Following the largest pro-democracy demonstration since Hong Kong’s handback to China in 1987,protestors have won a great victory by forcing the authorities to backtrack on a controversial extradition law. But, as Duncan Bartlett reports, they are determined to send more messages of defiance to Beijing
In a huge outpouring of emotion, as many as two million people took to the streets of Hong Kong for a series of demonstrations. For some, the protests have focused on a legal issue – extradition. For others, they have been politically charged. What everyone agreed upon was that Hong Kong must retain a special status, with an identity distinctly different to that of Communist mainland China.
The protestors came from a wide variety of backgrounds but they included a group of Christians, who encouraged the crowd to sing Hallelujah to the Lord. Non-believers joined in, so before long the hymn became an unofficial anthem. In another powerful spiritual gesture, many people in the vast crowds wore white, the traditional colour of mourning.
This looked and sounded like an open challenge to the Chinese Communist Party – officially atheist and sometimes quite openly hostile towards religious movements.
The scale of the protests was far larger than either Beijing or its local representatives in the Legislative Council imagined.The other shock was the well-organised nature of the demonstrations. Organised rebellion is one of China’s greatest fears. The danger is that regional protests could escalate and undermine the whole Communist system, just as protests in Poland began the chain of events which eventually led to the fall of the Soviet Union.
With that in mind, Chinese censors strive to prevent people from organising any kind of gathering – especially anything that might be politically dangerous. The authorities are particularly watchful for marches involving students and young people, who were the catalysts of the Tiananmen Square demonstrations in Beijing 30 years ago, leading to a bloody military crackdown.
Fortunately, there has been little violence in Hong Kong recently. Most of the demonstrations have passed peacefully, with police taking a deliberately low-key approach. The presence of the international media may have acted as a restraint.
Shifting the blame
When facing the international press, the authorities in Beijing have apportioned blame for the trouble to the Hong Kong Chief Executive, Carrie Lam. She is a divisive figure, as she was appointed by a panel loyal to the Chinese Communist Party. Her opponents therefore portray her as a puppet.
Andy Chan, founder of The National Party – which has been banned for advocating independence from China – has called for Ms Lam’s resignation.He says if the extradition legislation went through,‘everyone would feel vulnerable because they believe they could be sent across the border for trial and in the PRC there’s no open and fair system of justice.’
‘There’s no assurance for anyone,’he warns. ‘Even if you are a foreigner, they could claim that you breached national security in China and extradite you.’
Carrie Lam’s supporters insist that this is a misinterpretation of the purpose of the extradition law. They say the legislation is aimed at catching criminal fugitives who flee Hong Kong and currently cannot be sent back.
But for most protestors, complex legal debate is unimportant. People have come out on the streets because they sense profound challenges to Hong Kong’s autonomy. For example, there is resentment that several book publishers who distributed salacious articles about political figures in Beijing were abducted and taken to the mainland. There is also anger over the disqualification of several democratically elected city legislators.
Professor Minxin Pei, the Library of Congress Chair in US-China Relations, believes all these issues created tensions which led to the protestors picking a fight over the extradition issue.
‘Although the draft extradition law does not formally apply to political offences, this will offer no protection in practice,’ he says. ‘Under the Chinese legal system – which is controlled by the Communist Party of China – the distinction between political offences and conventional crimes is hopelessly blurred.’
The professor claims that bogus criminal charges are often used to deal with political dissent within the People’s Republic of China, with people accused of such offences as ‘picking quarrels and provoking trouble’.
It is unclear to what extent Carrie Lam took the initiative to introduce the extradition law, or how much she was encouraged to do so by Beijing. Shelving the measure may provide temporary respite but there is nevertheless still scope to bring it back later in a low-key form, to be quietly agreed with the mainland.
For Michael Pillsbury, Senior Fellow and Director for Chinese Strategy at the Hudson Institute, the Hong Kong protests have shone a light on an aspect of the Chinese Communist Party which is often overlooked: its divergent views on some key issues, including Hong Kong.
‘The hawks in the CCP love the extradition concept,’ says Pillsbury. ‘They also want to affect the culture of Hong Kong in other ways, such as by bringing pro-PRC textbooks and encouraging schools to give more patriotic education and to teach in Mandarin not Cantonese.
‘But you’ve got this debate going on in Beijing and the reformers take a much more tolerant view, so frankly, Carrie Lam has to decide who to listen to, the hawks or the reformers. I hope she listens to the reformers.’
The radical and determined crowds have achieved a rare and surprising victory by challenging China and forcing their local legislators to take a new approach. Singing ‘Hallelujah’ may have given them inspiration. But the victory hymn is also a battle cry in their continuing struggle for a distinct Asian identity.