How it addresses protesters’ escalating demands for autonomy and democracy in Hong Kong will be a critical test.
Over nearly three months, the protests in Hong Kong have evolved from a movement with a specific thrust — against a proposed law that would allow people accused of certain crimes to be extradited to the Chinese mainland — to a wider expression of public anger at the Chinese state’s curbs on democracy and the city’s special status within the People’s Republic. For its part, the Chinese government’s patience with the financial nerve centre coming to a standstill appears to be wearing thin. Over the weekend, the spokesperson for the Chinese government’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs office said that with Hong Kong protestors turning “radical” and using “dangerous tools to attack police officers”, “the first signs of terrorism were beginning to appear”.
The move towards labelling pro-democracy protestors as anarchists, radicals or terrorists by the Chinese government holds, for many, a disturbing augury. Since they began in June, the protests in Hong Kong have consistently been compared to the 1989 demonstrations in mainland China, which culminated in the Tiananmen Square massacre. With the unprecedented cancellation of all flights from Hong Kong airport on Monday, the movement now threatens to bring economic activity in the global financial hub to a standstill. The protests at the airport were in response to the partial blinding of a protester by a projectile used by the police, among other incidents of alleged brutality. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, has warned of the protests going “down the path of no return”, hinting at an imminent confrontation with the Chinese authorities.
What is at stake in Hong Kong is the adaptability of the Chinese state apart from its moral, ideological and administrative ability to keep the promise it made to Hong Kong. In 1997, it was decided that China would be “one country, with two systems”, and Hong Kong would continue to enjoy its autonomy. That promise has been eroded, for example, by refusing to allow direct elections for the chief executive’s post. Despite China’s accession to the original demand — scrapping of the extradition law — the protests show no signs of fizzling out. With China’s rise as an economic and military superpower, and with the surveillance technology at the state’s disposal, repression through coercive might is certainly an option. But brutality as policy triggers retaliation: After Hong Kong police used tear gas and rubber bullets to quell the protesters, they responded by the sporadic throwing of bricks and acts of vandalism. A country with superpower ambitions, which is negotiating massive international investments through the Belt and Road Initiative, can ill-afford to look incapable of delivering on the promise of federalism and autonomy.
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