Brewing Conflict Protests in Hong Kong Unlikely to Yield Results

Resistance to a planned extradition law has enlivened the opposition in Hong Kong after several years of placidity. But the danger of confrontation with Beijing is real and neither side seems ready for compromise.

Police in Hong Kong during recent protests there
Anthony Kwan/ Getty Images

Police in Hong Kong during recent protests there

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Avery Ng is running late on this Wednesday morning -- sweating profusely, breathing heavily and his voice is hoarse by the time he reaches the city center. His journey through Hong Kong today has been a difficult one, with the streets, the tunnels and the subway all clogged because of traffic jams caused by road closures due to the demonstration. Ng could have predicted as much. It is a huge day for him.

When Ng, a tall, lean man, turns onto the pedestrian bridge outside the city's parliament building, some demonstrators greet him. But he is in such a hurry that he hardly takes any notice of them. When he looks over the railing and sees the sea of people down below, though, he pauses briefly. "One-hundred thousand, maybe 150,000," he says, nodding in satisfaction. And then he hurries onward.

Ng, 42, is head of the Hong Kong League of Social Democrats, a left-leaning party, and he has a huge megaphone hanging over his shoulder. His T-shirt bears a famous quote from Nelson Mandela: "It always seems impossible until it is done."

A few weeks ago, it did indeed seem impossible to the political opposition that they would be able to get anything meaningful done in Hong Kong. Ever since the failure of the anti-China Umbrella Movement in 2014, the city has been consumed by a deep sense of resignation. Slowly but surely, China has been taking over the former British colony, a process that has gone largely unnoticed by the outside world. Back in 1997, when the British returned the city to China, Beijing had promised Hong Kong a "high degree of autonomy" under the motto "one country, two systems." The plan called for Hong Kong to be governed largely by its own rules until 2047, but the Communist Party appears to be in a hurry.

In the last several years, many critics of Beijing have been hauled into court, locked up or otherwise silenced. Student leader Joshua Wong, an icon of the Umbrella Movement, told DER SPIEGEL in spring that "it will be a long time before we can mobilize as many people on the streets as we five years ago." He was mistaken. Wong, too, is back in jail, for the third time.

The trigger for the most recent protests was the planned extradition law, which would permit Hong Kong courts to extradite suspects to other countries, including mainland China. Opposition to the law suddenly energized the opposition, with hundreds of thousands of people, perhaps even a million, taking to the streets last Sunday. An additional tens of thousands gathered on Wednesday to protest the second reading of the law in the Hong Kong parliament. On Thursday, it began looking as though this weekend will see another vast protest.

The 'War Room'

Is organizer Ng concerned that the situation could spin out of control and radicals might gain the upper hand? "Radical is the wrong term," Ng says. He says it's the fanatic elements he's worried about. "The radicals have a plan. We are the radicals." He then excuses himself and heads for the "war room," as he calls the office used by protest organizers in a skyscraper near parliament.

A unit of young policemen, with their riot helmets and shields, have taken up a position hardly two paces from the young protesters, separated only by a string of police barricades. The atmosphere fluctuates between defiance and confidence. "Take back the law!" the demonstrators chant for minutes at a time. Then they begin singing just as passionately: "Sing Hallelujah! Sing Hallelujah to the Lord!"

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Most are university students, but many other groups of society are also represented -- more so than during the Umbrella Movement. Laborers, office workers, retirees, church groups: They are all there, a broad cross-section of the Hong Kong population that has watched in recent years as their city has changed.

Two decades ago, Hong Kong was responsible for fully 20 percent of China's economic output, but today, that number has dropped to just 3 percent. For the first time last year, the GDP of the tech-metropolis of Shenzhen, just across the border, exceeded that of its long-time mentor Hong Kong.

The Best Cards

"That was perhaps to be expected," says former Hong Kong Chief Secretary Anson Chan, 79, who was a key player during the return of the city to China in the 1990s. "But what makes Hong Kong special is the rule of law, our independent judiciary and our clean public services, at least relative to the mainland." It is for those things that the demonstrators have taken to the streets, she says. In Beijing, meanwhile, there is no rule of law -- Chinese judges obey the party. Beijing isn't interested in allowing Hong Kongers to democratically elect their chief executive, which was one of the demands of the 2014 Umbrella Movement.

