By Michael B. Cerny. Intern with the Carter Center China Program. The views expressed are the author’s and do not represent the views of The Carter Center or its associates.

‘Too little, too late?’

More than three months after the start of escalating protests and disruption, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam spoke on live television Wednesday, Sept 4th to state she will formally withdraw the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation Bill. Withdrawal of the controversial bill, which would have allowed the People’s Republic of China to extradite criminal suspects from Hong Kong to the mainland for prosecution, satisfies one of the five demands made by Hong Kong protesters in the wake of recent unrest. However, withdrawal of the bill has failed to quell disruption, sparking discussion internationally about the future of the current situation in Hong Kong.

After accusations of police brutality, a spate of political suicides, allegations of rioting and terrorism by protestors from Beijing, and a build-up of militarized Chinese police in Hong Kong’s neighbor city of Shenzhen, commentators are asking if Lam’s withdrawal of the bill is “too little and too late”? [1]

Hong Kong in Disarray

Originating from the Hong Kong government’s inability to extradite a criminal suspect to Taiwan [2] to face murder charges, the Hong Kong government first proposed the divisive bill as a form of mutual legal assistance to facilitate Taiwan’s extradition request. The bill quickly became a lightning rod for protest, as legal loopholes equally exposed Hong Kong residents to extradition and prosecution by the Chinese mainland. Due to fears that Beijing would exploit the loophole to arrest its Hong Kong-based critics, subsequent protests, whose attendance began in the tens of thousands, expanded dramatically to include over one million in participation.

With tensions left to fester for three months, protests in Hong Kong are increasingly desperate and violent, with protestors, counter-protestors, and police forces bearing varying levels of responsibility. According to Hong Kong Financial Secretary Paul Chan, unrest from the protests has contributed to a near 40% decline [3] in Hong Kong tourist visitation compared to last year. On August 9, hundreds of protestors [4] conducted a mass sit-in at the Hong Kong International Airport, angering Beijing and culminating in the resignation of airline executives [5] over airline workers’ participation. Throughout August, police forces and counter-protestors attacked protestors and civilians at Hong Kong subway stations [6]. Tear gas, water cannons, and rubber bullets [7] are also currently employed by the Hong Kong police force, and have resulted in serious cases of injury that further have inflamed tensions [8].

In the background, Beijing appears to have exercised restraint, preferring to issue statements in support of the Hong Kong government, leveraging accusations of rioting against protestors, and pushing unsubstantiated theories of Western involvement [9]. Beijing sparked international concern, however, when videos revealed online showed a build-up of 12,000 Chinese paramilitary police forces [10] in Shenzhen. While a muted response [11] was made by the White House calling for a diplomatic resolution to the protests, U.S. Senate Leader Mitch McConnell warned Beijing [12] against a violent crackdown. The United States Congress has also drafted new legislation, the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019 [13], that would grant lawmakers the ability to sanction Hong Kong government and Chinese government officials if a violent crackdown did occur. The bill has since received bipartisan support [14], but risks deepening the crisis. The President of the National Committee on US-China Relations, Stephen Orlins, stated Sunday [15], Sept. 9th that, “China has an overwhelming interest in not using force. If Hong Kong loses its separate customs status, that would be the death knell for Hong Kong.”

A Lesson Not Learned

Although Beijing has not employed force to suppress the protests, the central government’s unwillingness to withdraw its own support for the bill has only deepened problems.

Hong Kong’s previous ‘Article 23’ protests [16] offer a unique point for comparison. In 2003, the Hong Kong government attempted to pass the National Security (Legislative Provisions) Bill 2003, a bill that intended to criminalize certain acts of sedition and subversion against the central government. The legal architecture of Hong Kong Basic Law was designed to protect Hong Kong from the passage of such legislation. At issue was Hong Kong Basic Law Article 23 [17], which stated that “The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government…” Fears of Chinese influence behind the bill appeared in violation of Article 23, sparking a political firestorm and massive protest on July 1st, 2003.

Aware of the controversy surrounding the legislation, Beijing established a committee [18] to analyze Hong Kong public opinion over support for the bill, shelving the bill indefinitely after results indicated its widespread unpopularity. As David A. Rezvani, a lecturer of Asian politics at Dartmouth College, writes [19], the Hu Jintao government’s strategy in 2003 was also to “return to first principles by muting inflammatory statements against Hong Kong autonomy, instead, providing reassurances that the central government was still economically, politically and constitutionally serious about ‘one country, two systems.’” Only then did Beijing and the Hong Kong government achieve a resolution to unrest.

