Will Hong Kong Flare Up or Flame Out?
How the protesters got here—and what will happen next.
For the last several months, protesters in Hong Kong have staged increasingly frequent demonstrations over a controversial bill that would have allowed virtually anyone in Hong Kong facing criminal charges to be extradited to mainland China. Although the Hong Kong government has since suspended the measure, the protests have taken on a broader set of complaints—including the very nature of the region’s relationship to Beijing.
As the unrest continues, we’ve collected our top reads on how Hong Kong got here and where it is heading.
Before the bill was introduced this spring, it was already clear that China and Hong Kong were on a collision course. “Chinese President Xi Jinping has concentrated power and suppressed opposition in mainland China like no leader since Mao Zedong,” the Lowy Institute’s Ben Bland writes. “[S]o too has he looked to stamp out dissent in politically defiant Hong Kong.” In turn, “[w]ithin the last three years, the Hong Kong government, which is appointed by Beijing, has taken many unprecedentedly repressive steps,” Bland explains. “It has disqualified elected lawmakers, banned young activists from running for office, prohibited a political party, jailed pro-democracy protest leaders … expelled a senior foreign journalist, and looked the other way when Beijing kidnapped its adversaries in Hong Kong.” Publishers have also faced harassment and imprisonment, PEN America’s James Tager notes.
Such repression, the Hong Kong-based writer Antony Dapiran adds, comes on the heels of the 2014 Umbrella Movement—pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong that ended with none of the protesters’ demands met. The “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,” he argues.
Against this background, it was perhaps not surprising that when the Hong Kong government introduced the extradition measure, the public exploded. Even the region’s business class, “usually a conservative and cautious group,” the Hong Kong writers Dominic Chiu and Tiffany Wong observe, got involved in June, as “more than a thousand local businesses participated in the city’s first general strike since the 1960s.”
For her part, the region’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, was in an uncomfortable spot. As the journalist Hilton Yip reports, “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.”
Although Lam was eventually forced to backtrack on the bill, the larger questions about Hong Kong’s relationship to China remain. Under the “one country, two systems” doctrine, Foreign Policy’s James Palmer explains, Hong Kong was supposed to be able to “preserve its own unique legal system, borders, and government until 2047, when it could be fully incorporated into the People’s Republic of China.” That system has already started to break down, and “increasingly, Hong Kongers are convinced the Chinese government doesn’t want to wait 28 more years to exert control.”
Even if it does wait, China certainly doesn’t want Hong Kong to persist as a bastion of anti-Beijing protest in the meantime. Nor does it want the “one country, two systems” arrangement to break down across the nation. As Derek Grossman of Rand Corp. points out, the situation in Hong Kong “inspires little confidence in nearby Taiwan—the prime target of Beijing’s messaging over one country, two systems. The ambition on the mainland side has long been ‘peaceful reunification’—a voluntary submission by Taiwan, sold under the promise that the island would retain its own systems of law and government.”
So far, Beijing has opted not to send the military into Hong Kong, but as Palmer notes, there are still fears that it could send in “the People’s Liberation Army (or the paramilitary forces, the People’s Armed Police) to quell the movement—possibly resulting in a second Tiananmen.” Indeed, Yip writes, “The paramilitary PAP actually does much of the dirty work domestically in clamping down on internal dissent. Tasked with maintaining internal security as well as counterterrorism, the PAP is very active in Xinjiang and Tibet.”
As to whether the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would risk another Tiananmen, Jude Blanchette of the Center for Strategic and International Studies argues that “the great arc of CCP history—indeed, of one-party political systems in general—shows that international opprobrium and domestic blowback are manageable, if costly. The uncontrolled deterioration of political authority is not. And that’s exactly what Beijing sees in Hong Kong right now.” It is thus not surprising, she says, that in the last few weeks, “Beijing has ramped up its rhetoric against the protesters in the past week, ominously likening them to terrorists.”
Short of a military intervention, Beijing has attempted to undermine the protests in other ways as well. “There is mounting evidence,” the author Andreas Fulda reports, “that Hong Kong’s popular uprising has prompted the Chinese Communist Party to unleash the demons of ethnonationalist violence. Hong Kongers are increasingly seen by the center as just another restive minority—and thus potentially subject to the hard-line policy deployed in Xinjiang and Tibet.” And Hong Kongers are already facing harassment from mainlanders not only in China but abroad as well, especially in universities, Macquarie University’s Kevin Carrico notes.
Beijing has also attempted to write the movement off as the work of foreigners. After a 2 million-person march in June (one of the largest protests in modern history), China was quick to point to the hand of “hostile foreign forces.” To be sure, Yip writes, “[t]here is genuine concern among some CCP leaders of foreign support for public movements calling for overthrowing the government. In part, that’s because the CCP has so effectively crushed civil society, especially in recent years.” But, he argues, “it’s also very effective propaganda for a domestic audience that has been primed to see the outside world as hostile.” Far from silly, Thomas Kellogg of the Georgetown Center for Asian Law concurs, “there are good reasons for Beijing’s use of such seemingly clumsy tactics. Like U.S. President Donald Trump, Beijing long ago realized that outlandish claims can put your adversary on the defensive and at least partially distract from the substantive issue at hand.”
Blaming outsiders—especially the United States—is also good for Chinese hawks, Newsweek’s Melinda Liu argues, who are increasingly ensnared in a trade war with Washington. For its part, Washington warned that the original extradition bill could violate U.S. law, Bland points out, which could prompt the United States to revoke its special trade treatment of Hong Kong. “The city’s 7 million people would undoubtedly suffer from the economic fallout of any such move,” he concludes, but “Beijing would also have much to lose.”
As for what happens next, the journalist Karen Cheung cautions that protest movements are long, hard slogs. “[I]mages of young, peaceful protesters have since been widely circulated, hailed as the faces of the David and Goliath struggle against China,” she notes. “But romanticizing the movement is dangerous for Hong Kong.” It is important to remember, she concludes, that “[t]here is still a 30-year battle ahead of the city, and not every protest can be beautiful and huge: The encroaching tyranny behind these scenes can be easily forgotten. Only when oppression is fought on a day-to-day basis—with Hong Kongers exercising the few voting rights they are given, and teachers, lawyers, parents, journalists, and others all playing their part in educating the next generation—can the movement sustain itself.”
Kathryn Salam is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy.