Why Hong Kong’s Still Protesting and Where It May Go

What began as a series of marches in Hong Kong against proposed legislation to allow extraditions to mainland China has grown into a broader challenge to Beijing’s grip on the city. The local government suspended the bill in June and declared it “dead” in July, but protests continued — as did eruptions of violence in the global financial hub’s streets, subways and airport, resulting in more than 1,100 arrests. The bill was finally withdrawn in September, but protesters’ demands have grown. Chinese troop movements have raised questions about how far the central government in Beijing is prepared to go to assert its authority over the city’s 7.5 million people. President Xi Jinping, on a visit to Hong Kong in 2017, warned that challenges to its rule wouldn’t be tolerated.

1. Isn’t Hong Kong part of China?

Yes, but it’s a semi-autonomous region. The city was an outpost of the British Empire for 156 years, during which time it developed into a global business hub. In a 1984 joint declaration, the British agreed to give the city back in 1997 and China promised to allow a “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years — until 2047 — including guarantees of free speech and a free press, capitalist markets and English common law under a “one country, two systems” arrangement.

2. Why are people still protesting?

Even after the extradition bill was suspended, it took Hong Kong’s leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, another two months to formally withdraw it from the government’s agenda. During that time, the list of demands expanded. Many protesters have adopted the motto: “Five demands, not one less!” Those are:

  • Withdrawal of the extradition bill
  • An independent inquiry into police conduct
  • Amnesty for arrested protesters — dozens of whom are facing as many as 10 years in prison on a colonial-era rioting charge
  • A halt to characterizing the protests as “riots”

Restart electoral reform process, including direct elections for the city’s leader.

There have also been widespread calls for Lam to resign.

3. What does China say?

The rhetoric has gotten harsher. Yang Guang, spokesman for China’s Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, said that “radicals” have committed “serious crimes” and shown signs of “terrorism.” The office has ruled out the demand for direct democracy, and steadfastly defended the police and city government. Chinese officials and state media also have made charges of foreign interference, describing the U.S. as a “black hand” behind the protests — a claim the State Department has dismissed as “ridiculous.” Chinese officials have warned against challenging the Communist Party’s central authority or the “one country, two systems” principle. The People’s Daily, the party’s flagship newspaper, said that Hong Kong’s top priority was to punish criminal acts and restore social order.

4. What does Hong Kong’s government say?

Lam said withdrawing the extradition bill was “a first step to break the deadlock,” but has been otherwise vague. She has promised to start a dialogue platform to discuss “deep-seated” political, economic and social issues in the city. She has said the rule of law precludes a blanket amnesty and that complaints about police conduct should be handled by an existing commission (United Nations reports have questioned its investigative powers and independence). In a televised address on Sept. 4, Lam said “different constraints and circumstances” prevented her from addressing “all the grievances of people in society.” Days earlier, Reuters reported it had obtained a recording from a private meeting in which Lam said she would quit if she could, and that her ability to resolve the crisis is “very limited” because it has become a national security and sovereignty issue for China. Asked about the recording, Lam denied asking China’s permission to resign.

5. How bad might this get?

That depends on China. Troops from its People’s Liberation Army have been in the city since the 1997 handover, but have played a minimal role. Concern has grown that soldiers might be called on to restore order, especially after the garrison posted a video on social media showing Chinese troops practicing riot control. The Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office has not ruled it out. For some people, the greatest fears are a crackdown mirroring the one three decades ago on mostly student protesters in Tiananmen Square, and a subsequent U.S. withdrawal of the special status under which the Americans agreed to treat Hong Kong as distinct from China for trade and economic matters. In the recording obtained by Reuters, Lam said China wasn’t planning to deploy the army because “the price would be too huge to pay.”

6. Have the protests affected business?

It seems so. The economy was already under pressure from the U.S.-China trade war. Gross domestic product expanded just 0.6% in the second quarter and the continued unrest could raise the possibility of a recession, according to Bloomberg Economics. Flag carrier Cathay Pacific Airways Ltd. said ticket sales dipped in July and future bookings were hurting. Visits to Hong Kong Disneyland have suffered. The city’s vital retail sector reported sales slumped more than expected in June, the fifth straight month of declines. Small businesses reported feeling more pessimistic in July than at any time in the past seven years. Richemont, owner of Cartier, echoed Swatch in saying that protests in Hong Kong, the top export market for Swiss watches, weighed on sales due to store closures and lower tourist arrivals. The turmoil also contributed to Temasek Holdings Pte‘s decision to put on hold its sale of a $3 billion stake in retailer A.S. Watson Group.

7. Have protests worked before?

Yes, but less so lately. In 2003 demonstrations blocked a proposed national security law and contributed to the resignation of then-Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa. Nine years later, high school students, parents’ and teachers’ groups thwarted the Hong Kong government’s attempt to introduce a course lauding China’s Communist Party and criticizing democracy. But the pro-democracy movement fractured after the government successfully faced down student-led demonstrators who occupied city streets for 79 days in 2014, refusing to yield to their demands for direct elections for the chief executive. Since then, China has barred some activists from seeking elected office, prosecuted protest leaders and banned a pro-independence political party.

8. What was wrong with the extradition bill?

Opponents said it could open the door for anyone — including political dissidents or civil rights activists — who runs afoul of the Chinese government to be arrested on trumped-up charges in Hong Kong and sent to the mainland, where they would face what the U.S. State Department called China’s “capricious legal system.” The law would apply to Hong Kong citizens, foreign residents and even people passing through on business or as tourists. Critics noted the draft bill assigned to the city’s chief executive — chosen by a committee stacked with Chinese government supporters — the leading role in handling extradition requests; currently the legislature can block extraditions.

9. Are there any other potential flash points?

Hong Kong still has to enact national security legislation to prohibit subversion against China and activity by foreign political bodies. Lam has said she wants to create a “favorable social environment” before reintroducing it. Hong Kong is also considering making disrespecting the Chinese national anthem a crime, with prison sentences of as long as three years. And there were protests last year after Lam outlined a project to build artificial islands between Hong Kong island and Lantau to the west. Detractors object to the estimated $80 billion cost and the environmental impact. The islands would help accommodate a continuing influx of mainland Chinese, whom many Hong Kong residents blame for rising property prices and overcrowded public hospitals.

©2019 Bloomberg L.P.