Despite the success of the central government in 2003, Beijing has yet to reveal a strategy that can effectively quiet the current unrest in Hong Kong. In the vacuum of central leadership, tensions have simply risen as state media continues to accuse Hong Kong protestors of rioting and terrorism [20], claims protestors vehemently deny.

The ‘Five Demands’

Given the opportunity to evolve in the absence of effective central leadership from Beijing, the future of the current Hong Kong protest movement is uncertain. Protests appear now to have transcended initial concerns over the extradition bill. To many in Hong Kong today, the extradition bill represents only a symptom of what is perceived as consistent and calculated attempts by Beijing to undermine Hong Kong’s democratic freedoms. Arguing that withdrawal of the bill is not enough, Hong Kong protestors have outlined an additional 4 demands [21]: Carrie Lam’s resignation, an official inquiry into police brutality, the unconditional release of arrested protestors, and central government retraction of the claim that Hong Kong protests are ‘riots.’

From these four demands, it is evident that the situation in Hong Kong is increasingly intractable. Resignation by Carrie Lam appeared to be a real possibility until leaked audio [22] revealed she might not have the choice to do so. Furthermore, an official inquiry into policy brutality, unconditional release of protestors, and retraction of statements by Beijing are tall orders for the Hong Kong government and Beijing to accede to. As a result, some commentators [23] have noted that use of military force by Beijing is still a real possibility. However, it is evident that Beijing is hesitant to use it.

An Uncertain Future

The deadline for Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous political arrangement is 2047. The clock may be ticking for Hong Kong democracy, but all parties, including the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement, the Hong Kong government, and Beijing, should take a step back and carefully assess whether it’s in their best interest that these protests be the tipping point for the future of the ‘one country, two systems’ arrangement. With regards to the ‘five demands,’ the Hong Kong pro-democracy movement must determine if its commitment to ideology should overwhelm the risk of military intervention in the short-term.

Beijing must continue to recognize that a crackdown in Hong Kong would sacrifice its international image, and potentially damage democratic buy-in to the Belt and Road Initiative. Considering the central government’s handling of the ‘Article 23’ protests in 2003, it is evident that Beijing has the capacity to respond strategically to protest by respecting public opinion and reiterating its support for the ‘one country, two systems’ agreement.

The situation in Hong Kong presents a unique opportunity for Beijing to exercise not only its restraint, but also its diplomatic aptitude.  The whole world is watching.

The views expressed are the author’s and do not represent the views of The Carter Center or its associates.

References:

[1] Wong, Joshua (@joshuawongcf). “Initial response to Carrie Lam: 1. Too little and too late now — Carrie Lam’s response comes after 7 lives sacrificed, more than 1,200 protestors arrested, in which many are mistreated in police station.” September 4th, 2019. https://twitter.com/joshuawongcf/status/1169167613223563264?s=20

[2] Siu, Jasmine, and Chris Lau. “Hong Kong Man Wanted for Murdering Girlfriend in Taiwan ‘Could Escape Extradition’.” South China Morning Post, April 12, 2019. https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/3005942/hong-kong-man-wanted-taiwan-murder-case-could-escape.

[3] “Hong Kong Tourism Falls 40% as Protests Continue.” BBC News. BBC, September 9, 2019. https://www.bbc.com/news/business-49630610.

[4] Lee, Danny and Zoe Low.“Hundreds of Protesters Occupy Hong Kong Airport amid Increased Security.” South China Morning Post, August 10, 2019. https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/transport/article/3022074/security-increased-hong-kong-international-airport-ahead.

[5] Park, Kyunghee. “Cathay Pacific Chairman Resigns Weeks After CEO Steps Down.” Bloomberg.com. Bloomberg, September 4, 2019. https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-09-04/cathay-chairman-john-slosar-steps-down-citing-retirement.

[6] Lam, Jeffie, Danny Mok, and Alvin Lum. “White-Clad Mob Brutally Attacks Hong Kong Protesters in MTR Station, Injuring 45.” South China Morning Post, July 24, 2019. https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/law-and-crime/article/3019524/least-10-injured-baton-wielding-mob-suspected-triad.

