Since early June, Hong Kong has been experiencing one of the most serious political crises in its history, arguably the worst since the Maoist-inspired demonstrations against British colonial rule in 1967. The city has been wracked by near-continuous mass protests, some peaceful, some violent. Despite the Hong Kong government’s attempts to limit or suppress them and Beijing’s efforts to intimidate and discredit them, the protests have persisted unabated, sometimes involving as many as one to two million people at a time, out of a total population of seven million, supplemented by smaller protests by students, teachers, social workers, civil servants, and other professionals. The scale and duration of the protests is arousing international concern, challenging the governments in Hong Kong, mainland China, and the US to devise effective responses. The crisis in Hong Kong is also raising serious questions about the city’s future, particularly given the fact that its quasi-autonomous relationship with the rest of China, established when Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, will expire in 2047, less than thirty years from now.
Origins of the protests
The immediate cause of the protests was the government’s introduction of an extradition law that would make it possible to send people in Hong Kong who had been charged with a crime by Chinese authorities back to the mainland for trial. Hong Kong currently has extradition agreements with twenty jurisdictions, but not with either Taiwan or mainland China. The origin of the proposed extradition agreement with the mainland two decades later is not entirely certain, and both the Hong Kong government and the national mainland government insist that it was introduced at Hong Kong’s own initiative, not at Beijing’s request. However, it is also the case that on the eve of the selection of a new chief executive in 2017, at least one high Chinese official expressed concern that, in the absence of extradition procedures, Hong Kong was becoming a sanctuary for corrupt officials from the mainland. So even if Beijing did not request the bill, it did not discourage it.
The main target of the proposed law was ostensibly those residents in Hong Kong who were accused of committing both serious civil crimes (such as murder) and major economic crimes (such as serious cases of corruption), but there was concern that political offenses would also be targeted. Even in the absence of an extradition law, Chinese authorities had shown their ability to bring Hong Kong residents to trial on the mainland, either by arresting them when they visited the mainland or by abducting them in Hong Kong and taking them to the mainland. It would, arguably, be preferable to have formal extradition measures in place so that such ad hoc procedures would no longer be necessary. Moreover, Hong Kong would not want the reputation of being a sanctuary for fugitives. Indeed, the official name for the proposed legislation, although commonly known as an extradition law, is a law on the return of “fugitive offenders.” And the Hong Kong government has justified the law by citing the case of a fugitive not from the mainland but from Taiwan: a Hong Kong man who visited Taiwan with his girlfriend, allegedly murdered her there, and then returned to Hong Kong, where he could not be extradited.
The main obstacle was the same that had prevented the earlier conclusion of an extradition agreement: the serious doubts about mainland China’s judicial system. In addition, the proposed legislation was drafted quickly and without the customary formal public consultation. Even after the extradition bill was introduced the government did not use other consultative mechanisms to gauge the public reaction, and thus was blindsided by the scope and intensity of the protests. The negative reaction came from several quarters: Hong Kong residents who did business on the mainland were concerned that they would be charged with corruption; political activists, journalists, and academics worried that they would be charged with political offenses, and lawyers alleged that the use of mainland courts to try accused offenders would lead to an erosion of the rule of law in Hong Kong.
The government proposed amendments to the law that would have limited the scope of the offenses for which accused persons would be extradited. But the concern remained that while Hong Kong courts would review requests for extradition, the final decision would be made by Hong Kong’s chief executive, who is ultimately responsible to Beijing.
The evolution of the protests
The first large protests occurred in early June and involved far more participants than the police or the government appeared to expect. Problems occurred when the police, perhaps because they anticipated smaller numbers, limited the gathering points, the routes of march, and the durations of the protests. On some occasions, given the large numbers involved, some protesters were unable even to leave Victoria Park, the main assembly point on Hong Kong island, before the time frame for the protest had expired. On other occasions, protesters encountered police barricades that blocked their passage or even prevented them from exiting the protest route easily. Those who were caught up in these obstacles could then be accused of engaging in an illegal protest, failing to disperse or, if the protests were violent, of rioting. It was in frustrating situations like these that early protests turned violent, and police were accused of using excessive force. The actions of the police in restricting and quelling the protests then became as important an issue as the fate of the extradition law.
Over time, as tensions between the protesters and the authorities increased, the protests became more disruptive and even destructive. Examples include an attack on the Legislative Council building, the occupation of both the check-in and arrivals areas at the Hong Kong airport, and protests surrounding police stations where arrested protesters were held. The protesters employed tactics attributed to the actor Bruce Lee, “be like water,” describing his style of martial arts, in which groups of protesters, without formal leaders but coordinating their activities through social media and messaging apps, would assemble at various places across the city, sometimes giving the police little warning of their intentions, and then quickly move on to other targets when the police arrived.
