World

The Hong Kong Crisis Is Stuck in a Dangerous Holding Pattern

Police officers advance toward anti-extradition bill protesters during a protest in Hong Kong, China, August 4, 2019. (Kim Kyung-Hoon/Reuters)
After nine weeks, protesters still aren’t backing down — and China is still wary of both military intervention and concessions that might make it seem weak.

The Chinese government and protesters in Hong Kong held dueling press conferences Tuesday, as the crisis in the former British colony entered its ninth week without an end in sight.

Yong Guang, a Chinese government spokesman at the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office, called the protesters “brazen, violent and criminal actors,” the South China Morning Post reported. While there’s been speculation as to whether the mainland Chinese government would send in its military to crackdown on protests, Guang said that with his government’s backing, the Hong Kong police were “fully capable of punishing those criminal activities and restoring order.” Hong Kong’s government, in an apparent effort to do just that, has deployed an army of police officers.

The Chinese government has good reason to be wary of the international retaliation that could result from sending its military in, and has so far avoided taking that step. But Guang warned that no one should “take restraint as a sign of weakness” or “underestimate the firm resolve and tremendous power by the central government.”

Protesters in Hong Kong, meanwhile, see what Guang called criminal rioting as a desperate bid to defend their most basic liberties from Beijing. The American flag has become a symbol of freedom in some protests, with protesters carrying signs saying “We need the 2nd Amendment” and “President Trump, please liberate Hong Kong.”

“We hope the U.S. and other nations will be able to help Hong Kong fight against Communist China’s policies,” a protester named Kelvin Wong told Bloomberg News. “We need human rights, democracy, and freedom. These are the same values we share with the U.S. These are universal values. Now we are resisting Communist China, which doesn’t like these values but also interferes with Hong Kong.”

While protests were initially sparked over an extradition agreement with mainland China, where no one is guaranteed either a fair trial or humane punishment, the larger fight concerns Hong Kong’s autonomy as guaranteed by Britain’s treaty with mainland China. Once the treaty expires in 2047 and Hong Kong reverts to full mainland-Chinese control, protesters fear that the former colony will lose the last vestiges of its independence.

During their first press conference on Tuesday, masked protesters reiterated five demands:

  1. That Hong Kong executive Carrie Lam step down;
  2. That the extradition agreement is completely withdrawn, rather than merely tabled;
  3. That all protesters are unconditionally released;
  4. That the Hong Kong government retract all references to protests on June 12 as a “riot”; and
  5. That an independent inquiry into clashes between police and protesters be initiated.

“Netizens have initiated the citizens’ press conference to bring the people’s unheard voice to the public and to highlight the repeated condemnations and empty rhetoric presented by the [Hong Kong] government,” one of the masked protesters said.

For now, the protesters have succeeded in getting their government to suspend its push for the extradition bill, but they still seek the bill’s permanent abandonment. As the costly conflict enters ninth consecutive week, Hong Kongers, having already demonstrated a remarkable ability to organize mass demonstrations and subvert police crowd-control measures, are now beginning to disrupt public-transportation lines.

It’s unclear whether mainland China will be willing to crack down in response, given its escalating trade war with the U.S. and the risk of incurring the international community’s wrath. But as Bloomberg’s Lain Marlow points out, conciliatory gestures would carry their own potential pitfalls:

A soft approach toward protesters addressing demands for democracy could show dissidents on the mainland that widespread upheaval can bring about political change, something that may imperil the Communist Party’s grip on power.

Given the uncomfortable bind Beijing finds itself in, the way the conflict in Hong Kong ends is anyone’s guess. But the longer it drags on, the greater the danger becomes to all involved. As Tuesday’s press conferences showed, neither side has any intention of backing down.

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