The leadership in Beijing sees Hong Kong as a part of China that must be joined with the motherland both politically and legally -- slowly, for economic reasons, but surely. The Communist Party knows that on the long-term, it holds the best cards. At the beginning of this year, the government announced its plan for the "Greater Bay Area," which envisions integrating 11 cities in the Pearl River Delta into a single metropolitan region. If it comes to pass, Hong Kong will be just another Chinese city among many others -- a small part of a much larger metropolitan region.

A protester in Hong Kong
Philip Fong/ AFP

A protester in Hong Kong

Many in Hong Kong are opposed to that vision. But there is nothing to indicate that the Chinese leadership might meet the demands of the Hong Kong opposition. Doing so would contradict the Communist Party's claim to power as well as that of its leader, Xi Jinping, who has been named president for life. It would also establish a precedent with domestic political implications that Beijing could never accept. In early October, the party will celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic, a patriotic demonstration of power that, from Beijing's perspective, would be difficult to square with concessions made to a democratically minded citizens' movement.

From the perspective of foreign policy as well, everything suggests that China will remain intractable. Currently, Beijing's attention is primarily focused on a single problem: its geopolitical and economic rivalry with Washington. In late June, President Xi is likely to meet with U.S. President Donald Trump on the sidelines of the G-20 summit in Japan and a lot hangs in the balance of that meeting for China. It is difficult to imagine that he would display any sort of weakness ahead of that summit. In today's China, power may no longer grow out of the barrel of a gun, as Mao Zedong once said, but it is still displayed only in its forceful and uncompromising way. It tends not to be demonstrated in the form of self-confident generosity.

Immense Damage

Beijing is well-practiced in wielding its power in the form of repression, censorship and other measures characteristic of a police state, but it cannot apply those same methods to Hong Kong. Five years after the last wave of demonstrations in the city, the Communist Party once again finds itself confronted with a problematic opponent. The demonstrators are fully aware of the impact their protests are having worldwide. And the damage the pictures from Hong Kong can do to China's self-image as a mature, responsible world power is immense.

The demonstrators are afraid of Beijing, but their rage is primarily focused on Carrie Lam, 62, the chief executive chosen in 2017 by the pro-China Election Committee. She says the planned law is necessary to prevent the city from becoming a refuge for criminals, such as the recent case of a man who is suspected of having murdered his girlfriend in Taiwan.

But opponents of the draft law suspect that Beijing has something else in mind: Being able to take legal action against those in Hong Kong who are critical of the party leadership. "In truth, there is no need for this law," says opposition parliamentarian Dennis Kwok as he wipes the sweat from his brow after delivering a speech to the demonstrators. "Cases like the one in Taiwan can be solved on a case-by-case basis within the framework of current law. But in this parliament, in this half-democratic system, there is not much we can do to block this law. The momentum is now here, on the streets."

Media on the Chinese mainland are suppressing coverage of the Hong Kong protests and comments posted on the internet are being strictly censored. The Foreign Ministry spokesman has "said so many times:" Beijing supports the extradition law. And: "Hong Kong affairs are purely China's internal affairs. No other country, organization or individual has the right to interfere."

On Wednesday evening, Chief Executive Lam stepped in front of the cameras to defend herself. "To say I have sold out Hong Kong: How could I have? I grew up here." She said she would not withdraw the law. But she didn't say a word about the fear many in Hong Kong feel about Beijing's increasingly oppressive power.

Maintaining Control

It is unclear how the conflict can ultimately be solved. If the Hong Kong government were to give in and withdraw the law, massive pressure from Beijing would almost certainly be the result and Lam would likely lose her job. But if she pushes the law through, weeks and months of additional protests could be the consequence.

When the president of the Hong Kong parliament - only half of which is democratically chosen - realized on Wednesday how vast the protests have become, he opted for a calculated retreat: He postponed the debate over the law. For the demonstrators, it was a success, but not enough to convince them to stand down. They are demanding that the draft law be withdrawn completely.

Wednesday did not end peacefully, and that could be a bad sign for what lies ahead in the coming days. It began in the evening with a metallic hissing: At the entrance to parliament, demonstrators began pulling down metal barricades, water canons were brought into position and clouds of teargas began rising. A demonstration that had begun like a vast Christian convention ended with 79 injuries.

Avery Ng, who spent the day with the demonstrators, was furious. The deployment of teargas and rubber bullets, he said, was a huge overreaction. He also says that when Lam speaks of a "riot," she is lying. But Ng's plan of maintaining control has failed.

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