The protesters’ demands
As the protests continued and, in some cases, became more violent, the protesters’ demands also escalated. The withdrawal of the extradition law remained important. But new demands were added, including: the resignation of Chief Executive Carrie Lam; the adoption of universal suffrage for the election of both the chief executive and all members of the Legislative Council; the establishment of an independent commission to investigate the behavior of the police; the retraction of the characterization of the protests as a “riot”; and the exoneration of all those arrested during the protests.
The government’s response
Having failed to anticipate the scale of the protests, the response of the Hong Kong government has also been widely criticized as inflexible and excessively brutal. Carrie Lam repeatedly apologized for mishandling the extradition bill and said it would not be resubmitted to the legislature for consideration, but refused to withdraw it completely, as the protesters demanded. She also refused to resign. Complaints against the police were to be handled through an existing review board, not by a broader and more representative special commission, and there was no indication that charges of rioting or illegal assembly would be dropped. In late August, Lam offered to establish channels of dialogue with protesters and other sectors of society, but only on the condition that the protests were brought to an end. Asked if she would respond to the protesters’ demands, she replied that she had already made her response repeatedly, without explicitly adding that her response had been negative on every point. The Hong Kong government’s approach to the protests was widely attributed to Beijing, which reportedly refused to accept Carrie Lam’s resignation and told her not to accept any of the protesters’ substantive demands, despite her willingness to accommodate a few of them.
Meanwhile, the police were authorized to use harsher means to deal with the protests, including the use of pepper spray, tear gas, batons, rubber bullets, water cannons, and other means of non-lethal force. In one particularly controversial incident, a gang of hoodlums attacked protesters in Yuen Long, a town near the Chinese border, without generating any timely police response. Police are increasingly refusing to grant permits for large-scale demonstrations, and mass transit service has been frequently suspended to stations where protests are expected to prevent demonstrators from joining them. People believed to be protest leaders have been subject to preventive detention to stop their participation.
Beijing’s reaction also escalated. Its descriptions of the protests became more negative, not only describing the outbreaks of violence as “riots,” but also accusing the protesters of seeking a “color revolution” in China and of receiving material support from “black hands” in the United States and the UK. Beijing reminded Hong Kongers that it could utilize the PLA to restore order, and distributed videos showing the military practicing crowd control to deal with “rioters.” It deployed units of the para-military People’s Armed Police near Shenzhen’s border with Hong Kong. Chinese officials are checking the smartphones of travelers crossing the border with Hong Kong looking for pictures of the protests and is denying entry to some Hong Kongers who have expressed sympathy for them.
In order to discourage the protests, both the Hong Kong and central governments have stressed the economic damage they have done to Hong Kong, as reflected in reduction of both exports and incoming tourists and argued that protests that are unauthorized or violent violate the “rule of law,” an important part of Hong Kong’s civic values. Multinational companies operating in Hong Kong have been told to ensure that their employees did not participate in or even express sympathy for the protests, with Hong Kong’s most important airline, Cathay Pacific, and its most famous commercial bank, HSBC, being particular targets. Beijing has also mobilized sympathetic civil society organizations to hold demonstrations to criticize the protesters and support the police.
Beyond these denunciations of the protests, demonstrations of force, and pressures on prominent employers, Beijing’s strategy has also included warnings that Hong Kong is no longer as important to its national development strategy than it had been in earlier decades, given Shanghai’s rise as an international financial center and Shenzhen’s emergence as a hub for technological innovation and commercial entrepreneurship.
In addition to these measures to suppress the protests, Beijing and Hong Kong also announced policies to address what they believed to be their root causes. Young people concerned about their employment prospects were encouraged to look for jobs in the “Greater Bay Area,” a central government project to create a network of nine cities and two administrative regions in Southeast China that would include Hong Kong, but in a relatively minor role. The Hong Kong government floated proposals to increase the housing stock through land reclamation schemes and the construction of housing in country parks and on underutilized land. The government also announced a familiar set of budgetary allocations, commonly known as “sweeteners” or “candies,” aimed at those groups and businesses negatively affected by the economic downturn associated with the protests. But these measures appeared to ignore the fact that the protests were motivated not only by material conditions, but also by the perception that Hong Kong is losing its autonomy to Beijing and that some of the civic values Hong Kongers held dear are coming under threat.
