The past few weeks have witnessed massive and historic protests in Hong Kong. One demonstration brought an estimated 2 million people (out of a population of 7 million) into the streets. Most recently, a small group of protesters escalated matters by occupying and defacing the Legislative Council Building, a move that will surely bring further confrontations with police and threatens to dissipate the broad-based support for the original protests.
In the face of massive resistance, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has been compelled to “suspend” a proposed extradition law that would have opened the way for China to gain access to criminal defendants for trial in mainland courts for certain types of crimes. Lam also promised to pay more heed to public sentiment and consult more broadly in the future. But Lam’s failure to fully withdraw the extradition bill and her unwillingness so far to heed demands that she resign from office have ensured continued unrest.
The 2014 Umbrella Movement failed in its efforts to force Beijing to allow the fully democratic election of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive. Subsequently, several leaders of the 2014 protests were jailed and several young militants elected to the Legislative Council were removed over their failure to properly repeat the oath of office. These and other recent setbacks for Hong Kong’s democracy movement failed to stimulate large protests or force a change in course on the part of Hong Kong’s Beijing-approved leaders.
Why has the current case proved so different? Although the 2014 protests brought tens of thousands of dedicated demonstrators into the streets and managed to cut off a key transportation artery for close to three months, the movement was unable to draw the broad-based popular support that the anti-extradition protests have marshaled. This is partly because many Hong Kongers saw Beijing’s proposed election reform of 2014 as a step forward (it would have allowed the Chief Executive to be selected through popular vote as opposed to chosen by a 1200 person Elective Committee largely controlled by mainland authorities; however, the nomination process itself would still be managed by the Election Committee, ensuring, in practice, that representatives from the pan-Democratic camp would never be allowed to run for Chief Executive) while the critics failed to coalesce around a clear alternative.
Moreover, the confusing strategy pursued by the pro-democracy camp ensured that the old election procedures remained in place, even though they were less democratic than the alternative advanced by Beijing.
The Umbrella Movement included some voices that called not just for greater democracy in Hong Kong, but also for independence from China. Many Hong Kongers reject independence, either because they share a sense of political identification with China or because they fear provoking Beijing into a crackdown against all dissent in Hong Kong.
In sum, the issues and strategic questions raised by the Umbrella Movement limited the breadth of support that it could muster. The fact that Hong Kong authorities avoided tough tactics and simply allowed the protests to collapse from sheer exhaustion also played a role in the movement’s failure.
Yet the failure of the Umbrella Movement is actually an aberration in the record of popular protest in Hong Kong. Hong Kongers took to the streets in massive numbers in 2003 to oppose a proposed “anti-subversion” law that would have curtailed political rights and free expression. In 2011, a student group called Scholarism gained popular support for its objections to a proposal originating in Beijing for the infusion of pro-Communist “moral and national education” into Hong Kong schools. As with the extradition bill, the Hong Kong government was forced to shelve both measures. These examples show that popular pressure can work in Hong Kong.
Whereas Beijing’s election proposal of 2014 was seen by some as a step in the right direction, the extradition bill was viewed with alarm because it potentially subjected Hong Kong citizens (as well as visitors) to a mainland legal system that most view as arbitrary and unfair.
Crucially, big business interests in Hong Kong — ordinarily eager to align with Beijing’s preferences — opposed the extradition bill out of fear that they would be caught up in the mainland’s anti-corruption campaign. Many Hong Kong business leaders are vulnerable due to histories of bribe-paying or engagement in illicit activities, such as the use of prostitutes. Although Lam narrowed the scope of the bill, this failed to curb concerns from the business community.
The extradition controversy also led to calls by some American elected officials and pundits for the withdrawal of Hong Kong’s special trading status with the United States if the bill went through. The prospect that extradition issue might hand the Trump Administration another club with which to threaten Beijing in the ongoing trade war increased pressure on Lam to back down.
Lam’s apparent failure to anticipate popular revulsion at the extradition proposal underscores the appalling political record of the Chief Executives installed by Beijing since the 1997 handover. The first CE, Tung Chee-hwa, was forced to resign after he mismanaged the 2003 anti-sedition law controversy and lost the confidence of Chinese President Hu Jintao in 2005. Donald Tsang, CE from 2007–2012, was plagued by scandals and convicted on corruption charges after leaving office (although the conviction was subsequently overturned on appeal). CE Leung Chun-ying left office after a single term with abysmal public approval ratings.
Like her predecessors, Carrie Lam has proven unable to manage the unique challenges facing any Hong Kong Chief Executive. The CE in Hong Kong lacks the legitimacy that a popular electoral mandate would provide. With backgrounds in public administration or business, the occupants to date have lacked practical political experience. They are ultimately answerable to the Communist Party leadership in Beijing, yet must also appear responsive to popular sentiment and to the local business and professional constituencies that dominate the Legislative Council and the Hong Kong economy. The CE must try to lead a city that falls under China’s sovereign rule and is utterly dependent upon the mainland but that also possesses a wavering autonomy subject to constant contestation.
The “one country, two systems” formula has proven unsuccessful at ensuring political stability and stable governance in Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s youth are pessimistic about the future and are increasingly attracted to militancy in their periodic confrontations with Beijing and its local partners. The Hong Kong people’s spirited defense of the rule of law and the civil liberties that they have largely enjoyed to date is admirable. Whether it will be enough to ensure Hong Kong’s distinctive place within China’s orbit remains unclear.