The unfolding of events in Hong Kong, which started with legislative demands, has ballooned into a movement for democracy. While the movement has spun fresh narratives, the protest has witnessed new objectives with actors defining their collective identities. Violent incidents have furthered the defence of police ranging from the use of tear gas and rubber bullets to considering military support.
Accordingly, Hong Kongers have accustomed themselves to an ecosystem of protest while Lam’s administration chooses to stay on the fence. The three-month-long impasse has led stakeholders and actors to solidify their stance and chart new routes. Protesters defying boundaries, Hong Kong’s perplexity and Beijing’s anticipation has hinted at the numerous possibilities the movement can barge into. The momentum of the protest urges one to question what the actors in this movement want?
What do the protesters want?
Initial demands included formal withdrawal of the extradition bill, which has not materialised despite Lam’s attempt at calling the bill dead. Indefinite suspension of the bill has aggravated the protest. Little does this allay fears of Hong Kong losing legal autonomy and safeguards concerning extradition. As per reports, the demand for Lam’s resignation has been rejected by Beijing. This goes to define Lam’s responsibly by compulsion, just not to Hong Kong. Protesters also fear the implicit yet institutional flaw in Hong Kong’s leadership, regardless of who holds the baton.
Secondly, the escalation of demands came in the aftermath of the 21st July attack by triads. What seems worthy is a rational inspection into the event and bringing perpetrators to justice. The protesters’ response to this event has been eventful and otherwise. While the Hong Kong airport witnessed sit-ins by protesters and staff, there have been violent clashes between riot police and protesters in response to police handling the triad attack. What is shocking is a similar response mimicked by the police during a triad attack in the 2014 protest movement.
Amid intensifying events, the protesters have moved from issue-specific uprisings to demanding collective changes that could garner accountable governance subject to non-interference by the mainland. In other words, the need for democracy, free press, and breaking away from Beijing have formed an essential part of the demand. It is surprising to see how a movement seeking withdrawal of a bill has transitioned to demanding a democratic state — signalling active civil society engagements and responsible citizenry in the backdrop with solidarity among protestors at its peak. The looming of institutional authoritarianism has not prevented the protest from becoming progressive. This leads one to questions if civil societies in Hong Kong have discovered potentials to counter oppressive regimes? Furthering this observation with optimism, one could hope to foresee similar trends by societies in oppressive regimes.
What does the Hong Kong government want?
To answer this, one must examine the responsibilities which lay with the government in Hong Kong. While Hong Kong must bear the brunt of easing tensions and bringing back order, one could question the administration’s independence to do so. Whether Lam’s administration is free enough to decide what it wants?
The government in Hong Kong banks to restore the pre-protest state of affairs. It seeks to normalise financial services, tourism and logistics to reinstate Hong Kong’s dominance in neo-modernity. It attempts to rehabilitate, in the pretext of being tied by chains of authoritarianism and to the demands of protesters has not seen the light. The lack of common ground between the mainland and protesters and the presence of pro-Beijing supporters in Hong Kong’s government makes it a tardy task to arrive at critical solutions. A testimony to this is the video which features, Junius Ho, a lawmaker, who is seen praising Yuen Long attackers. Events like these erode the government’s legitimacy in Hong Kong. The nexus between Lam’s administration and the mainland has triggered a sense of hostility in the minds of people. Amputated, as the administration in Hong Kong seems, deciding its course in this protest remains a hurdle.
What is in it for Beijing?
Beijing’s attempts to alter Hong Kong’s political status has not been successful. Again, Beijing’s high-handed position during the protests seems to brim with eagerness. Its efforts to alter the semi-autonomous constitution can be damaging. Secondly, Beijing’s has economic aspirations in Hong Kong, which could yield dividends and also help boost Beijing’s fading economy. However, its thirst to induct a more significant economic force with enriched human capital is not without social costs. In it is bid to gather domestic dividends, effective territorial control can lead to grave social repercussions and upset international interests in Hong Kong.
Beijing’s passiveness to the protests is a tactical feature, keeping itself open to possibilities. Conflict in Hong Kong may very well be preparatory to Beijing’s actions. Beijing’s disregard for the protest and intent to establish a rule of force in Hong Kong is indicative of its intentions. This also leads one to question whether Beijing’s skilful disinterest can generate anti-Hong Kong sentiments among populations in the mainland?
Beijing’s intolerance to liberal narratives on its land should not be overlooked. Hong Kong’s advocacy for democracy, fundamental freedoms not commonly found in the mainland are seen as a threat to the Chinese identity. Beijing’s flagship policy of authoritarianism is cardinal to China’s position, both domestically and internationally. It is unlikely that the Chinese will take this with a pinch of salt.
On the other hand, the influence of international response to the humanitarian crisis has gradually increased. With the strengthening of civil societies, the rise of new media and rapid information dissemination, scrutiny has an active say in geo-politics. Defiance of global institutions, public opinion and absence of fair-play by Beijing has generated significant dissent in the global fora which may not bode well for the Chinese.
What does the world want?
While democracies expect responsible governance from the Chinese, nations under Beijing’s financial influence have remained tight-lipped. Australia, France and The US have witnessed protests and clashes between Pro-Beijing and Pro-democracy factions on their lands. The liberal west expects radical changes in Beijing’s approach and regions in Asia have exercised caution while responding to the protests. This indicates Beijing’s regional and financial dominance in state affairs. Through various mediums, civilian populations and local communities have voiced their opinion in favour of the protesters depicting the significance of humanitarian concerns in the 21st century.
For a movement where needs have many sides, i.e. state of spirit demonstrations by protesters to avail necessities, the helpless state of authorities to restore order in Hong Kong and Beijing’s calculated silence to power, concluding only furthers ambiguity.
Parikshith Pradeep is a Research Intern at the ISSSP, NIAS.