The response of others
The heavy coverage of the protests by the international media, and the shocking images of hundreds of thousands in the streets, the clashes with the police, and the demonstrations of force by Beijing, have had a major impact on global public opinion and have challenged other governments to respond. Perhaps the greatest impact has been on Taiwan. In the leadup to the January 2020 presidential elections, some candidates had been proposing an accommodation with Beijing, including greater willingness to envision eventual reunification, as a way of providing a stimulus to the Taiwanese economy. Xi Jinping announced in January 2019 that reunification was a priority that could not be passed “from generation to generation,” and that the formula for reunification would be “one country two systems” as it had been for Hong Kong. But the recent developments in Hong Kong have made that proposition even less attractive than it was in the past. Even the candidate seen as most favorably disposed to China, the KMT’s Han Kuo-yu, the recently elected mayor of Kaohsiung, was forced to declare that Beijing’s “one country two systems’ solution could be adopted only “over my dead body.” Taiwanese who had previously paid little heed to developments in Hong Kong expressed support for the protests there, and both Hong Kongers and Taiwanese have drawn parallels between the two societies’ patterns of political evolution. Pessimists worry that Taiwan today will become Hong Kong tomorrow, while optimists hope that today’s democratic Taiwan can still provide a vision for the future of Hong Kong.
In the US, President Trump has variously voiced sympathy for the protesters, described some of their actions as a “riot,” expressed confidence that the Beijing and Hong Kong governments could achieve a peaceful solution, and warned of the consequences if they did not. Beijing accused him of trying to “play the Hong Kong card” in his trade dispute with China, and there was indeed the possibility that the US would use the widespread outrage at the situation in Hong Kong to put pressure on Beijing to change its trade policies and reach a trade and investment agreement with the US. But it would be equally correct to say that Washington has played the trade card to influence developments in Hong Kong, warning that a trade deal would be impossible if Beijing used armed force to intervene in the city.
Looking ahead, Hong Kong has now gained a higher place on the American policy agenda than at any time since the run-up to the hand-over in 1997. Then, confidence about the future of Hong Kong under the Joint Declaration and the Basic Law led to the adoption of the 1992 Hong Kong Policy Act, which continued to treat Hong Kong as its own customs territory with more favorable tariff treatment and technology export controls than the rest of China. Indeed, the optimism about Hong Kong’s future was then so great that the legislation passed by voice vote. However, the more beneficial treatment for Hong Kong was conditioned on Hong Kong continuing to enjoy the “high degree of autonomy” that Beijing had promised. As restrictions on that autonomy increased, Congress amended the act to require regular reports from the State Department on conditions in Hong Kong. Fortunately for the city, the latest such report, which was submitted in March before the protests began, concluded that the level of autonomy, while declining, was still “adequate” to justify the continuation of Hong Kong’s beneficial treatment. The issue is whether Congress will wait until next years’ regularly scheduled report, or demand an earlier update, and what the content of such an assessment would be. This helps explain why both Beijing and the Hong Kong government are at pains to insist that Hong Kong is dealing with the protests on its own, so that at least the pretense of autonomy can be preserved.
In addition, another major piece of legislation, the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which had languished until now, has been reintroduced. This would impose financial sanctions and visa restrictions on Hong Kong officials held responsible for violations of human rights in Hong Kong, especially the abduction of booksellers charged with publishing books critical of the Beijing government.
What happens now
It is clear that Beijing, as well as some in Hong Kong, want the protests brought to a close, with the planned celebrations of China’s National Day on October 1—the symbolically significant 70th anniversary of the establishment of the People’s Republic—a likely deadline. The question is whether this will be achieved through accommodations by the Hong Kong government (seemingly unlikely), by more repressive actions by the Hong Kong police (very likely), the invocation of emergency powers by the chief executive (quite possible), or by open intervention by the PLA or units of the People’s Armed Police (unlikely but conceivable in extremis). The problem for Beijing and the Hong Kong government is that the use of force has so far served to encourage further protests rather than preventing them.
What happens on streets may be heavily affected by what happens in the courts. Assuming that the government does not meet the protesters’ demand that charges against arrested protesters be dropped, the courts will have to decide which of them should be convicted of “rioting,” “unlawful assembly,” or other charges brought against them by the government, and what the sentences will be. Based on how protesters have been dealt with in the past, the possibilities range from community service to lengthy jail sentences that would also bar them from ever seeking public office and make it more difficult for them to find other jobs. The effectiveness of these repressive measures remains to be seen, but the court cases will be important indicators of the degree to which Hong Kong’s judiciary remains independent.
