China’s step down is a mystery. Is it because China cannot attempt a Tiananmen 2019 fearing global backlash? Has China been cornered because of the Reuters leaks? Is truce in Hong Kong tied to the impeding trade talks with the US? Does the withdrawal come as an acknowledgement of failure in Hong Kong? Or is it a genuine peace-dove to help defuse the situation?
At last, the extradition Bill whereby Hongkongers could be extradited to China for trial has been withdrawn. Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced the formal withdrawal of the Bill on September 4. The extradition Bill had triggered massive protests. While the withdrawal was the main demand, other demands came up in the course of the protests because of the manner in which the protests were handled by China. While the withdrawal is a good sign, it has neither come easy nor straightforward, with Hong Kong into 13 weeks of protests, and thousands of protesters teargassed, water-cannoned, beaten up and arrested. Nor has it come untainted, with strong evidence suggesting links between Beijing-Hong Kong police-Hong Kong triads (secret societies). The triads, it is said, infiltrated the protests and beat up the protesters for cash. Further, in a damaging report and a leak obtained by Reuters (news agency), it has emerged that China, not Hong Kong, calls the shots under the ‘one country, two systems’ principle. In effect, China’s about-turn has come too late, at the cost of China’s considerable ‘loss of face’ and credibility severely dented. China expects the protests to stop—but will they?
The withdrawal was announced after Reuters reported that China had declined the proposals made by Ms Lam earlier in July-August to withdraw the Bill and launch an inquiry into police action. Reuters said that Ms Lam’s proposals had been submitted to a high-level body in Beijing, the Central Coordination Group for Hong Kong and Macau Affairs led by Politburo Standing Committee member Han Zheng.
To add fuel to the fire, Reuters obtained and released an audio recording of a closed-door meeting that Ms Lam addressed. In the 24-minute recording, Ms Lam appeared to suggest that she would quit if she had a choice and that her powers were, in fact, restricted. “The room,” said Ms Lam, “the political room for the Chief Executive who, unfortunately, has to serve two masters by constitution, that is the central people’s government and the people of Hong Kong, that political room for manoeuvring is very, very limited.” Ms Lam indicated that Beijing is aware that the issue will ‘ripple on’ and that special arrangements were being made for October 1 (National Day, China) with “they (Beijing) and ourselves (Hong Kong) have (having) no expectations that we could clear up this thing before October 1.”
So far, China had refused to step down. In fact, the dominant narrative has been ‘black hands’ (literally, foreign powers, or the US) as behind the protests. China’s ‘black hands’ claim is based on a meeting that took place in August 2019 between a US official and Hong Kong activists, including Joshua Wong. The US official, Julie Eadeh, is a political counsellor in the US Consulate. The pro-Beijing newspaper, Ta Kung Pao, released the diplomat’s private information, including names of her children. The State Department stepped in to say that such meetings were routine, saying that US diplomats “meet regularly with a wide cross-section of people across Hong Kong and Macau.”
Ironically, it is China that has been accused of not playing it fair. In July, critics alleged China’s ‘hand’ in an attack on the protesters at Yuen Long in Northern Hong Kong. A mob dressed in white attacked the protesters dressed in black. Seasoned Hong Kong observers such as Yi-Zheng Lian (chief editor of the Hong Kong Economic Journal) suggested that the attacks were orchestrated by Beijing and carried out by Hong Kong’s triads: 14K, Wo Shing Wo and Shui Fong.
It is entirely plausible that China misread the situation and failed to gauge that the protests were underpinned by genuine concerns regarding Hong Kong’s future in 2047. That year, the arrangement of ‘one country, two systems’ under whose rubric Hong Kong reverted to China in 1997 expires. Hong Kong will lose its status as a Special Administrative Region.
For China, Hong Kong was a grand experiment to prove to the world (and Taiwan) that China’s authoritarianism was, in fact, benign. Hong Kong was to serve as the model easing Taiwan-China reunification. Today, Hong Kong’s protests have upended the rulebook. They are mass-based, not elitist, non-violent, not violent; and leaderless, rather than led by one leader. Hong Kong appears a Generation X version of a revolution where social media platforms such as Telegram (messaging app) and LIHKG (Hong Kong’s Reddit) have been at play. Ultimately, it is the common man, the proletariat, out at the forefront in Hong Kong—nothing short of a revolution, the kind that communists celebrate and democrats condone.
While China has highlighted the withdrawal of the Bill, with China Daily saying “protesters now have no excuse to continue violence,” China has acquiesced to only one of the five demands made by the protesters—who have, time and again, reiterated the holy grail of five demands: ‘no compromise, no negotiation’, as they say. The demands that Beijing has not met include independent enquiry into brutal police action, amnesty for those arrested, rescind on categorising the protesters as ‘rioters’ and universal suffrage. Ms Lam insists that enquiry into police action be handled by the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC), which the protesters disagree with. The protesters have responded to Beijing’s withdrawal with ‘five key demands, not one less’.
In response to the withdrawal of the Bill, the Speaker of the US House of Representatives Nancy Pelosi has thrown her support behind Hongkongers, saying: “The pro-Beijing leadership in Hong Kong must ensure a political system accountable to the people, including granting universal suffrage and investigating police violence.” But by any stretch of imagination, there are several unanswered questions. Who was responsible for the leaks—Ms Lam’s report to Beijing, followed by the audio tape? Were the leaks an inside job? Hongkongers feel that Ms Lam has let Hong Kong down, and has little at stake with her family’s British citizenship (husband and two sons).
Hongkongers gossip that her older son works for Xiaomi, a Chinese company. A few months ago, Ms Lam was expected to grace the 150th anniversary of St Francis’ Canossian (Ms Lam is an alumni). But how the mighty have fallen. Today, several alumni would rather not have her presence.
China’s step down is a mystery given that a few weeks ago they were not above calling the protests ‘near terrorism’ and the protesters as ‘terrorists’. Is it because China cannot attempt a Tiananmen 2019 fearing a global backlash? Has China been cornered to step down because of the Reuters leaks? Is truce in Hong Kong tied to the impeding trade talks with the US? Does the withdrawal come as an acknowledgement of failure in Hong Kong? Or is it a genuine peace-dove to help defuse the situation?
Hong Kong protesters continue to be suspicious of their government with little faith in the promises and of China’s withdrawal of the extradition Bill which has conceded one out of five demands. For China, this is a big step down. But in the protesters math, it may be a case of asking for too much, for too little given.
The author is a Singapore-based Sinologist, and adjunct fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi. Views are personal