How China Lost Hong Kong

Compromise or crackdown are the only options left for Beijing.

A riot police officer advances during a demonstration in Sheung Wan on July 28, 2019 in Hong Kong, China.
A riot police officer advances during a demonstration in Sheung Wan on July 28, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. Laurel Chor/Getty Images

Over the past two weekends, as crowds of pro-democracy protesters massed in Hong Kong’s Sheung Wan district, they adopted a slogan that had not been heard in the previous weeks of protest. Cries of “Go Hong Kongers!” “No extradition to China!” and “Withdraw the bill!” have been common, referencing the proposed extradition law that ignited the movement.

But recently, with the roar of their voices amplified and echoing in the cavern created by the surrounding buildings and overhead freeway bridges, the crowd has been chanting: “Reclaim Hong Kong! Revolution of our time!” That’s a frightening slogan for the city’s establishment, one that points to just how deeply Hong Kongers have turned against Beijing and one that may prompt a dangerous response.

The slogan was created by Edward Leung Tin-kei, who first came into prominence as the public face of Hong Kong Indigenous, one of several localist groups that formed in the wake of the Umbrella Movement in 2014. In February 2016, at age 24, Leung ran as the group’s candidate in a by-election for Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, and, while he did not win, he shocked the establishment by winning 15 percent of the vote. Leung was barred from running for office again on the grounds that his support for Hong Kong independence violated the foundational “One Country, Two Systems” principle for the region laid down by Beijing, and last year he was sentenced to six years’ jail for his role in the Mong Kok “Fishball Riots” of 2016.

This was not the first time Leung’s name had appeared in connection with the current wave of protests: “Release Edward Leung” was among the slogans graffitied by protesters inside Hong Kong’s Legislative Council building following their storming of the building on July 1. But the crowd taking up Leung’s slogan with such gusto in the past two weekends after they had marched on Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong and vandalized the building, throwing black paint on the national emblem, was a clear sign of defiance.

Wang Zhimin, the director of the liaison office, bristled at the protesters’ actions, which he said had “seriously hurt the feelings of all Chinese people” and “challenged the bottom line” of Beijing’s authority over Hong Kong. But if it were not already clear from the previous weeks of protest, it must have been clear now: Beijing has lost the hearts and minds of this generation of Hong Kongers.

This sentiment is supported by survey results announced by the University of Hong Kong’s Public Opinion Programme on June 27, which showed the number of respondents identifying as “Hong Kongers,” rather than “Chinese,” was at an all-time high since the handover and pride at being a Chinese citizen at an all-time low. Net support of the central government’s policy toward Hong Kong was at negative 30 percent, its lowest level ever. Ten years earlier, net approval was at positive 42 percent. How had it come to this?

Leung’s fate is a symptom of how toxic the atmosphere in the city has become. In the five years since the Umbrella Movement concluded with none of the protesters’ demands met, the Hong Kong authorities—presumably backed by Beijing—had undertaken a steady crackdown on dissent in the city. Young activists such as Leung, and other figures from Umbrella Movement-inspired youth political parties such as Joshua Wong’s Demosisto, were barred from participating in elections on the same violation of the Basic Law used to exclude Leung, given that their party platforms also contained references to self-determination.

When several of the democratic movement’s candidates ran for office and were successfully elected into the Legislative Council in the 2016 elections, they engaged in various acts of protest while taking their oaths of office. That prompted Beijing to issue a reinterpretation of Hong Kong’s Basic Law that gave the Hong Kong government the legal basis to unceremoniously dismiss six elected pan-democrat legislators from office. Meanwhile, the government aggressively prosecuted and jailed protest leaders and activists for their roles in the peaceful Umbrella Movement protests as well as the violent Fishball Riots.

This crackdown on dissent was clearly intended to bring Hong Kong to heel after the Umbrella Movement but instead has succeeded only in fueling resentment against Beijing and its proxies in Hong Kong. With current Chief Executive Carrie Lam, Hong Kongers feel they have a leader who, like her predecessors, places Beijing’s interests above their own. The reviled extradition law—which would have facilitated the extradition of criminal suspects from Hong Kong to face trial in mainland courts—was emblematic of this. Reliable reports that this was Lam’s own initiative, and not imposed on her by Beijing, only seem to have stoked anger at Lam and by extension the system of governance under which Hong Kongers have one unpopular leader after another forced on them.

