Hong Kongers Won’t Bow to Beijing. But Their Leaders Will.

The city’s leaders are answerable to the party, not the public.

Protesters shout out after police fired tear gas during a rally against a controversial extradition law proposal in Hong Kong on June 12, 2019.
Protesters shout out after police fired tear gas during a rally against a controversial extradition law proposal in Hong Kong on June 12, 2019. Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images

More than a million people in Hong Kong marched in an extraordinary rally on Sunday, June 9, in what was the territory’s largest protest in at least 30 years. Then, in scenes reminiscent of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, more than 10,000 Hong Kongers came out on Wednesday to surround the government legislature and occupy nearby streets before being chased down by riot police firing tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets into the crowds.

These remarkable scenes were just the latest in a long-brewing conflict between the authorities and the public over a dreaded law that would allow for extraditions to mainland China.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam remained publicly undeterred by Sunday’s huge rally and said the extradition bill would undergo its second reading (after which it will go to a vote) as planned in the legislature on Wednesday. But the legislature has now postponed the reading—although Lam’s language has not softened, describing the protesters as children and herself as the mother who knows best.

If the bill passes as expected, Hong Kong will go down a road that it cannot recover from. But the grim reality is that Hong Kong’s leaders, starting with Lam, know this and don’t give a damn.

When the extradition bill was introduced earlier in February, it was greeted with surprise and concern.

The bill initially grew out of a need to extradite a Hong Konger to Taiwan, which Hong Kong does not formally recognize. This prompted the Hong Kong authorities to propose a bill that would allow for extradition not only to Taiwan, but other places that Hong Kong has no extradition treaty with, including mainland China. Not only was this unexpected and unnecessary, but it would put Hong Kongers at risk from China’s “justice” system, with its secret detentions, forced confessions, and party-controlled courts.

Since then, concern has spread from activists and government critics to lawyers, teachers, students, and even businesspeople, usually staunch supporters of the establishment. Foreign diplomats and businesses, specifically the American Chamber of Commerce, also spoke out against the extradition bill. The strength of opposition spectacularly manifested on Sunday when more than 1 in 7 Hong Kongers took to the streets. Sunday’s massive rally was no one-off: It was preceded by a smaller but still significant protest of more than 100,000 people on April 28.

This is because the proposed extradition law goes beyond just politics. By making any person in Hong Kong, not to mention foreign nations working in or visiting Hong Kong, susceptible to being extradited to mainland China, the new legislation would trample on Hong Kong’s rule of law, which is the main reason that its role as a financial hub has survived for so long. Without the assurance of Hong Kong’s laws and justice system, lots of foreign companies could leave or downgrade their operations in the territory—which is why a usually conservative business establishment has voiced such powerful opposition to the measure.

There is also a serious possibility the United States could see the extradition law as constituting interference in Hong Kong and seriously disrupting its autonomy, which could force it to cease treating Hong Kong as a separate unit from mainland China and cut off its special trading privileges. No less than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi backed this stance on Wednesday when she stated that Congress would “reassess” Hong Kong’s autonomous status if the extradition bill passes.

Unfortunately, people power is not likely to succeed anytime soon. This is because the Hong Kong people are facing not just their government, but the hand of Beijing. Just as the Umbrella Movement in 2014, which saw tens of thousands of people occupy the streets of a downtown district for months to demand democratic and electoral reforms, failed to extract any concessions from the Hong Kong authorities, the same is very likely to happen this time.

Lam’s desire to pass this bill is understandable, given that she owes her status in government to China’s approval. Hong Kong’s candidates for chief executive must “love the country” and be approved by a committee, with Beijing playing a heavy role. The candidates are then voted on by a 1,200-member body largely made up of pro-China members, including much of Hong Kong’s political and economic elite.

However, beyond just appeasing her political masters in Beijing, Lam’s heavy-handed efforts can be seen as is part of a plan to reduce Hong Kong’s distinct status and rights, while also tightening mainland China’s grasp.

A major part of this plan is the Greater Bay Area, Beijing’s much-hyped plan to transform the Pearl River Delta into an economic and tech powerhouse by integrating Hong Kong, Macao, and nine mainland cities in neighboring Guangdong province.

As such, bit by bit, Hong Kong has become increasingly chained to the mainland. A bridge between Hong Kong, Macao, and Guangdong’s Zhuhai has been built, ostensibly to connect the three cities, but it was never needed. Hong Kong’s high-speed train station connects it to the mainland’s heralded high-speed network—but is useless for traveling inside Hong Kong itself. The high-speed station is also controversial because part of its customs area is controlled by mainland Chinese officials, meaning that that bit of Hong Kong is subject to mainland Chinese law, which goes against Hong Kong’s miniature constitution. In addition, billions of dollars have been wasted on these projects by the government.

Add to this the notorious kidnappings of Hong Kong booksellers by Chinese authorities in 2015 and the disqualification of lawmakers from parliament and imprisonment of civic leaders for protest actions, and one can get a sense of the strong hopelessness and anger in Hong Kong.

And ultimately, the Hong Kong leadership is constrained by Beijing’s own paranoias. The chance of an increasingly insecure and ideologically aggressive Communist Party leadership accepting popular democracy in what it sees as part of the country is, as things stand, essentially zero. The threat of the People’s Liberation Army, with a garrison in Hong Kong itself and more troops nearby in the mainland, hangs over the city—especially around the potent 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen tragedy.

But this is also where the Hong Kong government finds itself in a difficult bind.

Whereas in 2014, people actually protested out of hope for political change, in 2019, Hong Kongers are protesting out of a sense of frustration and desperation. That’s why Sunday’s giant peaceful march was followed by violent clashes after midnight between police and young protesters, many of whom looked no older than teenagers. And why thousands of protesters started gathering outside the legislature early on Wednesday morning, forcing the legislature proceedings to be postponed before facing off against the police. Simply put, the Hong Kong public has little to lose.

Some people felt that after the futility of the Umbrella Movement, as memorable as it was, Hong Kong was too spent and disillusioned to engage in mass protests again. The million-plus march on Sunday put an end to those doubts, as did the April 28 march and the Tiananmen vigil on June 6 that saw 180,000 turn out—the highest number since 2014. Wednesday’s protests, which shut down the legislature and surrounding streets, showed a resurgence of the fighting spirit and sense of community that characterized the Umbrella Movement,

However, one significant difference between the Umbrella Movement and the movement against the extradition bill is that the former was divisive, with many people holding sharply split views on the usefulness of agitating for political change. This time, there is no such conflict: People from across Hong Kong society have come out against the extradition bill. Whether it be the legal sector or retired judges or even business associations, concern has almost been unanimous. By Tuesday, hundreds of local businesses had announced they would shut down on Wednesday to allow employees to attend the protest, while around 100 art organizations and centers also followed suit.

I saw this myself during the march on Sunday as Hong Kongers of all ages and classes, including families and elderly people, braved the hot sun and hours of delay at the starting point to walk through three districts to the government headquarters. This wasn’t youthful radicalism, though there was a bit of that at night, or naive idealism, but a mix of grim realization and defiance against the idea that the city they loved might be destroyed.

Hong Kongers are showing they will not go down without a fight. Even if the Hong Kong government pushes forward with the extradition bill and gets it passed, the chasm in Hong Kong between the government and the people is insurmountable.


Hilton Yip is a journalist in Taiwan.