Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam finally announced on Wednesday her decision to withdraw the controversial extradition bill that had originally sparked the months-old mass protests engulfing the city. “Incidents over these past two months have shocked and saddened Hong Kong people,” she said in her televised statement. “We are all very anxious about Hong Kong, our home. We all hope to find a way out of the current impasse and unsettling times.” Lam’s concession followed one day after China’s President Xi Jinping signaled a willingness to tolerate a limited measure of compromise. “On matters of principle, not an inch will be yielded,” President Xi said, “but on matters of tactics there can be flexibility.”
China will not yield one bit on the principle of maintaining full Chinese sovereignty over the Hong Kong region and will do whatever it deems necessary to prevent any threat to its control, including preventing bottom-up democratic self-rule. However, after originally rejecting reported requests from Carrie Lam to allow her to formally withdraw the extradition bill, China’s rulers evidently came around to supporting the withdrawal of the bill as a tactical move. By displaying receptiveness to the protesters’ original demand, the withdrawal appears to be a bid to take the sails out of the large peaceful mass demonstrations conducted by the more moderate dissenters, images of which have been broadcast around the world and garnered international support. The tactical end game is to cast the remaining radical protesters who continue to engage in violence or major disruptions of day-to-day life in the city as disgruntled members of a small lawless minority undeserving of broad support.
Keeping a spotlight on the actions of the more radical protesters would make it easier to characterize them as “terrorists” and “criminals,” which the authorities believe would justify invoking existing “emergency” powers. A spokesperson for China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office Tuesday laid down a marker in advance of the withdrawal of the extradition bill in remarks delivered from Beijing. He warned of “no middle ground, no hesitance and no dithering, when it comes to stopping the violence and controlling riots in Hong Kong.” Chinese authorities may also be signaling that it is rapidly losing patience. Aside from conspicuously conducting anti-riot drills on the Chinese mainland near the border with Hong Kong, China in recent days has reportedly off-loaded troops and equipment at a naval base in Hong Kong. It is unclear whether this had to do with the normal rotation of troops around this time of year that China has garrisoned in Hong Kong, or whether there is something more sinister afoot. As Shephard Media observed in its Defense Notes, “Should President Xi Jinping decide enough is enough and that the communist party’s military must take over from Hong Kong’s beleaguered police, such a hidden force could be mobilised to strike hard and decisively.”
Business chambers in Hong Kong welcomed Lam’s announcement of the extradition bill withdrawal, which they hoped would quiet things down and allow the city to return to normal. Joe Chau Kwok-ming, president of the Hong Kong General Chamber of Small and Medium Business, said, for example, “The government has taken the first step in showing its goodwill in resolving the political crisis. On a longer term basis, Lam should float measures to address social issues.” Many protesters, however, do not trust the intentions of the Hong Kong or Chinese authorities. They do not have patience for long term dialogue with Lam or any other Hong Kong officials who answer to Beijing.
A formal withdrawal of the extradition bill might have worked several months ago when the protests first started. But it’s “too little and too late now,” as one pro-democracy protest leader, Joshua Wong, tweeted. “Carrie Lam’s response comes after 7 lives sacrificed, more than 1,200 protestors arrested, in which many are mistreated in police station,” Mr. Wong added.
Joshua Wong is no stranger to Hong Kong protests. He played a pivotal role in the 2014 street protests known as the Umbrella Movement, for which he later served some jail time on a sentence handed down years later in May 2019. After being released, Mr. Wong did not remain quiet. He protested the extradition draft law before its formal withdrawal and called for Carrie Lam to resign as chief executive. He was arrested again on August 29th and charged, along with another pro-democracy activist, with unlawfully organizing a rally. They have since been released on bail. But after Lam announced her decision to withdraw the extradition bill while rejecting or sidestepping the protesters’ other four key demands, Mr. Wong expressed his displeasure in a tongue-lashing tweet that listed those additional demands: “Carrie Lam’s repeated failure in understanding the situation has made this announcement completely out of touch – She needs to address to ALL Five Demands: STOP PROSECUTION, STOP CALLING US RIOTERS, INDEPENDENT INQUIRY OF POLICE and FREE ELECTION!” Mr. Wong also warned the world “not to be deceived by HK and Beijing Govt. They have conceded nothing in fact, and a full-scale clampdown is on the way.”
It is too early to say whether mass street protests will continue with the same intensity as past protests or if any future protests will remain largely peaceful. Whether those who eschew violence will predominate in future protests will depend on the actions, not just the rhetoric, of pro-democracy leaders who have advocated peaceful protest in the past, such as Joshua Wong.
So far, in the immediate aftermath of the extradition bill withdrawal announcement, more radical elements have already stepped forward to make their voices heard. As reported by South China Morning Post, for example, two masked protesters, claiming to represent the protest movement, organized a press conference Wednesday evening outside the Legislative Council. One of them compared Carrie Lam’s withdrawal of the extradition bill to “applying a band-aid to rotting flesh.” A speaker at the press conference said that those protesters who engaged in violence and other radical actions did so because they “love Hong Kong.” He asked rhetorically, “Is it wrong for them to fight for a free Hong Kong?” This same speaker said that he expected a rally planned for this Saturday at the airport to proceed without characterizing the nature of the rally.
Crowds also gathered Wednesday night at a couple of MTR stations and outside the Mong Kok police station. As of the writing of this article, South China Morning Post was reporting rising tensions outside the police station. Some protesters blocked a road. Some were shining laser beams in a stand-off with police. A few hundred chanted “liberate Hong Kong; revolution of our times.” Crowds also caused damage to facilities at one of the MTR stations.
If violence, destruction of property and mass disruptions become the regular pattern of future protests, expect that Lam, or her Chinese-installed replacement, will invoke the Emergency Regulations Ordinance. The ordinance allows the chief executive to “make any regulations whatsoever which [s]he may consider desirable in the public interest” in a situation she considers to be “an occasion of emergency or public danger.” Such measures could include censorship, arbitrary arrest and detention, entry and search of premises, and unlimited control over property. Moreover, under the Garrison Law of The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of The People’s Republic of China, China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) garrison stationed in Hong Kong could become directly involved in maintaining law and order. The Hong Kong government could request such assistance. Alternatively, the Chinese central government itself can decide on its own to intervene if it determines there is a state of emergency or “turmoil within the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region which endangers national unity or security and is beyond the control of the Government of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.”
Hong Kong is at a critical crossroads, caught in crosscurrents blowing both locally and on the Chinese mainland. China wants nothing to mar its celebration on October 1st of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, especially widely broadcasted images of a Tiananmen Square-style crackdown. On the other hand, Chinese authorities cannot appear to back down in the face of chaotic protests demanding freedoms that could set unacceptable precedents in other parts of the country. Above all else, Chinese authorities insist on social order and stability under their ultimate rule. Hong Kong protesters are divided over methods and ultimate objectives, some of which is generational. Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s economy is suffering, causing some Hongkongers to vote with their feet and threatening a dramatic flight of capital. Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” model is on life support.
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