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The Depressing Reality Behind Hong Kong’s Protests

Theoretically, protesters won a huge victory with the government dropping its extradition bill. But Beijing is likely to double down on repressive measures as a result.

Hector Retamal/AFP/Getty Images

The images from Hong Kong over the past two weeks were stunning. On Sunday, June 15, one million Hong Kong residents flooded the downtown streets, demanding that city authorities scrap a bill which would allow mainland China’s communist government to extradite fugitives from the semi-autonomous region. Protesters feared that Beijing would use the law to pursue political targets, effectively ending Hong Kong’s special status as a haven for dissidents and political freedoms. After days of clashes between protesters and police, Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed chief executive, Carrie Lam, suspended the bill last week.

Many observers took this as a major victory for Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement. The sense of triumph only grew after another protest march the following Sunday swelled to what organizers said was around two million participants, or about a quarter of the city’s total population—making it the largest protest in Hong Kong history. Protesters demanded a complete withdrawal of the bill as well as Lam’s resignation. Lam offered a public apology on Tuesday.

But it would be a mistake to consider this victory more than a temporary reprieve. The Chinese Communist Party is a master of attrition. Over the past two decades, it has developed a playbook for gaining influence and eroding criticism both inside and beyond China’s borders. Since assuming office in 2012, Party Chairman Xi Jinping has intensified pressure on free speech abroad and overseen a sweeping crackdown on civil society and expression in the mainland.

The success of these most recent protests is an ego blow, given Xi’s image as an unassailable leader. The party will aim to avoid such a humiliating public defeat in the future. That’s why, rather than retreating from its steady campaign to exert ever more control over Hong Kong, it will probably accelerate its assault on the region’s traditional freedoms, undermining Hong Kong’s ability to host such massive anti-Beijing demonstrations again.

One area in which Beijing will likely redouble its efforts is in establishing informal control over formal political institutions. After the handover, Hong Kong started out with a certain degree of political autonomy under the Basic Law (its mini-constitution), and a strong tradition of civic mindedness to support self-governance. For Beijing, the prerequisite for reducing political freedoms in Hong Kong is to undermine fair representation and self-government. Forty of the 70 members of the Legislative Council, Hong Kong’s unicameral representative body, are directly elected, while the other 30 are elected indirectly by functional constituencies, which largely represent Hong Kong’s business community. Since the 1990s, and especially since the return of Hong Kong’s sovereignty to mainland China in 1997, the fortunes of Hong Kong’s business elites have become increasingly linked to the mainland as investment and economic interdependence deepened. Thus, representation in the Legislative Council skews towards pro-Beijing groups.

The 40 directly elected seats in the Legislative Council have allowed Hong Kong residents to elect pro-democracy and even some pro-independence lawmakers. But in 2016, Beijing directly intervened to disqualify several pro-independence lawmakers on a technicality. These and other measures essentially wiped out the political gains that the pro-democracy movement made in 2016, the first election after the Umbrella Movement protests, when hundreds of thousands demonstrated in support of universal suffrage to elect the chief executive (a goal they did not achieve).

Yet Hong Kong’s judiciary remains largely independent. The extradition treaty was an attempt to circumvent the judicial system entirely, since it would allow Beijing to seize those they see as criminals and try them in mainland courts. Since that measure failed, at least in the short-term, be on the lookout for attempts to incrementally reduce the political independence of judges. That might come through Beijing’s behind-the-scenes influence on schools that educate future lawyers and judges, or, as Reuters reported some judges were worrying in 2018, through legislative amendments that could reduce their authority.

National security is another loophole that many governments, including democratic ones, have used to weaken political rights. Hong Kong, whose Basic Law permits organizations to be declared illegal “in the interests of national security, public order or the protection of the rights and freedoms of others,” is particularly vulnerable on this front. In September 2018, the Hong Kong government banned the small, pro-independence Hong Kong National Party, the first time a political party has been banned since the handover. Secretary of Security John Lee said that the group presented an “imminent threat to national security.”

Hong Kong authorities have also used the charge of planning or inciting a “public nuisance” to prosecute and jail numerous protesters from the Umbrella Movement. That’s one important reason that last week’s protesters were largely leaderless and anonymous; it was a strategy designed to protect them from the harassment and prosecutions that followed the Umbrella protests. Hong Kong’s police chief declared last week’s demonstrations a “riot,” an offense which under Hong Kong law can lead to ten years in prison if one is convicted. The alleged victory of the anti-extradition treaty protests may be followed by a spate of prosecutions against the protesters themselves.

Media may be further curtailed as well. Hong Kong once was known as the center of Asia’s free press. But economic coercion and physical harassment has made it far more difficult for news outlets critical of Beijing. As its economy and thus its reach has grown, the Chinese Communist Party has learned to weaponize economic ties for political gain by pressuring China-linked companies into supporting party political goals. Key Hong Kong businesses, such as major banks HSBC Holdings and Standard Charter, have withdrawn their advertising dollars from vocally anti-party news outlets in Hong Kong. And physical intimidation isn’t out of the question, given the spate of assaults on top media executives in 2014, which included former Mingpao editor Kevin Lau being attacked with a meat cleaver.

Visa denials could accelerate this. While Hong Kong authorities have traditionally exercised mostly independent control over the city’s borders, there are a growing number of examples of the visa process being used to deny access to critics. An early example occurred in 2008 during the Olympic torch relay, when immigration officials refused entry to three human rights activists. In 2014, authorities also denied entry to a Tiananmen Square activist.

The risk of expulsions for foreign journalists—once a feature exclusive to the mainland—may grow. The first instance since the handover occurred in November 2018, when authorities denied a work visa and then refused reentry to Victor Mallet, a Financial Times journalist previously based there, after he hosted a talk featuring a pro-independence activist. The Hong Kong Journalists Association called Mallet’s expulsion the “death knell of freedom of speech.” Visa denials for journalists who have not yet taken up their new posts in Hong Kong may also begin to occur, as authorities attempt to select the foreign correspondents allowed to cover Hong Kong in the first place.

Finally, the possibility of mainland-style force cannot be discounted. Hong Kong police, traditionally known for their civility and restraint, have enjoyed a mutual respect with Hong Kong residents. But that relationship began to deteriorate during the Umbrella Movement, when police in riot gear used tear gas on peaceful protesters. Last week, police deployed tear gas, rubber bullets, and even beat protesters with batons in efforts to forcefully clear the streets. Mainland China has made some efforts to train Hong Kong security forces. In December 2018, for example, Hong Kong sent an anti-terrorism task force on a study tour to Xinjiang—where China has rounded up over one million ethnic and religious minorities into concentration camps in the name of countering terrorism. It’s hard to imagine such training will result in more permissive attitudes towards Hong Kong residents.

None of this is necessarily inevitable. Even two weeks ago, it seemed unlikely that Chief Executive Lam would suspend the extradition bill, much less publicly apologize for it. But resistance to the party’s steady encroachments would take years of sustained mass organizing—or a change of leadership in Beijing. Without that, the outlook for Hong Kong’s long-term political freedoms is, unfortunately, not optimistic.