Looking further into the future, the question is the effectiveness of the other measures adopted by Beijing to reduce public discontent, including the development of the Greater Bay Area and the construction of more public housing in Hong Kong. Beijing will also have to decide whether to resurrect previous proposals aimed at gaining greater influence and control over Hong Kong, such as the enactment of national security legislation as required in the Basic Law, and measures to create a stronger Chinese identity. It will also have to decide whether to countenance the reconsideration of direct elections for the next chief executive, scheduled for 2022. As of now, this appears unlikely, with Beijing’s supporters in Hong Kong saying that elections will not be possible as long as Hong Kong society remains polarized.
Conversely, another question is whether protesters, and the pan-Democrats more generally, begin to raise other socio-economic and political issues, such as the issues of inequality and lack of affordability of life in Hong Kong that lay at the heart of the Occupy Central movement of 2014, perhaps by demanding a more progressive tax structure. Or they could raise the question of the 150 one-way visas issued each day to people from the mainland that, together with other residency schemes for people from the mainland, are gradually changing the demographic mix of Hong Kong.
The protests occasioned by the proposed extradition law are larger in size and duration than any other protests since 1997. They are in some ways comparable to the 1967 riots, but so far have more limited objectives, more participants, fewer arrests, and fewer fatalities. But they should also be seen as the latest in a series of protests in response to initiatives by either the Hong Kong government or the national government in Beijing, often announced without the degree of formal public consultation that Hong Kong citizens have come to expect, that have been regarded by Hong Kongers as attempts to limit Hong Kong’s autonomy, erode its emerging local identity, or undermine its civic and political values. Previous instances in this series of protests include:
- Protests in 2003 against the introduction of national security legislation required by the Basic Law.
- Protests in 2007 against the proposed demolition of the iconic Queen’s Pier on the central Hong Kong waterfront. Although mainly a demand for historic preservation, the protests also marked one of the earliest manifestations of the desire to maintain a local Hong Kong identity, in this case reflected in its historic architecture.
- Protests against proposals to introduce what was first called “moral and civic education,” and then even more controversially “moral and national education” in Hong Kong schools between 2011 and 2012.
- Protests against Beijing’s proposals for the election of the chief executive in 2014. These protests grew out of the Occupy Central movement against social and economic inequality, which many attributed to the deeper integration with mainland China, and they quickly developed into the “Umbrella Movement” that led to the defeat of the proposed electoral reforms.
- Protests in 2017 against the establishment of a branch of the National Palace Museum in the West Kowloon Cultural District.
- Protests in 2018 against the creation of a mainland Chinese-staffed customs and immigration station inside the West Kowloon terminus of the high-speed rail line linking Hong Kong to the national railway network.
All of these previous protests can be interpreted as reactive movements to defend a distinctive Hong Kong identity, reflected not only in iconic public buildings, but also in political and civic values. This explains the meaning of one of the principal slogans of the current protests: “guangfu Xianggang.” This is often misleadingly translated as “liberate” Hong Kong, and indeed some of the protests have called for both freedom and democracy. But a more precise translation of “guangfu” is to restore or recover—to return to an idealized past. The exact moment in which Hong Kong experienced that fondly remembered golden age is not clear and may vary from Hong Konger to Hong Konger. Some would say it was the 1970s and 1980s, the period of Hong Kong’s most rapid economic growth and the rise of Canto-pop music and Hong Kong films, accompanied by the social and political reforms introduced by the Hong Kong government after the riots of 1967. Others might even say it was the period from 1997 to 2008, when the return to China’s sovereignty seemed to be proceeding smoothly, and when the Beijing Olympics, some of whose events were held in Hong Kong, gave Hong Kongers greater confidence in the one country two systems model and greater pride in the country that had resumed authority over their city.
Whenever it was, Hong Kong’s golden age now seems well in the past, and confidence in the model of one country two systems is at an all-time low. The prospects that Beijing will agree to continue applying that formula to Hong Kong after 2047, implied by a statement by Deng Xiaoping in 1988 that one country two systems would be practiced in Hong Kong for “at least” fifty years, suggesting that it might last longer, have significantly dimmed. Instead, there is increasing fear that Beijing now sees Hong Kong as a challenge, rather than an opportunity, and that it will redouble its efforts to move toward one country, one system well before 2047, not by making the mainland more like Hong Kong, but by making Hong Kong more like other coastal Chinese cities. The greatest fear of many Hong Kongers is that their beloved home will become “just another Chinese city” in a country that still resists political reform and restricts a range of economic and political freedoms. While the string of protests Hong Kong has experienced since 2001 were intended to prevent such a development from occurring, that prospect is even more likely now than it was before the protests began.