PRO-DEMOCRACY PROTESTS have again being staged in Hong Kong this weekend, with a city-wide strike called for Monday. Again tear gas has been fired to disperse the crowd. What started barely four months ago as an attempt to block a bill that would have allowed extradition to mainland China has swelled into broad-based civil opposition to Beijing’s governance of the city.
As the protests have become more violent, both Beijing and the People’s Liberation Army, which has a garrison in Hong Kong, have issued warnings to the protesters to desist, labelled the protests ‘riots’ and ramped up accusations of unnamed ‘foreign forces’ (for which read the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom) being behind them.
Earlier this week, 40 demonstrators arrested after last weekend’s demonstrations turned violent were charged with rioting, and face up to ten years in prison if convicted. The PLA, meanwhile, released a video of soldiers undertaking anti-riot training exercises.
The protests are mainly led by people, mostly students, in their late teens and early twenties, some too young to have taken part in 2014’s Umbrella protests in support of democratic elections, though not too old to be likely to see the end of the 50 years of ‘one country, two systems’ settlement under which Beijing resumed sovereignty of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom in 1997. To many of them, not only does 2047 seem close, but it also feels that Beijing has been accelerating the countdown to when Hong Kong becomes just another big city in southern China.
Beijing was able to face down the Umbrella movement and yield no concessions. A similar tactic of letting the city ‘stew in its own juices’ and the application of a measured degree of force and intimidation while keeping a tight clamp on news of the unrest seeping into the rest of China has not been as successful this time. It has had to accept a suspension of the extradition bill (and likely full withdrawal), the embarrassment of a Hong Kong government apology for its handling of the bill, and the weakened authority of its handpicked leader. The escalating level of intimidatory violence and the use by police of tear gas and rubber bullets are further signs of Beijing’s rising concern.
For their part, the demonstrators have taken lessons from 2014. They are clear in their demands — preservation of the rights and freedom’s they have — as opposed to the calls for various forms of expanded suffrage heard in 2014. They have become more sophisticated in their use of social media and digital devices to foil surveillance by authorities, and better prepared with medical and other supplies, such as inhalers for those tear-gassed, for when protests turn violent.
The size of the protests is one measure of the public mood in Hong Kong. Two recent opinion polls provide another. One shows negative opinion of the Hong Kong government at its highest and positive opinion at its lowest, with negative opinions outrunning the positive ones by two and a half to one.
The other, perhaps more concerning for Beijing given its efforts to instil ‘patriotic values’ in the city’s youth, shows more than 50% of citizens identify themselves as Hongkongers rather than Chinese, with the gap widening in recent years. A growing sense of separate identity bodes ill for Beijing and also suggests that the political fault line between the Party and Hong Kong is deepening.
There are signs that the Party leadership is re-evaluating its current tactics for dealing with Hong Kong. A more heavy-handed approach — ‘sending in the tanks’ — carries international diplomatic and business risks and especially at a volatile moment in China-US relations. It is thus still mostly seen in Beijing as a last resort.
However, foreign governments, including the United Kingdom, would, on balance, be unlikely to react punitively in the event of a decisive crackdown on the protestors. Broader considerations of countries’ relationships with Beijing would weigh more heavily in diplomatic calculations, especially for the Trump administration in the United States, which has been noticeably measured in its public comments on Hong Kong even while piling more tariffs on Beijing’s exports.
Hong Kong’s special status makes it a separate jurisdiction from China for customs and trade. That is an arrangement that Western governments will not want to jeopardize. Neither will Asian neighbours want to be seen to be profiting from it for fear of upsetting their biggest neighbour, China.
An internationally driven change to the city’s 1997 settlement is all but unimaginable. Beijing would have no truck with it even if there were any appetite from Western nations.
More likely, Beijing will let the demonstrations run through the summer, albeit with the ever rougher treatment of the protestors in the streets and the courts, in the hope that time and the return of university terms will diminish their momentum. That may dissipate but not solve the underlying political conflict.
Update: Beijing gave one of its sternest warnings to date to Hong Kong protestors following Monday’s general strike, telling them not to “mistake restraint for weakness”. The Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, which rarely holds news conferences, used its second briefing in two weeks to repeat allegations that Western “anti-China forces” were “meddling hands behind the scene”, instigating unrest led by “radical and violent” elements. State media reports omitted much of that detail.