Too little, too late was the reaction of pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong to the announcement last week that the government of the Special Administrative Region (SAR) would permanently withdraw proposed legislation to facilitate the extradition of criminal suspects to the mainland.
They are right — to a point. Withdrawing the bill is the right move, and Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam should do more. In particular, she should launch an independent investigation of police behavior and provide amnesty to those who were arrested.
Protestors must also recognize the grim reality of the situation and its impact on their final demand, however. The Beijing government, which ultimately calls the shots in Hong Kong, will not allow reforms that effectively fully democratize Hong Kong’s elections — at least not as a result of popular protest. Failure to recognize that simple fact means that this entire process will end badly.
Protests began in Hong Kong in March, shortly after extradition legislation was first introduced to the city’s legislature. They became mass demonstrations during the summer; millions of people — as many as one-third of the population in the largest gatherings — have taken to the streets to demand withdrawal of the bill. A heavy-handed response by police, as well as violent clashes with masked counter-demonstrators. which the police seemed to ignore, changed the character of the protests.
Demonstrators now have five demands: permanent withdrawal of the extradition bill; an independent investigation into police behavior; amnesty for nearly 1,200 people arrested during the protests, an end to the use of the word “riots” to describe the protests; and electoral reforms that allow for complete democracy in the selection of the Hong Kong chief executive.
The first has been met, and the next three seem reasonable. The final demand, no matter how desirable, should be put aside. Calls for democracy in any part of China, even in Hong Kong where “one country, two systems” is the supposed operating principle, are treacherous ground. Beijing will not allow itself to be seen as being forced to negotiate that governing principle.
Hong Kong is no stranger to protests demanding democracy. Demonstrations occurred in 2003 and 2012 to demand more rights. In 2014, the city was rocked by the Umbrella Movement, four months of protests from September to December that followed a decision in Beijing to vet candidates who ran for chief executive of the SAR to ensure that they were someone who “loves the country and loves Hong Kong.” That proviso was seen as a way of preventing true democrats from running for office. Demonstrators took to the streets and closed key parts of Hong Kong for more than two months.
Beijing gave no ground, however, several leaders of the protests were arrested and jailed, and public perceptions of the police, who had aggressively shut down many protests, and the courts were tainted. That view persists and the divide between the institutions of law and order and the public is a poison that threatens Hong Kong.
Protestors in Hong Kong increasingly play to international audiences. Last weekend, they waved U.S. and British flags and chanted “USA, USA.” One rally began with the playing of the U.S. national anthem. There have been calls for the U.S. Congress to pass legislation that would sanction Hong Kong or Chinese officials who suppress human rights in the SAR.
Those efforts feed the official Chinese narrative that these protests are the work of foreigners determined to undermine China. Beijing insists that foreign governments respect the country’s “internal affairs” and keep silent. Ominously, Beijing’s rhetoric is becoming more harsh. A spokesman for China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office denounced “radicals” who committed “serious crimes” and shown signs of “terrorism.”
A deadline is approaching. Oct. 1 is the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Beijing will not allow those celebrations to be overshadowed by democracy protests in Hong Kong. There are concerns that it could use the army to suppress demonstrations, a fear given credibility after China promoted videos of a nearby garrison practicing riot control.
Lam should acknowledge the deep distrust between protestors and security institutions, proceed with an independent investigation and call for all sides to reflect on their actions. The demonstrators should accept that victory and proceed with dialogue with the executive to find paths for democratic reform. They must not push for further confrontation with China. Beijing is unlikely to act with restraint, even if the consequences will be large. Beijing will suffer from a crackdown, but history shows that the people of Hong Kong will suffer more.
Japan is a bystander in this drama. Its only meaningful role is to counsel patience and caution on all sides. It has limited leverage with all the parties, but it must do what it can.