25 August 2019

Hong Kong: Despite a Lull in Violence, the City Remains on a Knife-Edge

Anti-government protests in Hong Kong that erupted over a now-suspended extradition bill and escalated dramatically and violently over the past few weeks have put the city's all-important business and transport activities at risk and raised the prospect of direct intervention by Beijing. Protests over the weekend, although sizable, remained relatively peaceful. But given the general course of the protest movement and the demonstrators' deep — and unaddressed — grievances, the path to a resolution is far from certain.

What Happened 

Hong Kong's standoff is no closer to resolution — this weekend's otherwise peaceful protests notwithstanding. On Aug. 17, teachers rallied against the government and the actions by the city's police before opponents gathered in support of the security forces. Another protest in the city's Mong Kok neighborhood nearly touched off clashes between police and protesters before cooler heads prevailed. Far larger protests followed the next day, as hundreds of thousands of people, many clutching umbrellas, rallied peacefully at an event organized by the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), which previously staged several peaceful protests, including two large gatherings in June against the extradition bill that ignited the territory's unrest in the first place.

Why It Matters 

CHRF-led protests tend to be structured and peaceful, but many of the recent demonstrations have been relatively leaderless. Given the fluid nature of many of the protests, questions have emerged as to whether protesters and organizers can limit some participants' radical tactics while maintaining the protests' momentum and pressure against Chief Executive Carrie Lam's government. But some protesters — especially younger ones — have dramatically escalated their tactics, successfully halting flights at Hong Kong International Airport, one of Asia's busiest business travel hubs. The city's highly influential business community has voiced concerns about their actions, saying that the protests are inflicting a heavy economic toll and could alienate wider society.

As always, Beijing continues to cast a long shadow over the proceedings. Given the peaceful nature of the protests, there could be less urgency for China to directly intervene. But the deep — and completely unaddressed — grievances against the police's conduct and the Lam government will continue to encourage some in the protest movement to push for a more aggressive agenda, making further escalation — and an intervention by the Chinese forces massed over the border in Shenzhen — all the more likely.

As always, Beijing continues to cast a long shadow over the proceedings.

Ultimately, the demonstrators' success in retaining enough support to, once more, draw hundreds of thousands onto the streets reflects Hong Kongers' widespread frustration with the current Beijing-appointed administration and the central government — an issue that will continue to be a thorn in China's side, even if a lull in disruptive actions does ease its urgency to call in the security forces. 
What to Watch For

In the short term, the direction of the protests will continue to determine the situation on the ground — and whether Beijing sends in its armored personnel carriers. Going forward, the agendas of student leaders, pan-democracy politicians and prominent dissidents will be the key in determining the protest movement's direction. Protesters are planning a few notable rallies in the weeks ahead. On Aug. 31, the CHRF will gather on the fifth anniversary of a controversial white paper issued by China's National People's Congress that effectively prohibited universal suffrage in Hong Kong's elections. Hong Kong's Occupy and Umbrella movement sprang up in response. Meanwhile, Hong Kong's school year will start in early September, leading to questions whether the protests will retain their momentum after students return to their studies.

Of particular interest, however, is Oct. 1, China's National Day, when demonstrators could try to organize protests to undermine Beijing's image of stability on the 70th anniversary of the founding of the communist republic. Alternatively, all eyes will be on Lam's government and Beijing to see if they are willing to take advantage of a de-escalation in the protests to pacify and undermine the movement by offering some cosmetic concessions before the demonstrations can flare up once more. Whatever the case, Hong Kong is far from returning to normalcy yet.

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