HONG KONG—Call it a victory for Hong Kong’s protesters. But the battle is far from over.
Hours after reportedly having met with a senior Chinese official, a stern-faced Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Beijing-friendly chief executive, announced that her government would temporarily suspend plans to push through a law that would allow suspected criminals to be extradited to mainland China.
Her speech capped a remarkable week here. Last weekend, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest the bill, one of the biggest demonstrations the city has ever seen. Indeed, the broad unpopularity of the proposed extradition law is difficult to overstate: It has united students, lawyers, pro-democracy legislators, corporate executives, and others against its passing.
In context, the law is the latest in a series of pushes to erode Hong Kong’s autonomy. Under the terms of its handover from the United Kingdom to China in 1997, the city was guaranteed a degree of independence, and maintains its own elections, currency, immigration rules, and legal system; the latter has been seen as under threat from the extradition law. But in the past 20 years, authorities in Beijing and pro-China legislators have also tried, with various degrees of success, to promote patriotic-education requirements and, among other things, a restrictive security law banning sedition.
China’s abduction of booksellers and businessmen from Hong Kong has fueled concerns over the extradition law that anybody passing through the city, which has one of the world’s busiest international airports, could be spirited away and fed into the Chinese legal system.
So with further demonstrations looming in the coming days—a Sunday protest march and a potential occupation Monday of the grounds surrounding Hong Kong’s legislature—China’s government may have reined in Lam. With China already locked in a trade war with the United States, grappling with a slowing economy, and worried about accelerating inflation, a repeat of the optics of June 12, when a patch of downtown Hong Kong was obscured by clouds of tear gas as police shot rubber bullets and pepper spray while clashing with angry protesters, is probably not what China’s rulers want right now.
Lam’s climbdown was delivered with a sorry-not-sorry tone as she called the police’s behavior three days earlier “reasonable and responsible.” The bill’s suspension was not enough to cancel Sunday’s march—dissatisfied Hong Kongers are demanding the bill be permanently shelved—but it was a remarkable achievement. Both Lam and her backers in Beijing, neither fond of compromise, had appeared to be digging in to make sure the law was passed.
Still, few here are under any illusion that this will end the constant challenges to the rights and freedoms enjoyed by Hong Kong’s 7 million residents.
“Right now, things feel pretty hopeless,” one protester told me after Lam’s announcement. The 30-year-old demonstrator requested anonymity to speak freely, indicative of worries here that those who challenge Beijing’s authority could one day face retribution. “But you still see so many people willing to come out and protest despite the hopelessness—it really feels like it’s now or never here,” the protester said. Like many people his age here, he is by now a protest veteran, having demonstrated against several actions taken by Beijing and its supporters in the government, as well as in the Umbrella Movement of 2014, during which protesters occupied major thoroughfares for 79 days, demanding the right to nominate and vote for their chief executive.
Not only did that movement not achieve its goal, though; it precipitated a slow, steady countermovement by the government against Hong Kong activists, legal protections, and the judicial system.
Hong Kong, at present, is by no means a full-fledged democracy. The city has a free press and an independent judiciary, and is allowed to manage its own economy. But Hong Kongers are able to vote for only half of their legislators, the other half of which are selected by representatives from the territory’s business sectors, who typically work in or trade with China, and so tend to back Beijing. An election committee of 1,200 people, usually with pro-Beijing leanings, selects the chief executive. This has meant that since the 1997 handover, the Chinese Communist Party has loomed large over politics here. (Even by that standard, Lam has been particularly supportive of China. “You may say that it’s shoe-shining, but I have to say I find President Xi [Jinping] more and more charismatic and admirable in the things that he is doing and saying,” Lam told the Financial Times in an interview last year.)
“Time and again, successive Hong Kong leaders—handpicked by Beijing—have failed to defend Hong Kong’s autonomy, and Ms. Lam has been no exception,” Maya Wang, a senior China researcher at Human Rights Watch, told me. Wang pointed to moves by Hong Kong officials to ban a political party, disqualify pro-democracy advocates from elections, and subject others to what she said were politically motivated prosecutions. “I think the Hong Kong and Beijing governments have cracked down on Hong Kong following the Umbrella Movement, to punish and tighten grip over the territory,” she said.
There are other challenges for those who oppose efforts to reduce freedoms here. Even if the extradition law never resurfaces, another, ill-defined bill awaits, which, if passed, could hand those who disrespect the Chinese national anthem a maximum fine of $6,400 and a three-year prison sentence—the anthem is regularly booed by Hong Kongers at soccer matches here. Activists fear other such efforts and, regardless of whether each individual move succeeds, the specter of 2047, when Hong Kong becomes eligible to be fully absorbed by China, is ever present.
Lam’s government consistently claims that its response to protest movements, including jailing the leaders of the Umbrella Movement, has not been politically motivated. Even if that were the case, it doesn’t seem to be stopping protests in Hong Kong, but rather adding kindling to the fire. There is an existential feel to the demonstrations here—unlike in 2014, when they demanded universal suffrage to choose the chief executive, Hong Kongers are not fighting for greater freedoms; they are instead fighting to keep the remaining freedoms they have. That may be why leaders no longer appear to be necessary for the movement here. The recent protests have been decentralized, quickly organized affairs fueled by a shared identity and fate.
Wearing a black shirt he said was out of mourning for Hong Kong, the protester I spoke with insisted on the importance of critical thinking, and of being able to express one’s opinion and question authority. “The government doesn’t listen to or accept what the people are telling it; this has betrayed our democratic ideals,” he said. “Now is our chance to express our views to the government—we have to stand up before our situation gets even worse.”