Protesters’ Evolution and Beijing’s Constraint

Ho-fung Hung is the Henry M. and Elizabeth P. Wiesenfeld Professor in Political Economy at the Sociology Department at the Paul H Nitze School of Advanced International Studies of the Johns Hopkins University. He recently authored a chapter entitled ‘Chinese state capitalism in Hong Kong’ in the Routledge Handbook of Contemporary Hong Kong (Routledge, 2018). In his blog, for Hong Kong Insight, Hung reflects on the Hong Kong government’s recent decision to suspend its efforts to pass its extradition law and considers both the external and internal pressures leading to this back down.

Hong Kong protesters once again achieved what had been unimaginable a few weeks ago – forcing the Hong Kong government, and Beijing behind it, to back down on the controversial extradition law through nonviolent resistance. Even though the government only promised a temporary suspension of the legislative process, short of complete withdrawal of the law as protestors requested, it is unlikely the government will try to push for it again anytime soon. And even if the government completely withdraws the bill, it can still re-introduce it in the future. The extradition bill is undoubtedly dead for now, thanks to the protestors. 

Before the Hong Kong government announced the suspension of the legislative process for extradition bill on June 14, Chinese ambassador to UK Liu Xiaoming distanced Beijing from the bill, saying Beijing had never directed Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam to introduce the bill. This is obviously just a face-saving device to make the back-down look like a retreat of the Hong Kong government but not of Beijing. But just in late May, Politburo Standing Committee member and Vice Premier Han Zheng, together with other high ranking Beijing officials in charge of Hong Kong Affairs, enthusiastically backed the bill and urged Hong Kong business leaders, some of whom had expressed doubts about it, to support it. It is undeniable Beijing had been behind the bill. The defeat of the Hong Kong government by protesters is a defeat of Beijing.

Beijing miscalculated the resistance that the bill would invoke. It probably expected that following the massive crackdown on Hong Kong’s civil society, after the 2014 Umbrella Movement and 2016 Mongkok uprising, Hong Kong society had lost its will and capacity to resist Beijing, as many core activists and leaders have been put behind bars or gone into exile. But the resilience of Hong Kong’s civil society surprised the world. Protesters turned out peacefully and orderly in the millions on June 9 and again on June 16. Anonymous militant youngsters organized themselves through social media to defy tear gas and rubber bullets, effectively paralyzing the government headquarter and legislative council on June 12, the day when the bill was supposed to go through second reading in the council. By the night of June 12, it was clear that there was no way the government could push through the bill without larger bloodshed.

Image credit: 9 June 2019 antiextradition by Etan Liam/Flickr, license CC BY-ND 2.0 

The resistance and Beijing’s retreat illustrate two things that are worth noticing. First, Beijing still faces large constraint when cracking down on Hong Kong. It simply cannot repress Hong Kong as harshly as it does Xinjiang and Tibet. It has to back away from the edge of deadly conflict, first in 2003 during the Article 23 legislation and then now. Beijing still needs international recognition of Hong Kong’s autonomy and its special trading status, and a bloody crackdown would surely jeopardize that recognition. The statement of the US state department and US Congress leaders explicitly linked the extradition bill to US reconsideration of recognizing Hong Kong’s autonomy from China under the US-Hong Kong Policy Act, indicating the US might terminate its legal treatment of Hong Kong as an independent custom territory separate from mainland China should the law pass. This international reconsideration of Hong Kong special trading status comes at a time when China needs it most amidst the escalating US-China trade war. It put tremendous constraint on Beijing in dealing with popular opposition to the bill in Hong Kong. 

Second, the younger generation of protesters, having grown up under the inspiration of the 2014 Umbrella movement and the Mongkok uprising in 2016, have become the new core force of resistance. The guerilla street battle on June 12 shows that they are more courageous, agile, and spontaneous than the Umbrella occupiers. They did not seek to occupy particular territory and hold it – as the Occupy Central protesters did in 2014. Instead, they dispersed after paralyzing Hong Kong’s government headquarter for the day, retaining their strength and getting ready for another round of street battle, as they did on June 21, when tens of thousands of protesters encircled the police headquarters and other governmental offices to demand the government’s complete withdrawal of the bill and the withdrawal of charges against arrested protesters. These young protesters are the new antibodies of Hong Kong society against Beijing’s encroachment.

Beijing’s constraint on Hong Kong, combined with the growing up of a new generation of militant protesters, are the forces behind the miraculous back-down of the government on the extradition bill. These forces are going to continue shaping the course of conflict between Hong Kong society and Beijing in the years to come.