Editorials

Hong Kong on the brink of 'a total breakdown'

The battleground for protest in Hong Kong has shifted from downtown streets to university campuses. The police have threatened to use live ammunition to end the resistance movement. Yet the risk of serious injury or even death has not proven to be enough to silence prodemocracy groups.

Today, more than five months after the Hong Kong government acceded to their primary demand — withdrawal of legislation allowing extradition of criminal suspects to the mainland — the protests remain strong and there is no end in sight. While such spirit is brave and admirable, it may also prove tragic: Beijing will not give in to the protesters’ chief demand — democratic elections. A bloody conclusion looks increasingly likely.

Hong Kong has been virtually paralyzed by protests since the government introduced legislation that would allow the extradition of criminal suspects from the city to the Chinese mainland. After more than a million people took to the streets to demand withdrawal of the bill, the local government capitulated and pulled the legislation. Rather than accept victory, the protesters upped their demands, seeking, among other things, an independent investigation of police behavior during the demonstrations and the introduction of fully democratic local elections, a long-sought goal of prodemocracy groups — and an impossible request as far as Beijing is concerned.

In recent weeks, protests have migrated from downtown to Hong Kong’s universities. Violence escalated last week, a young protester who had been injured by police earlier in the month died. A police assault on demonstrators at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, which authorities accused of being a weapons factory, spurred protesters to set up barricades at other universities.

Early Monday morning, a special tactical unit ended days of confrontation at Hong Kong Polytechnic University during which police used water cannons and tear gas while protesters countered with Molotov cocktails. After threatening to use live ammunition, they sealed off exits and moved in, arresting dozens of people.

The spread of protests to universities is an ominous sign. It indicates that authorities in Hong Kong and Beijing have lost the confidence of a generation of their city’s citizens. Increasingly, protesters now see their struggle to be akin to the democracy movement that rocked China in 1989 and culminated in the Tiananmen massacre. That bloody antecedent does not seem to deter them.

Chinese authorities have concluded that this thinking reflects a failure on their part. As a result, the Cabinet earlier this month published an education policy document that aims to promote loyalty to Beijing through a new national curriculum that will “consolidate the common ideological and political foundation,” boost support for the socialist system and the Communist Party of China, and “guide” residents of Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan, as well as overseas Chinese, “to enhance their national identity and consciously safeguard national and ethnic unity.” A similar initiative was tried in Hong Kong and 2012 and protests forced its withdrawal.

Of more immediate concern was the use last week of People’s Liberation Army forces in Hong Kong to clear roadblocks built by protesters near universities. While a PLA presence is permanent in the city, there is fear that this was an attempt to normalize a PLA presence and its future use by the government against protesters. The Hong Kong government denied any such intention.

Hong Kong Police Superintendent Kong Wing-cheung spoke for many when he declared that “Our society has been pushed to the brink of a total breakdown,” after the arrest of dozens of students last week. The city’s economy is in a recession for the first time since the global financial crisis over a decade ago, with officials projecting a 1.3 percent contraction for the year, the product of the U.S.-China trade war and the political unrest.

Now the focus of attention is on local elections scheduled for Nov. 24. There is concern that the authorities may delay it using emergency powers assumed by the city’s chief executive, Carrie Lam. She has said that the government “hopes that the elections can continue as planned.” A delay could encourage the resistance.

Japan can only look at developments there with dismay. The few remaining Japanese visitors in Hong Kong must take care. Japanese firms that operate there must be prepared for continuing disruption. And Japan’s government must prepare for a crackdown by the Chinese authorities and anticipate the appropriate response.

Meanwhile, the protesters must accept that maximalist demands will not be met. They should aim for an independent investigation of the police and amnesty for demonstrators. They should continue to inculcate a spirit of democracy in Hong Kong but not seek to create martyrs. A pathway to compromise and resolution is more urgent each day.