Hong Kong's summer of discontent is far from over

Attempts to introduce a new extradition law may have "died a natural death" but protesters grievances run far deeper.

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When anti-government protesters stormed Hong Kong’s legislative council building last week, the Hong Kong government must have thought it had been handed a public relations gift. 

Indeed, the event appeared at first so convenient to the government that suspicions were high it had been effectively allowed to happen. Protesters took some six hours to smash through the solid tempered glass doors and steel shutters at the building's entrance, during which time police inside stood on and watched. When the protesters finally did penetrate the building, police did not make any attempt to arrest or stop them, instead making a hasty withdrawal. 

As the protesters rampaged through the building, spraying graffiti and smashing symbols of Hong Kong government rule, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam no doubt calculated that public support for the protest movement would quickly dwindle, allowing her and her government to return to “business as usual”. 

If this was indeed a calculated gamble to lure protesters into a PR “trap”, it would seem to be an extraordinarily bold one. Setting aside the inherent risks in allowing the volatile and unpredictable situation to unfold as it did, had Lam turned her attention from the made-for-television action at the Legislative Council (also known as "LegCo"), she might have been reminded of the fact that just a few blocks away, several hundred thousand people were peacefully marching in protest against her government.

Their protest was motivated by the same cause that had brought millions to the streets over the previous three weeks: a proposal by Lam’s government to introduce a law which would allow the extradition of criminal suspects from Hong Kong to face trial in courts in mainland China. Even for Hong Kong, a city that is used to more than its fair share of public protest, the scale of those protests was unprecedented: a million people marched on 9 June, a record two million people on 16 June, and another five hundred thousand on 1 July.

Underlying all of these protests — and the young activists’ attack on LegCo — was a deeper anxiety: Beijing’s rule over and influence in the territory. 

When Hong Kong was returned to Chinese rule in 1997, it was promised a “high degree of autonomy” with “Hong Kong people governing Hong Kong” under Deng Xiaoping’s “One Country, Two Systems” formula. 

However, the post-handover politician system was designed to ensure Beijing would always retain control. The chief executive — the head of government and post-handover equivalent of the territory’s governor — is elected by a 1,200 member election committee stacked with Beijing-friendly elites drawn from Hong Kong’s business and professional community. Only half of the seats in its parliament, LegCo, are elected by universal suffrage. The other half are elected by a similar group of small-circle, pro-Beijing special interest groups. The result of this system is that the pro-Beijing establishment political parties enjoy a structural advantage, consistently winning only a minority of the popular vote but retaining a stranglehold on a majority of the seats.

In the 22 years since the handover, and in particular in the five years following the Umbrella Movement pro-democracy protests of 2014, Beijing has been tightening its control of Hong Kong and taking an increasingly bold hand interfering directly in Hong Kong affairs. In a campaign of “lawfare”, Hong Kong’s legal system has been used aggressively to target, prosecute and imprison protest leaders, political parties have been banned and candidates disqualified from running for office based on their political views. When a number of Umbrella Movement-inspired young politicians successfully won office, Beijing seized upon them having carried out various protest actions while swearing their oaths of office to “reinterpret” Hong Kong’s constitution and kick six duly elected legislators out of office. 

Beijing’s representatives in Hong Kong, the Central Government Liaison Office, have leaned their finger on the scales of Hong Kong's already limited elections, throwing their support behind favoured candidates in everything from LegCo elections to elections for professional association boards such as the Law Society's governing council. The Liaison Office reportedly regularly issues instructions to government ministers and pro-Beijing members of the LegCo and summons influential members of Hong Kong's elite for meetings where Beijing's views on various issues are made clear.

In the meantime, beyond the political realm, Hong Kongers have watched with unease as mainland economic influence has increased, and burgeoning numbers of immigrants from the mainland have placed strains on Hong Kong's health and education systems and other social services. 

There is a sense that Hong Kong's treasured rights and freedoms were gradually being eroded. This, combined with the systematic exclusion of Hong Kong's young activist generation from the formal political system and the Hong Kong government's intransigence in the face of the massive anti-extradition law protests over the past month, have stoked the rage which then burst out in the protesters' actions in the LegCo building last week.

But if the government thought the resulting fallout would take the wind out of the sails of the protest movement, they would quickly be proven much mistaken. Over the past weekend, Hong Kong has seen a rally of several thousand "mothers" in support of the young protesters on Friday night, another thousands-strong protest against mainland street performers in a suburban park on Saturday, and on Sunday another massive anti-government march — police put the numbers at some 56,000; organisers said 230,000 took part — which culminated in riot police baton charges against protesters late on Sunday night. At this stage Hong Kong's police are treating protesters as street thugs whom they can treat with impunity. On the impunity point they are probably correct — the government is unlikely to hold the police accountable for their actions (an independent inquiry into police violence is one of the protesters' demands). However, if the government thinks that public sentiment has turned against the protesters, the scale of Sunday's turnout shows they are mistaken.

In her latest public appearance this week, Lam tried to meet protesters half-way, stating that the extradition bill had "died a natural death" — a characterisation that was immediately ridiculed by protesters as mere word games as Lam appeared to have trawled through her thesaurus of Chinese idioms to avoid using the protester's preferred word, "withdrawn". Many speculated whether Beijing was tying her hands, refusing to permit her to accede directly to protesters' demands. Lam also stated that the Independent Police Complaints Council (but not an independent judicial enquiry) would look into the police violence and offered to meet for a dialogue with university student union leaders. The students rejected her offer unless Lam agreed to have the meeting in public and to drop all charges against protesters, conditions she has refused.

As a result, protests planned for the coming weekend will be going ahead, and the pressure on Lam and her government will continue. Lam will no doubt continue trying to find compromise positions aimed at easing community sentiment, within the constraints permitted her by Beijing. But Lam seems constitutionally unable to compromise — she is, after all, a lifetime bureaucrat, not a politician. In this environment, the cycle appears set to continue. Hong Kong appears to be set for a long hot summer of discontent.

Antony Dapiran is a Hong Kong-based writer and lawyer, and the author of the book "City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong". He tweets at @antd.