[7] Sum, Lok-kei. “Police Fired Sponge Grenades at Hong Kong Protesters, Force Confirms.” South China Morning Post, July 26, 2019. https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/law-and-crime/article/3020127/hong-kong-police-confirm-use-sponge-grenades-rubber.

[8] Chia, Rachel Genevieve. “This Woman Has Become the New Symbol of Hong Kong’s Protests – Here’s Why.” Business Insider Singapore, August 15, 2019. https://www.businessinsider.sg/an-eye-for-an-eye-why-a-woman-with-a-hurt-eye-has-become-the-new-symbol-of-hong-kongs-protests/.

[9] Myers, Steven Lee. “In Hong Kong Protests, China Angrily Connects Dots Back to U.S.” The New York Times. The New York Times, September 5, 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/05/world/asia/china-hong-kong-protests.html.

[10] Zhang, Phoebe. “Chinese Police Mass 12,000 Anti-Riot Officers in Shenzhen.” South China Morning Post, August 6, 2019. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/military/article/3021597/chinese-police-mass-12000-anti-riot-officers-shenzhen-drill.

[11] Trump, Donald (@realDonaldTrump). “I know President Xi of China very well. He is a great leader who very much has the respect of his people. He is also a good man in a “tough business.” I have ZERO doubt that if President Xi wants to quickly and humanely solve the Hong Kong problem, he can do it. Personal meeting?” August 14, 2019. https://twitter.com/realdonaldtrump/status/1161774305895694336?lang=en

[12] Brunnstrom, David. “U.S. Senate Leader: Any Violent Crackdown in Hong Kong Would Be…” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, August 13, 2019. https://www.reuters.com/article/us-hongkong-protests-usa-mcconnell/u-s-senate-leader-any-violent-crackdown-in-hong-kong-would-be-completely-unacceptable-idUSKCN1V21ES.

[13] To view the bill: https://www.congress.gov/bill/116th-congress/house-bill/3289

[14] Brennan, David. “‘Hong Kongers Should Be Allies of the United States’: Congress Urged to Enable Sanctions against Chinese Officials Who Threaten Territory’s Autonomy.” Newsweek, September 9, 2019. https://www.newsweek.com/hong-kong-congress-sanctions-china-officials-1458261.

[15] Lo, Kinling. “US Bill on Hong Kong ‘Risks Being Counterproductive’, Ex-Diplomat Says.” South China Morning Post, September 8, 2019. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3026252/us-bill-hong-kong-wont-help-city-out-political-crisis-former.

[16] “Huge Protest Fills HK Streets.” CNN. Cable News Network, July 2, 2003. http://edition.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/asiapcf/east/07/01/hk.protest/.

[17] To view the Basic Law: https://www.basiclaw.gov.hk/en/basiclawtext/chapter_2.html

[18] Rezvani, David A. “Has China Forgotten How Order Was Restored to Hong Kong in 2003?” South China Morning Post, September 3, 2019. https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3025171/has-china-forgotten-how-order-was-restored-hong-kong-after-2003.

[19] Rezvani, David A. “Has China Forgotten How Order Was Restored to Hong Kong in 2003?” South China Morning Post, September 3, 2019. https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3025171/has-china-forgotten-how-order-was-restored-hong-kong-after-2003.

[20] Zheng, Sarah. “Beijing Warns of ‘Signs of Terrorism’ in Violent Unrest in Hong Kong.” South China Morning Post, August 12, 2019. https://www.scmp.com/news/china/politics/article/3022438/beijing-warns-signs-terrorism-violent-unrest-hong-kong.

[21] Tong, Ronny. “Carrie Lam Has Heard Protesters’ Demands.” South China Morning Post, July 10, 2019. https://www.scmp.com/comment/opinion/article/3017719/hong-kong-extradition-protesters-made-five-demands-carrie-lam.

[22] Kuo, Lily, and Verna Yu. “Hong Kong Protests: Carrie Lam Denies Offering to Resign.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, September 3, 2019. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2019/sep/03/hong-kong-protests-carrie-lam-denies-she-considered-resigning.

[23] Anderlini, Jamil. “Hong Kong’s Future Hangs by a Thread.” Financial Times. Financial Times, August 13, 2019. https://www.ft.com/content/3fd44d40-bced-11e9-89e2-41e555e96722.