by Yehmin Wu

Two months in and there is still no end in sight for the ongoing protests in Hong Kong. With increasing bloodshed, any resolution is destined to be temporal, and the summer of 2019 will be marked as a historical moment that cast a long shadow into the future of East Asian geopolitics. 

What makes the protests in Hong Kong special?

“Be water,” as protestors remind one another, marks the decentralized character of the string of protests that has no “main-stage.” Unlike the Umbrella Movement in 2014, the Anti-extradition Bill Protests do not occupy any designated location, hence there were not one single main-stage, nor particular iconic figures representing and leading the protests. “Each puts in own efforts when climbing a mountain (兄弟爬山,各自努力).” Protestors with different professions assumed different positions in the movement, as seen in the creativity and mobility throughout the 2 months of continued protests and sporadic clashes across the city.

While the 2014 Umbrella Movement consisted more of the younger generation, mainly students, the Anti-extradition Bill Protests managed to summon wider sections of the society in joining the protests and strikes. In several brutal police crackdowns in July, elder members of the local community who did not actively join the protests stood up against the police, forcing them to retreat, when the police fired tear gas at the youngsters in their neighborhood. Civil servants, following lawyers, accountants, medical practitioners, priests, voiced their concern over the bill and/or made statements supporting the protests. 

The flexibility and cross-sector participation seen in the protests have made it more difficult for the Hong Kong Government to adopt tactics of attrition and let the movement exhausted their momentum as they did in 2014, leaving less leeway between its citizens and Beijing for Hong Kong government.

Apathetic reactions from the Hong Kong government and Beijing

On July 9, after delaying the legislative process after the protests and incidents of protestors committed suicide in June, Carrie Lam declared that the Extradition Bill “is dead,” but refused to withdraw the bill from the Legislative Council. 

Throughout July, as violent confrontations became more frequent, many also witnessed peaceful protestors and reporters pursuit and beaten by the police. There were videos showing police standing along with gangsters who raided metro stations and beat up passers-by, reinforcing the perception that police force is colluding with the gangsters. 

The protestors grew resentful of the Hong Kong Police Force and demanded more oversight and investigation into the police for excessive use of force. Carrie Lam, however, behaved ever more adamant in defending the police force and their handling of the protests and refused to conduct an independent investigation. 

The series of events see the popular discontent spilled well over the controversial bill. The unmet promise of democracy and autonomous in Hong Kong under “One Country, Two Systems” model became one of the five major demands of the protestors, one that was not in the foreground when the protests first broke out in June.

In the face of mounting pressure, the escalating remarks made by the Hong Kong Government and the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office of PRC State Council (HMO) officials displayed several misconceptions about the protests. Decisions based on these misconceptions risk extending the impasse and more detrimental outcomes down the road.

Beijing added fuel to the conflicts between mainland Chinese and Hong Kongers

From the outset, media coverage and the controlled circulation of information on the Internet in China serve as a lens into Beijing’s attitude towards the protests. When the massive rally of millions of Hong Konger took to the streets on June 9, Beijing was quick to censor the news. In the following days, Chinese state media continued to downplay the graveness of the incidents, even when the protestors stormed and briefly occupied the Legislative Council on July 1. 

Yet after the violent clashes in Yuen Long on the night of July 21, Chinese state media and internet outlets started to emphasize and condemn the violent elements of the “riots” in Hong Kong. Many coverages focused on the vandalization of Chinese national flags and symbols on governmental buildings while calling the protestors thugs, thereby stirred up nationalist sentiments of Chinese netizens. Many of these comments showcase the effects Beijing would like to portray the unrest and share a few similar trains of thought in their rhetorics.

Misconception of the “extreme radicals” and economic struggles

Firstly, it is common for Chinese officials to paint public resentment towards the government as being incited by a few radicals, as they did on issues relating to Xinjiang, Tibet, and Taiwan. In the press conference on August 6, HMO spokesperson Yang Guang asserted that the current “abyss” involved a handful of foreign influencer and some violent radicals, tagging onto the majority of misguided citizens.

It is also common for Chinese netizens to see the protests in Hong Kong as a betrayal to the motherland and was fomented by a handful of extreme radicals. Many of these internet patriots urged for the use of People’s Liberation Army Garrison in Hong Kong to wipe out the “extremists.” 

