The protests in Hong Kong have been going on for more than four months now, and no matter how the current crisis concludes in the coming days or weeks, it will mark the end of Hong Kong as we know it.
The protests started in response to an extradition bill that was proposed by the city’s Beijing-backed chief executive, Carrie Lam, in February. Hong Kongers rightfully feared that should the extradition bill become law, the city would be forced to turn over to China anyone President Xi Jinping’s regime deems a “criminal,” including human-rights activists, political dissidents, and others who pose a threat to the Communist party. Worried that the new extradition bill would enhance Beijing’s ability to crack down on dissent and end the city’s proud tradition of judicial independence, they took to the streets in protest.
They came out first in the hundreds and thousands, and then in the millions. In mid June, the rest of the world witnessed 2 million Hong Kongers, more than a quarter of the city’s population, marching peacefully down its main roads and demanding authorities completely withdraw the proposed extradition bill. Protesters from all walks of life participated: young, old, bankers, lawyers, teachers, priests and pastors, civil servants, and more. The city’s youth were the most impressive. They maintained order, distributed food and water, passed safety helmets to foreign journalists, and collected trash, which they even sorted for purposes of recycling. After the massive protests, the world was impressed with the litter-free streets and complete lack of property damage. Hong Kongers’ maturity discredited Beijing’s long-held claim that democracy is incompatible with China’s people and culture.
Had Lam then announced that the extradition bill was being “completely withdrawn,” as the protesters demanded, the crisis probably would have ended. Instead, she gave different statements in English and Chinese, declaring the bill “dead” while actually shelving it until a more politically opportune moment. Her duplicity has fueled the unfortunate violence we are witnessing today.
Why did an extradition bill generate such wide discontent from Hong Kongers? In the more than two decades since the city was returned to Chinese control after a century of British rule, city residents have seen their economy slow and the political autonomy they were promised continually eroded by Beijing. In 1997, the year of the handover, Hong Kong’s GDP accounted for more than 20 percent of China’s, but now its share has dropped to less than 3 percent. Capital from mainland China, backed by the seemingly unlimited power of the Communist government, has come to dominate Hong Kong’s economy and crowd out local investors. Half the companies listed in the city’s stock exchanges are from the mainland, and mainland real-estate developers now own more than 50 percent of the city’s land. James Tien Pei-chun, a successful Hong Kong businessman and former city legislator, warned in April that “when a country can fully control our main economic arteries, when the boss has full say, the kind of good life and democracy that we all yearn for will be much more difficult to attain.”
His warning has now become a reality. As Hong Kong is losing economic importance, Beijing has sought to exert a greater degree of control over the city, sending police from the mainland to Hong Kong to arrest city booksellers and a Chinese tycoon without regard for the city’s own judicial system. City authorities, meanwhile, have shown that they’re more than willing to suppress Hong Kongers’ freedom in order to please Beijing: Human-rights activists and foreign journalists, including Victor Mallet of the Financial Times, have been denied visas, while the city’s courts sentenced nine leaders of the last big protests, 2014’s Umbrella Movement, to prison. On the eve of the 20th anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover in 2017, the Chinese Foreign Ministry declared “now that Hong Kong has returned to the motherland for 20 years, the Sino-British Joint Declaration, as a historical document, no longer has any realistic meaning,” essentially abandoning any pretense that they would keep the promises they made to Britain and Hong Kongers when the city was handed over.
In short, Beijing is no longer committed to the “One Country, Two Systems” framework. The extradition bill was a trigger and a final wake up call for Hong Kongers. Once Lam’s government showed that it had no interest in defending residents’ cherished political freedoms and independent judicial system, they knew that they had to act. What started as an effort to defeat the extradition bill has since turned into a broader anti-government protest movement that demands more political freedom, including universal suffrage. In a way, this is the protesters’ Alamo, their Battle of Thermopylae. They refuse to lose their freedom without a fight.
State-controlled Chinese media outlets initially remained quiet, declining to cover the protests. But since some protesters broke into the Hong Kong legislative building and vandalized it on July 1, the 22nd anniversary of the city’s return to China, Chinese state media have been using contextless images and videos and sometimes even relying on “fake news” tactics to portray Hong Kong protesters as unpatriotic “rioters” and “terrorists” in the employ of sinister Western powers.
Such distorted coverage accomplishes two goals for Beijing: It discredits the protesters while stirring up nationalistic sentiment among mainland Chinese, so that when the government does send troops to Hong Kong, it will have popular support from mainlanders and pro-Beijing Hong Kongers. This is straight from the playbook Beijing used in its 1989 crackdown on the pro-democracy demonstrations in Tiananmen Square.
The situation in Hong Kong is quickly deteriorating, and it seems that every day the violence gets worse and bloodier. Club-waving gang members have beaten protesters. Hong Kong police have faced broad international condemnation for resorting to increasingly aggressive tactics, including shooting a protester in the eye at close range and firing tear gas into a closed metro station of protesters who were already trying to disperse on their own. Angry residents have occupied Hong Kong’s airport, one of the busiest in the world, shutting it down for two days and beating a journalist from the Chinese tabloid Global Times.
Where does Hong Kong go from here? There is a growing feeling that the end is near. Many point to media reports of China’s increasingly sharp rhetoric and a growing presence of armored vehicles in Shenzhen, the only Chinese city that shares a land border with Hong Kong, as evidence that Beijing is preparing to snuff out the movement by force. Protesters have appealed to the international community and the U.S. in particular for support. Yet President Trump has avoided pressuring Beijing for a peaceful resolution to the crisis, issuing weak weak equivocations and resisting aides’ pleas to take a harder line against China. It seems that just like in 1989, the U.S. is ready to let economic interests trump human freedom.
Even in the highly unlikely event that the crisis is resolved in a peaceful manner, Hong Kong will never be the same again. The city that Milton Friedman proudly showcased as a shining example of capitalism in his Free to Choose PBS series will be gone, and when it goes, we will all bear witness to one of the greatest tragedies in human history.