It was as though a whole generation had become wedded to protest at whatever the cost and the administration which was meant to supply security had ran out of ideas. Even the political overlords in Beijing sometimes seemed at a loss for what to do. The question is whether the current situation can be sustained.Hong Kong is an issue where outsiders often feel the need to take sides. This is because the city is one that has secured a place in the affections of many across the world. A place of hybridity, unique and often quirky, it badged itself, rightly, as Asia’s global city. The events since mid-2019 raised, for the first time, real questions about this image and many other aspects of the place and the key players in it.
All of this was ostensibly triggered by the attempt of Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her administration to bring into law an extradition treaty with the Mainland. This was seen as a step too far for the hard won, and unique, integrity of the rule of law in the city. Almost immediately, protests erupted and grew in numbers until hundreds of thousands took to the streets over the summer.
While there had been large marches during 2014 when changes to the voting arrangements for chief executive had been discussed, the difference this year was the depth and extent of the pushback and the ways in which it deteriorated into violence. While the vast majority of events were peaceful, there was plenty of evidence of brutality from the police, security forces and protesters. University campuses became infernos and the metro system was trashed and frequently evacuated. Those for and against the administration received beatings. Large numbers were detained, with many claiming ill treatment.
Hong Kong did not become just a physical battlefield. A war of words between the administration and opposing groups was waged throughout the year. Lam herself was unable to address the Legislative Council in October and had to finish her remarks by video conference because of protests in the chamber. There were times when she almost disappeared. Within society too, social media spread contesting images of local residents supporting and opposing what was happening.
The city seemed to become more divided by the day, with two successive quarters of negative economic growth rates reported for the second and third parts of the year.
Beijing’s response to this was largely behind the scenes. In November, a meeting of the central leadership did issue a dire statement after some months of silence demanding that order be restored and that those who were attempting to use the ongoing unrest to promote a pro-independence agenda would be resolutely fought against. Rumours of Beijing using proxy agents swirled throughout the year as mysterious, mafia-like figures sometimes emerged to beat up those wearing the garb of protestors — watched with seeming impunity by police.
Whatever the truth of these claims, it was clear that Beijing was aware that its many critics, particularly in the United States, would use this as a further point of attack. This was only confirmed when the US Congress in November passed an act committing to supporting freedom and democracy in the city. Dismissed as grandstanding by Beijing, it at least showed that the world was watching — and that China needed to be circumspect in what it does, if nothing else.
The protestors issued a set of five demands, one of which was that the administration drop the extradition treaty proposal and something it did by the year’s end. But for many of their other requests, there was little real appetite by Lam and her colleagues and, by implication, their taskmasters in Beijing.
The local elections held in late November resulted in what was widely seen as a big victory for pro-democracy parties and a slap in the face for pro-Beijing ones. The high turnout rate meant the legitimacy of the results were hard to contest too. The citizens of the city had been given a chance at the ballot box to express their anger at someone, but it had not been the protestors they were most irritated by, going from the results.
All of this means that 2020 is going to be a momentous year for Hong Kong.
The coalition of disparate groups that have worked together in the protest movement through 2019 have to decide what their next step is and how to capitalise on the November elections. They are, however, famously disunited and have no key spokesperson, despite the prominence of figures like Joshua Wong. For Beijing too, management of Hong Kong will have global consequences as it tries to repair its relations with an increasingly fractious United States. And for Lam, the vast question marks hanging over her head need, somehow, to be dispelled.
Everything for everyone is still up for stakes. In that sense, 2019 resolved nothing. It has just postponed things until 2020.
Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London and Associate Fellow with the Asia Pacific Programme at Chatham House. He is the author of China’s Dreams: The Culture of the Communist Party and the Secret Sources of its Power (Polity, Cambridge, 2018).