Hong Kong has been stuck in an ongoing stalemate with Beijing’s attempts to stifle dissent and suppress the city, followed by outbursts of popular protest in a seemingly endless cycle. It is a status quo that pleases nobody. Beijing can hardly be pleased to have a city on the fringes of its empire that is so openly defiant. Hong Kongers are similarly displeased at the sense that they are no longer masters of their own fates and are gradually being absorbed and assimilated into the rest of China, from which they still consider themselves to have a unique identity.

As for the activist generation, with participation in the formal political process foreclosed to them and their peaceful marches ignored by those in power, many are inclined to forgive their frustration bursting out on the streets, inside the Legislative Council, and outside Beijing’s liaison office. Among the graffiti spray-painted by protesters on the walls of both of those buildings were the words: “It was you who taught me that peaceful marches are useless.”

Lam and her government appear to be paralyzed, unable to offer any kind of policy response. With each passing week of what is now being called the “hard hat revolution,” the issues become more difficult to resolve, not less. The violent clashes with police do not result in the protesters losing significant public support; on the contrary, blame is generally placed on the police for their excessive use of force and on Lam’s unresponsive government. At the same time, each new incident spawns new demands, and a crisis that would once have been simple to resolve—withdraw the extradition bill—has ballooned into a multiheaded problem touching on police violence, amnesties for arrested protesters, questions over triad collusion, and growing demands for universal suffrage, among other issues.

More concerning, however, is that through their attacks on the liaison office—and by summoning the specter of Leung and his separatist sympathizers—the protesters have perhaps unwittingly brought matters into a new and dangerous phase. The last week has seen a noticeable shift in rhetoric from Beijing, with the weight of the official Chinese propaganda machine unleashed against the Hong Kong protesters. Daily news reports in Chinese state media have covered the protests—unusual in itself given Beijing’s desire to avoid giving too much airtime to dissent lest it prove contagious.

Pro-China internet activists have come out in force on social media platforms targeting Hong Kong protesters. The Chinese consul general in Brisbane, Australia, praised Chinese students for their “spontaneous patriotic behavior” in disrupting a sit-in by Hong Kong students at the University of Queensland. There has been public speculation about the deployment of the People’s Liberation Army in Hong Kong by various Beijing spokespeople and their proxies. These protests are now no longer just about Hong Kong; they have become a matter of Chinese national prestige and sovereignty. Beijing will also not be pleased at the major demonstration at Hong Kong International Airport this week bringing further international attention to the protesters’ cause.

Beijing has little room left in the middle ground. Notwithstanding the bluster, a harsh crackdown to crush the protests, they recognize, would be catastrophic for China’s global standing and Hong Kong’s status as an international financial center and would also risk provoking the entire city into genuine revolt. At a rare and widely watched press conference on Monday, spokespeople for the State Council’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office seemed to take a conciliatory tone, tacitly acknowledging the legitimacy of the peaceful protests while also expressing support for Lam and stressing that the “extreme elements” involved in violent protest must be brought to justice. Unfortunately, Beijing still frames the problems in Hong Kong largely in economic terms: Solving the problem of housing affordability and boosting the economy, they seem to believe, would solve the current tensions in Hong Kong.

But if Beijing really wants to get protestors off the streets, it should listen to their chants and help them fulfill their desire to “reclaim Hong Kong” by facilitating their participation in the governance of their city and giving Hong Kongers the higher degrees of democracy and autonomy that they crave. Unfortunately, Beijing’s urge to intrude in the governance of Hong Kong, and the increasing reflex for control that the current administration exerts, means that this is unlikely.

It may, however, be better than the alternative, if Hong Kong is to win back its much-treasured stability and prosperity. It is in both Beijing and Hong Kong’s interest that this be achieved without a “revolution of our time.”


Antony Dapiran is a Hong Kong-based writer and lawyer and the author of City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong.