.
The situation is complex and conflict is inevitable as a gutsy, impassioned public confronts the mighty CCP. The party will encounter many potholes, and perhaps the occasional roadblock, on the path to full integration of Hong Kong, and a peaceful transition will be no easy feat.
Max Collett is the China Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.