Hong Kong June 16 protest against extradition bill with two million of people on the street.

Hong Kong: How the demonstrations happened, and what they might portend

By June Teufel Dreyer

Hong Kong: How the demonstrations happened, and what they might portend

By June Teufel Dreyer
Additional protests in Hong Kong over the weekend resulted in an apology from the region’s chief executive, but the proposed extradition bill remains in play.

A week ago, over a million people, most dressed in white, the traditional Chinese color of mourning, staged a massive protest demonstration. Wearing surgical masks and carrying umbrellas as protection against tear gas, they voiced their opposition to a proposed bill that would allow Hong Kong residents to be extradited to the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to face charges, however flimsy the evidence might be. 

Although a part of China, Hong Kong, in accordance with its return from British rule, has the status of Special Administrative Region under which it is allowed to maintain its previous judicial system for fifty years. The extradition law would significantly narrow that right. Protestor’s signs called for withdrawal of the bill and the resignation of Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam. 

Lam, chosen by Beijing because of her loyalty, stood fast, further angering the opposition by saying that a scheduled vote on the bill would go forward nonetheless. 

A second march, a few days later, was less peaceful than the first. There were skirmishes between some marchers and the police, with video footage showing the latter beating unarmed protestors and shooting rubber bullets, tear gas and pepper spray. One demonstrator, after unfurling a banner, hurled himself from a balcony to his death. White flowers and incense now mark the site, with placards honoring his martyrdom. Lam, unapologetic although in tears, scolded the demonstrators as if they were naughty children, but agreed to “suspend” the bill. Still emphasizing their peaceful intentions, those opposed insisted that this was not enough: the bill must be withdrawn. 

On Sunday, now all dressed in black, they turned out in even larger numbers, estimated at nearly two million, out of a total population of seven million, repeating their demands for withdrawal. This time, they got an apology, but as of Monday morning Hong Kong time, no withdrawal. 

Even so, the suspension is an acute embarrassment for the Chinese government, whose media immediately sought to blame foreign forces who were meddling in internal Chinese affairs, while presenting no evidence to back up the charges. 

Those Hong Kongers sympathetic to Beijing sought to make Lam a scapegoat for what happened, suggesting that had she consulted public opinion first, the demonstrations would not have happened. This is ludicrous, since public opinion would certainly have rejected the proposed law immediately, and the bill would have gone forward nonetheless. The Chinese ambassador to the UK told BBC that the PRC government was not responsible for the bill, implying that the idea had been Lam’s alone. When questioned directly about this, she gave an evasive answer. There may be a clue in that Lam had earlier in the year been summoned to Beijing for a rare meeting with President/Party General Secretary Xi Jinping and told that she must safeguard the PRC’s security. It is possible, though a bit of a stretch, that she took this as a hint to introduce the bill. And, although the demonstrations were certainly the end of Lam’s political career, they have also besmirched the image of invincibility that Xi has sought to create around himself. 

Large protest demonstrations have happened in Hong Kong before, the last one from September to December 2014, as a reaction to Beijing reneging on its timetable for introducing democratic elections in Hong Kong. Apart from the sheer strain of demonstrating and the accumulation of other obligations, a major factor in the ending of the protests was the Hong Kong business elite pointing out, correctly, that Hong Kong lives by trade, much of it with the PRC, and that China could re-route that trade to Shanghai or elsewhere should Hong Kongers continue to be “troublesome.” 

This time is different, however. The business elite is afraid that foreign investors and those who do business in Hong Kong will be deterred from continuing to do so. Indeed, the reason the Chinese government originally agreed to maintain Hong Kong’s limited degree of autonomy was because of its value as a financial center—in the words of a metaphor common at the time, a cash cow. 

However, the proposed extradition law, by providing the Beijing authorities with a convenient legal tool to arrest, incarcerate, and perhaps even execute, individuals deemed to be corrupt or threats to the PRC’s security, would jeopardize these individuals and their assets. Many, including mega-wealthy natives of Hong Kong, are reportedly seeking to move elsewhere. Unless the Beijing government withdraws its support for a law it insists it had no part in suggesting, it must be prepared to accept the consequences.June Teufel Dreyer 

June Teufel Dreyer is a professor of political science in the University of Miami College of Arts and Sciences. An internationally renowned authority on China, she teaches courses on U.S. defense policy and international relations, and is a senior fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute and a member of International Institute for Strategic Studies.