If reportedly a quarter of the population of the country or city where you live go out on the streets to demonstrate, there is a serious problem. We can quibble about whether it was indeed two million that demonstrated in Hong Kong on Sunday 16 June, or a half of that or less. But for once the eyes could not lie: the whole of the central area was crammed with people, many of whom had already been demonstrating only a few days before.
Even more extraordinary, the government of Chief Executive Carrie Lam had partially acceded to the protesters’ main request, to withdraw the proposed new extradition law with the Mainland. Even so, Hong Kong people, famously dismissed as being apolitical and just interested in making money so often in the past, have proved once more that they are more than capable to standing up for what they see as their interests.
Since 2014 and the Occupy Central protests over reforms to the way in which Hong Kong’s chief executive is voted in, Hong Kong has seen a new generation of protest savvy activists emerge. These are people under the age of 25 — many are not even out of school. Infecting them with resentment and a whole set of grievances about the way their city is governed is therefore particularly problematic because it means these sentiments have a good chance of lingering for decades afterwards.
In effect, the people of Hong Kong said over the weekend that they had lost confidence in Lam and, by extension, in the management of their affairs under the auspices of Beijing. The latter is by far the most difficult issue.
Since the rise of Xi Jinping in 2012, the attitude by the central government towards the city has become increasingly dismissive and assertive. Part of this is simply because China’s decades of rapid growth mean that it is far larger and stronger as an economy and a geopolitical force than anyone ever expected when the handover from British to Chinese sovereignty occurred in 1997. That has created a disorientating asymmetry for everyone. But part of it is also the result of the much tougher nationalism that has become the dominant tone of the Xi leadership.
Not just Hong Kong is experiencing this. It casts an increasingly large shadow across the region and the wider world. Hong Kong is just differentiated because it is right on the front line and feels the full force of these new waves of emotion and expectation from within China.
Under the 1997 settlement, Hong Kong is meant to enjoy ‘a high degree of autonomy’. It is also meant to benefit from the ‘one country, two systems’ framework, which is the philosophical and legal guarantee of this. But Chinese understanding of law is a unique one. Plenty of people at the moment, including from the United States to its partners in the region, are accusing China of observing the letter of the law, but not the spirit.
So, while all sorts of rhetoric is devoted to still according Hong Kong’s special status, it is clear that the mindset of Xi and his colleagues in the Communist Party is that in their current position, there is little if any reason to set too much store on simply standing by promises made about Hong Kong in the past when the situation was different and, crucially, they were weaker.
This explains the impatient tone of some of the pronouncements emanating from Beijing on the recent travails in Hong Kong. Everything now depends on whether Lam’s final withdrawal of the extradition law is enough to placate the very energised and angry protesters in the city. If not, and large-scale unrest continues, then Beijing has the grounds to claim that, for the purposes of stability and to protect their legitimate interests, they must, and will, intervene. A massive symbolic red line would have been crossed. The era of two systems would be effectively over. One country will have prevailed, trumping everything else.
Lam needs to be accorded some sympathy. No previous chief executive has been able to make it to a full second term. The first resigned, the second left only to be prosecuted for corruption, the third gave up after one term. Lam looks like she will be following this pattern. The main priority now is to do everything she can to avoid Beijing itself losing patience and deciding to take more drastic action.
For Beijing that too would be a costly move to make. The simple fact is that Hong Kong needs to now have a period of calmness and predictability to restore confidence amongst the public, but also the business and other communities. After all, these are the groups that give the city its global prominence. Losing that would serve no one’s interests, least of all Beijing’s.
Dr 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).
This article was published by East Asia Forum on the 24th of June 2019.