Another common perception circulating in Chinese internet forums and op-ed of Chinese state media is that the Hong Kongers are ungratified about the economic prosperity brought by mainland Chinese investment and tourism. As Hong Kong constitute a decreasing percentage of national GDP since its handover in 1997, Chinese netizens bloated that it is now mainland China, with its massive consumption power, saving Hong Kong from decline. Young Hong Kong protestors are often referred to as “trash youth,” asserting that these youngsters are the bitter losers in the process of economic integration with mainland China. 

Along this line of thinking, when being asked how the central government would help alleviate the problem of unemployment and housing in Hong Kong, HMO portrayed Guangdong-Hong Kong-Macao “Greater Bay Area” development plan as an economic inducement to boost Hong Kong’s economy, thereby offer the young Hong Kongers a brighter future. 

While the economic environment may be one of many contributing factors to the current discontent, the Greater Bay Area plan has not resonated much with the younger generation of Hong Kong since it was first introduced, for fear that it would further dilute the identity of Hong Kong and increase its economic dependency on mainland China. 

Misconception of Hong Kong independence and foreign influence

The economic rhetoric can be seen as refraction of how Chinese officials were shunning the fundamental problem of the political system in Hong Kong. As the protest prolonged, more political demands surfaced. Hong Kong Government and HMO lashed out more harsh remarks and nettled the protestors even more.

Backed by Beijing, Carrie Lam on August 5 condemned the “widespread disruption and violence” and cited the slogan “Reclaim Hong Kong, revolution of our time” as a challenge to the “One Country, Two Systems.”

The connotation of an independent Hong Kong contained in the slogan is regarded by the Chinese government as a crossing of a redline that it cannot tolerate. In a seminarhosted by HMO and China Liaison Office of Hong Kong on August 7, the head of HMO deemed the protest “has clear color revolution characteristics.” On August 12, HMO asserted “signs of terrorism” in the protests.

Meanwhile, Ministry of Foreign Affairs of China (PRC MOFA) and HMO have been naming the US as the “black hand” behind the crisis. Following PRC MOFA spokesperson Hua Chunying’s remark, HMO on August 6 also cited the criticism of by many US politicians and the meeting between a Hong Kong media tycoon with Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as evidence of “foreign intervention.” After a US diplomat in Hong Kong met with Joshua Huang, the central figure of the Umbrella Movement, China’s state broadcaster CCTV call the diplomat as “the black hand behind-the-scenes that created the chaos in Hong Kong.”

The latest survey tells a different story

The above depiction of the protests, however, are unsubstantiated if not misleading. According toa survey conducted byHong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (HKPORI, a continuation of the Public Opinion Programme (POP) of The University of Hong Kong) in late July, 69% of the respondents were against the Extradition Bill, while only 19% were supportive of the bill. 

On the violence seen in the latest protests, 61% of the respondents, and up to a whopping 91% in the age group under 29 years old, were unhappy with the performance of Hong Kong Police Force, while 44% considered the protestors may utilize violent means too often.

Also worth noticing in the survey is that 81% of the respondents pointed to the “distrust of the PRC Central Government” as the dominant factor leading to the current discontent, followed by the distrust of “One Country, Two Systems” (75%) and the distrust of Chief Executive Carrie Lam (75%). Meanwhile, a relatively low percentage of the respondent (58%) agreed that housing problem and overall economic environment (48%) are the dominant drivers.

In the same survey, Carrie Lam, Hong Kong Police Force, and PRC central government (in the exact order) are the top three actors to be held responsible for the current crisis, and “foreign influence” considered the least important, according to the respondents.

Therefore, Beijing and the Hong Kong Government, intentionally or not, fail to address the angst at the core of the protests. How would these gaps of perceptions affect the outlook of the protests? 

Beijing continues pushing Hong Kong further away 

On one hand, the current public unrest has indeed demanded more reform in the political system. However, characterizing the protests as pro-Hong Kong independence, based on the slogan of “Reclaim Hong Kong, revolution of our time” may push the Hong Kongers further away from Beijing.

The five demands of the protests are centered around restoring the trust and rule of law in the Hong Kong government and uphold the autonomous status promised in the “One country, two systems.” Aside from the demand for universal suffrage, they include the complete withdrawal of the bill, revoke the characterization of the protests as “riots” and all litigation on protestors, and demand for inspection of the excessive use of force by the Hong Kong Police Force. 

These demands are still steps apart from breaking away from PRC. If anything, these demands would strengthen the city’s confidence in “One country, two systems” model, rather than diminishing it. Treating these demands as separatist pro-Hong Kong independence, in turn, exposes the governing mindset of Beijing, that political freedom is intolerable under PRC rule in the end, and that Hong Kong Basic Law has no binding power. 

