CARRIE LAM, Hong Kong’s chief executive, has bowed to her people over her masters. There will be a reckoning for that at some point. After a week of violent clashes between police and protestors, she has finally accepted that a controversial bill to enable easier extradition to the mainland has to be withdrawn indefinitely.
The largest local demonstrations since the Umbrella movement in 2014 are a victory for street democracy that will be looked on with alarm in Beijing. This is what the much feared ‘social instability’ looks like. It is not so much the rubber bullets — Beijing can crackdown on a crowd with the best of them — but the will of the Party being defied and overturned.
For Hong Kong, it feels, to this Bystander, that a critical moment has arrived, but one that will only delay not reverse China’s reabsorption of the former British colony. Under the joint declaration by which the United Kingdom returned Hong Kong in 1997, the territory was meant to have 50 years under its existing governance norms before ‘one country, two systems’ became ‘one county, one system’. Beijing has been increasingly telescoping that timetable with minimal pushback internationally.
Global attitudes to China’s rise have changed of late, however, and Hong Kong’s protestors have seized their opportunity. It may be fleeting. In 1997, Hong Kong’s economy was the equivalent of 20% of China’s GDP. Today, that figure is 3%, such has been the pace of China’s economic growth (and political hubris with it).
Hong Kong is no longer as important to the mainland as it once was. Its claim to being special is diminishing. Its long-term destiny looks increasingly to be its worst nightmare — just another big city in China.