Published on THE DIPLOMAT MAGAZINE
As triad society members viciously and indiscriminately beat up citizens in a subway station in Yuen Long in an apparent attempt to punish anti-government protesters, it has become clear that Hong Kong’s stormy summer has no end in sight. Evidence of collusion in the incident by Hong Kong police and pro-Beijing legislator Junius Ho only added fuel to the fire.
The apple of discord is the China extradition bill, which allegedly closes the legal loophole allowing Hong Kong to become a “haven for fugitives,” but has also sparked massive concern over the potential legitimization of state-sponsored kidnapping of Hong Kong residents. While Chief Executive Carrie Lam, amidst waves of protests, has yet to officially withdraw the extradition bill, the legislative process of the law has ceased, and Lam has reassured the public that the bill is “dead.”
A complete withdrawal of the bill remains one of the demands of the protesters, but the consensus is that the government has little stamina to reintroduce the law in the foreseeable future. The protests are no longer driven and sustained by the anxiety over a “revival” of the bill, but by other deep-seated issues that have emerged or re-emerged during the anti-extradition bill battle.
Citizens rallying against the extradition bill started the protest movement, but as events unfolded in the past few weeks, the movement became heavily charged with emotions and is set to challenge the government in even more ways.
Unchecked Police Power
When the Hong Kong police deployed rubber bullets, bean bag bullets, and pepper spray in a stand-off with protesters on June 12, criticisms of police using excessive force against protesters rematerialized, recalling similar criticism during the Umbrella Movement in 2014. Numerous incidents of police violating police regulations, including frontline officers refusing to display their warrant cards or identify themselves to journalists and protesters, had led to confidence in the force taking another plunge.
Despite heavy criticism, police violence only appears to have escalated. On July 13, after a peaceful protest in Shatin, a densely populated suburb, armor-clad, heavily armed police officers stormed into a busy shopping mall in a bloody siege against the protesters, a move panned as needless and illegal.
This past Sunday, at Yuen Long subway station, the police did not arrive at the station until after the triad society members who brutally beat citizens had fled the scene. Footage then came to light showing a high-ranking police officer having a friendly conversation with the suspected attackers on the same evening, assuring them that they had “nothing to worry about” and thanking them for their “assistance” to the police force.
Amidst cries for the setting up of an independent inquiry committee to investigate police conduct in dealing with the protests, Carrie Lam had, instead, vowed to “never betray the police force” and snubbed the movement’s demands.
Crippled by recurrent protests, plummeting approval ratings, and distrust from some fractions in the pro-Beijing camp for her failure to either quell or placate the movement, Lam grabbed onto the police force in a last-ditch effort to re-establish the authority of her government.
The alliance has proved unfortunate, as harsh crackdowns did not faze protesters but instead offset the effect of the government’s appeasing act of shelving the extradition bill. Lam herself helped sustain the movement by turning a deaf ear to dissenting voices.
Organic Development of the Movement
Protesters have been calling the anti-extradition bill movement the “endgame” of Hong Kong. Compared to the Umbrella Movement, which called for universal suffrage, the anti-extradition bill movement is more urgent and emotionally charged: to many who take part in the protests, this is a now-or-never, make-or-break moment for the city.
The “faceless,” “leaderless” nature of the protest also helps forge an “ordinary citizen,” “girl/boy next door” imagery that resonates better with the older generation, the majority of whom are believed to often side with the establishment. Granted, protesters only mask their faces for fear of government retaliation, but it is also this “facelessness” that affords the movement a more wide-ranging public backing than the Umbrella Movement.
Just like every other effective movement, the anti-extradition bill movement has “diffused,” in the language of social scientists. As Lam’s government stays aloof from public outcry, the sites of protest have moved from the central business districts, where political rallies and occupy movements usually happen, to other urban areas and the suburbs.
The geographical diffusion has allowed the movement to extend its life span. Planned communities such as Shatin and Yuen Long are typically much more self-sufficient than other urban areas, resulting in a stronger collective identity and a more tightly knitted community network.
Moving the protests to these typically “nonpolitical” spaces, much like the “faceless” facet of the movement, has helped reinforce its emotional appeal and breathes new life into the movement.
Missed Opportunities for Reconciliation
While the protest movement started with opposition against the extradition bill, the missteps by the Hong Kong government closed the last doors of reconciliation. Even if the movement naturally and eventually subsides in a few weeks or months, Lam is unlikely to be able to govern the city again effectively.
Undoubtedly, the mayhem that erupted in Hong Kong this summer had its structural roots, as Beijing’s intervention in Hong Kong’s affairs became more brazen over the years. In the two decades after Hong Kong’s handover, institutions have been funneling economic benefits to the pro-Beijing camp through the imposition of an increasingly firm chokehold on Hong Kong’s political freedom.
After the Umbrella Movement, this chokehold had gotten even tighter. As the government disqualified anti-establishment candidates from running for seats in the legislative branch of the government and prosecuted Umbrella Movement leaders, Hong Kongers experienced a complete loss of trust in the city’s political and judicial institutions. This lack of confidence in the city’s political system is what brought 2 million citizens on to the streets of Hong Kong.
During her first two years in office, Lam had taken a hardline stance and forced several widely unpopular laws and expensive infrastructure projects through the legislative process. The pro-Beijing majority in the legislative council guarantees a rubber stamp. This position is partly attributable to Lam herself, who has been dubbed a “good fighter” even during her civil servant days under the British colonial government, and partly to the strong position that Beijing has taken toward Hong Kong after the Umbrella Movement.
What works in China does not travel well in a relatively open city that still enjoys free flow of information and largely subscribes to universal values. The city’s clash with an ambitious and increasingly authoritative China seems inevitable. However, we must recognize that the current impasse is a result of both the more deep-rooted fear of Beijing’s meddling hand and the disastrous response of Lam’s government.
Lam and her ministers neglected opportunities to withdraw the bill in time to avoid escalation of the movement and turned a blind eye to the brutal police crackdown on the protests. Had Lam withdrawn the proposal after the first large-scale peaceful demonstration on June 9, the city could have sidestepped most of the events that followed.
Instead, the Hong Kong government helped turn a single-issue, peaceful protest movement against an amendment bill into a crusade against a Beijing-controlled puppet government that has not put the interests of Hong Kong at heart. In its new form, the protest movement has an even broader base of support than the Umbrella Movement. The Hong Kong government has created this predicament for themselves, and now they have to bear the consequences.
Yuen Yung Sherry Chan is a Ph.D. student at the Sociology department of the University of Wisconsin-Madison. Her writings and commentaries are regularly published in the print and digital media in Hong Kong and Taiwan.