Sending PLA troops would be tremendously costly

Adding to the tension, the possibility of PLA operating in Hong Kong has not been ruled out. PRC’s HMO held its first press conference on July 29 to voice its “resolute support” for Carrie Lam and Hong Kong Police Force. 

On August 6, HMO spokesperson Yang Guang reiterated that “China will not tolerate any aggression to the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ bottom line left unpunished, and will not allow riots threatening the unity and security of the country that cannot be contained by Hong Kong Government to happen in Hong Kong.”  

Yet sending PLA troops onto the street of Hong Kong would do a great disservice to Beijing as it will send a chilling message to the world in a time when China wants to stabilize its slowing economic growth. 

For the time being, Hong Kong still serves as the interface of foreign capital and mainland Chinese corporates. While Chinese netizens have been trumpeting the fast-growing financial gravity of Shanghai, it does not has a legal system that upholds the rule of law, nor does it enjoy the special status grounded by the US-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992 of trading, VISA and other favorable terms distinct from that of mainland China. Only when Hong Kong continues to showcase the level of confidence in its stability of a free and open commercial environment can and provide 

Covert operations play into Beijing’s interest

A more likely approach would be for Beijing to keep the threat of PLA intervention floating while refraining from confirming any speculation. Intimidation and influence operations, and possibly covert support from People’s Armed Police to the Hong Kong Police Force, would be more cost-effective approaches to siphon out the support for the protests as the city grew wary of the stale repetition of protests and clashes with the police every week. 

At the same time, the influx of piecemeal information from the sites of protest creates a wide space for manipulation. The latest development witnessed hints of orchestrated information manipulation. After the latest incident on the night of August 11, in which a protestor/first-aider’s eye was permanently injured by bean bag bullet, Chinese state media People’s Daily and anonymous Facebook accounts are soon to spread posts claiming the protestor was injured by fellow protestors, or that some medical practitioners declared that the wound could not be done by bean bag rounds. Hong Kong’s Apple Daily later released avideo that caught the shell of bean bag stuck in the first-aider’s goggle, yet the perception of self-inflicted injury done by violent protestors has been widespread on Chinese social media.

If the police force gained covert support for China, it could exploit the favorable Chinese media environment, political support from Hong Kong government and Beijing, and bounty logistical resources, or even personnel, as some observers speculate, for more forceful operations. A certain amount of irritated protestors would resort to more violent measures, which would lend justification to the controversial conducts of the police. The vicious circle could continue until the public support for the protests crumbles. In such a scenario, Beijing could pull off a crackdown without triggering the alert of international society. 

A renewed Hong Kong identity and vigorous community 

Whether or not the momentum for the protests would survive is impossible to tell. However, it is almost certain that when the unrest ends, Beijing and Hong Kong government would have lost the trust of an entire generation of Hong Konger. 

In the disappointment following the 2014 Umbrella Movement, Hong Kong saw a fracturing civil society. After 5 years of infighting within the pro-democratic camp, the Anti-Extradition Bill Protests shows a different approach to garner social support. Although China has demonstrated its capability in maintaining stability in society through innovative surveillance techniques, it is impossible to erase the experience of being fired tear gas and rubber bullets, learning gestures to communicate and forming lines to transport logistics, designing creative posters and arts to convey the ideas, and scrolling anxiously for latest updates on Telegram and internet forums. 

These shared experiences would cast a deep mark into the minds (for some, their physical body) of those who participated in the protests, thereby sow the seeds for a community of politically-aware citizens. The incidents in the past 2 months have renewed the meaning of being a Hong Konger. It is an identity forged by the brute force of unresponsive governments in Hong Kong and Beijing. It is a cross-sector community has proven to be adept in performing cooperative actions, agile and resourceful in face of state oppression and confident in making political statements.

Standing at the forefront of the interface between the Chinese model of governing and a democracy underpinned by rule of law, Hong Kong will be another sting on the back of a China, as it tries to navigate through a turmoil of escalating trade war with the US, a US Congress that proclaimedbipartisan support for legislating“Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act”, and many other international observers watching with vigilance of how China could influence a democratic society into ceding its political freedom with visible and covert tactics. 

As the conflict of fundamental values underlying the social life in Hong Kong and mainland China surfaces, China and its proclaimed “One country, two systems” is again put to test: whether a bottom-up, autonomous community could survive its rule? The prospect for such communal identity, as shown by the Hong Kong and Chinese officials and media, however, may not be bright.