Read: The infamous date that looms over the Hong Kong protests
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.
Read: Remembering Tiananmen Square is dangerous, even in Hong Kong
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.)