On Monday, roughly 30 years after Chinese tanks rolled through Tiananmen Square, anti-Beijing protesters in Hong Kong decided it was time for a confrontation. The Beijing-backed Hong Kong government had ignored their demands for the full withdrawal of draft legislation that would facilitate extraditions to mainland China and, according to the opposition, further erode Hong Kong’s autonomy. So, hundreds of protesters sieged the building of the Legislative Council, or LegCo, and then used a makeshift battering ram to smash their way inside. After scribbling some demands on the main wall and raising the British colonial flag, they were dispersed with tear gas.
In the universe of protests, this is hardly exceptional. But it was unprecedented for the order- and business-obsessed Special Administrative Region, where tens of thousands regularly take to the streets in opposition to Chinese encroachment but typically refrain from breaking things along the way. Given Beijing’s fear of and experience in crushing social movements, the move was bold, to say the least. And given the staying power of the underlying socioeconomic conditions fueling the unrest, this sort of incident is unlikely to be the last.
Beijing has made it clear that it isn’t about to look the other way. On Tuesday, Chinese state media labeled the incident “a public challenge to the bottom line of ‘One Country, Two Systems,’” called for a crackdown, and lamented the damage the protests were doing to Hong Kong’s economy (a statement designed to remind mainland audiences that Communist Party-imposed order is largely to thank for China’s breakneck economic rise, as well as to keep Hong Kong elites from throwing support behind the opposition). More pointedly, the People’s Liberation Army announced that its garrison in Hong Kong had been holding drills to review its “combat abilities in emergency dispatches.” Is Hong Kong headed for its own Tiananmen moment?
A Different Kind of Protest?
It would be a mistake to assume that the LegCo invasion was part of a master plan to force an eventual showdown with Beijing. Unlike the other protests in recent months, where plans and tactics were laid out and debated online ahead of time, the decision to storm the building was widely reported to have been abruptly made on site, following a show-of-hands vote among a group of just 200 protesters. After the crackdown, protest leader Joshua Wong said that the LegCo invaders were merely acting out of anger and desperation following the suicides of three of their own.
Nor was the incident indicative of a broader radicalization of Hong Kong’s opposition movement. The bulk of the hundreds of thousands of pro-democracy protesters who took to the streets on Monday (as they do every year on the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China) marched peacefully on a route that steered well clear of the government complex. Moreover, the group that took over LegCo, consisting mostly of students and other youths, is hardly demographically representative of the opposition movement as a whole – much less of the broad slice of the Hong Kong citizenry that the opposition would need to attract to push the government and Beijing to capitulation. Polls suggest that the hard-liner’s dismay with the Hong Kong government and Beijing’s creeping dominance of the city, as symbolized by the extradition bill, is widely shared in Hong Kong. But there wasn’t exactly a rush of mainstream supporters arriving to help the radicals hold LegCo.
In short, there’s reason to doubt whether the more radical protesters could sustain a pattern of confrontations, even if they wanted to – and little reason to think Hong Kong authorities won’t ultimately prove capable of containing the movement and keeping Beijing on the sidelines. Indeed, the July 1 incident may only undermine the protesters’ goals.
Consider what led up to the events on July 1. Mass protests against the extradition bill have been gathering momentum for months, culminating in a mass march on June 9 that organizers said drew more than a million demonstrators. But it wasn’t until the government cracked down violently on protesters outside LegCo three days later, leaving at least 80 injured, that Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam was forced to suspend debate on the extradition bill, retract her widely ridiculed characterization of the protesters as rioters and issue a tearful apology for the whole mess.
To the protesters, the lesson was that mass marches aren’t enough. It took confrontation for the government to show its true colors and turn the public against it. And with Lam still refusing to fully withdraw the bill (despite another mass march on June 16 that drew as many as 2 million people), much less to cede to demands for her resignation, decided to try the same tactic again. But the government evidently learned the same lesson. And this time, police largely stood by as the protesters moved on LegCo. The government now has the legal standing to take the vanguard of the opposition movement off the streets, and it may have greater political cover to do so. And the divisions among the broader opposition movement, which Beijing and the Hong Kong government have routinely proved adept at exploiting, may only deepen.
Tried and True
Still, the underlying issues that have fueled the opposition to the extradition bill aren’t going away. The feeling of losing autonomy to outside forces – unforgiving market realities, mass immigration, moves by outside governments to secure their interests – is a powerful one, and the impulse to take back control by whatever means necessary can drive people to extremes, even in the world’s wealthiest cities. Youths in Hong Kong face a future shaped by each of these. For so dense a city, Hong Kong is a marvel of urban planning, but an excellent public transport system can only do so much. Its size and density have made it by far the most expensive city in the world, making home ownership a pipe dream for most. The ever-rising tide of mainland money and migrants pouring into Hong Kong has further distorted job and real estate markets for natives, fueling soaring inequality. Meanwhile, Beijing has been gradually stripping Hongkongers of the right to choose the leadership responsible for tackling the city’s mounting woes.
Beijing cannot fix these problems. Nor can it ignore their implications. If Beijing appears paralyzed on what to do beyond issuing veiled threats and condemnations, that’s because it’s following its tried-and-true playbook for managing Hong Kong.
Historically, Hong Kong’s crucial role as a gateway for foreign tech and investment to the Chinese economy compelled Beijing to keep a low profile in the city. As the economic rise of mainland counterparts like Shenzhen and Shanghai has made Hong Kong less vital, Beijing has been emboldened to protect its interests in the city with a heavier hand. But China still benefits enormously from Hong Kong’s reputation as a place that operates on rule of law. But as more and more investors become wary of navigating the pitfalls of doing business in communist China, and with the U.S. and other Western governments starting to restrict Chinese access to core technologies, Hong Kong is recovering some of its leverage over Beijing. This was made clear as protests first spiked in early June, which briefly sent Hong Kong stock markets into free fall and interbank lending rates soaring amid fears of capital flight.
What Beijing needs most is the power to prevent Hong Kong’s autonomy from being exploited by dissidents, political opponents, uncooperative tycoons, and media muckrakers to destabilize the mainland. The extradition bill would advance its powers in these areas. But, to date, the lack of an extradition treaty between the two governments hasn’t stopped Beijing from reaching in to snatch figures it deems threatening. It’s not about to sacrifice Hong Kong’s international reputation and risk an all-out insurrection by intervening too forcefully to save the bill. (Indeed, there’s been some reporting that Lam’s government was pushing the extradition bill forward on its own volition, not at Beijing’s behest).
Of course, Beijing may not want to set the precedent that it can be deterred by collective action and, especially, by acts of civil disorder. So don’t expect some grand concession. This is why Lam merely suspended debate on the bill, rather than withdrawing it altogether. But Hong Kong is a real problem for Beijing only to the extent that it threatens mainland stability. At present, there’s little evidence that the Hong Kong protests are raising the risk of similar uprisings at home. Unless this changes, Beijing will remain content to let the Hong Kong government do what’s necessary to keep a lid on matters on its behalf.