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Hong Kong

Hong Kong - What Now?

By Fraser Cameron

22 October 2019

The Hong Kong crisis – what now? 

The demonstrations in Hong Kong have now been going on for several months and are becoming more violent. Molotov cocktails have been thrown at the police who have responded by firing warning shots with live ammunition. Last week a protestor was shot and a policeman stabbed. This is highly unusual as Hong Kong has no tradition of violent protests.

As tensions mount between the public and police, Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, is struggling to restore order and find a solution. If she fails, Beijing has threatened to intervene — a move that could bring to an end what remains of the 'one country, two systems' model that was agreed when Britain returned sovereignty to China in 1997. Meanwhile Hong Kong is losing business to rival cities and tourists are staying away. 

With local elections scheduled for 24 November, there is considerable uncertainty about the future. A sweeping victory for the Pan Democratic movement would further complicate matters.

Origins

The street protests began in June in response to a proposed extradition bill under which China could request the extradition of Hong Kong residents accused of a crime in the mainland. The extradition bill was widely seen as an attack on Hong Kong's autonomy and freedom. Many feared that it would be used not only to extradite criminals but also pro-democracy dissidents to China. It was also regarded as Hong Kong kow-towing to Beijing.

Supported by China, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam refused to give way but was eventually persuaded to perform a U-turn as the protests swelled to hundreds of thousands of people. Even after agreeing to drop the bill the protests continued broadening into demands for greater democracy, improved social conditions as well as an enquiry into alleged police brutality. 

Even though the Basic law states that there should be universal suffrage there was never any agreement on how and when this should be achieved. Hong Kong's complicated electoral system ensures that only Beijing-backed candidates can be selected as chief executive. China points out that the UK never allowed genuine democracy when it was responsible for the colony –and that much of the outside comment is hypocritical. The EU and most Western governments have called for restraint, dialogue and an end to violence although some parliamentarians support the pro-democracy movement.

Speaking to the Legislative Council (LegCo) on 16 October (by video as protestors had disrupted her speech in the chamber), Carrie Lam attempted to focus on economic grievances, proposing to reclaim more land for public housing, improve job prospects and public transport. 

China’s reaction

China has threatened to intervene if the Hong Kong authorities are unable to control the situation. This would be supported by public opinion in China which considers the protestors disloyal and led by 'criminals and terrorists' supported by 'foreign black hands'. Few in China are aware of the grievances of the protestors, including the extradition bill. Beijing points to the EU’s refusal to criticise violence in Catalonia as evidence if hypocrisy. 

President Xi Jinping faces a dilemma. He does not wish to appear weak at home, especially when he faces a trade war with Washington. The US Congress has also just passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act in support of the protests. But sending in the PLA would have huge costs.  It would severely damage China’s international reputation and effectively end the 'one country, two systems' model. This would be a huge setback for Xi's hopes to secure the reunification with Taiwan. President Tsai is already using the protests in Hong Kong as part of her re-election campaign strategy. 

A military intervention would also greatly undermine Hong Kong's wider value to China as a liberal hub of international finance which could be used to support the internationalisation of the renminbi. Chinese and international businesses also appreciate Hong Kong's rule of law and independent judiciary.

Future

What happens next is unclear. Ms Lam is under pressure from Beijing not to make any more concessions. The demonstrations show no sign of abating even though protestors are prohibited from wearing masks to cover their faces. In Hong Kong, families are divided (just like Brexit) and becoming more polarised. The reputation of the police, which has never had to deal with riots before, has also suffered. 

The protests have severely damaged Hong Kong’s reputation for stability and reliability. Other centres such as Singapore, Shanghai and Shenzhen stand to benefit from the uncertainty. Above all it is difficult to see how Carrie Lam can continue in office. She has lost the confidence of most Hong Kong citizens and most likely the authorities in China. A new leadership can start trying to heal the wounds by consulting more widely on social and economic grievances, and launching an enquiry into the police use of force while explaining that demands for complete autonomy are totally unrealistic. There is no magic bullet to resolve the current situation. Patience and a readiness to compromise are required instead of illusory