After more than three months of massive protests, strikes from professionals to students, and increasing brutality from police and street gangs, it seems Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement finally got one of their five demands met this week. On Wednesday morning, Hong Kong Chief Carrie Lam announced a formal withdrawal of the extradition bill, which would have allowed Beijing to demand Hong Kong hand over anyone to China, including human rights activists and dissidents. If this bill becomes law, it will erode Hong Kong’s independent judicial system and endanger the freedom of residents as well as visitors.
Lam’s withdrawal announcement marks a victory, however imperfect, for protesters, but also raises many questions. First, can Lam be trusted? Back in June, after millions of Hong Kongers took to the streets, Lam first said the extradition bill was suspended and then used the word “dead” in her English announcement.
Yet people familiar with Hong Kong’s parliamentary rule quickly pointed out there is no such thing as a suspension or death of a bill. A bill that isn’t withdrawn can be easily reintroduced in the legislative session with a 12-day notice. So Lam’s June announcement was merely playing a game of words, hoping to fool Hong Kongers. Protestors understood this and kept pushing for a full withdrawal. No wonder few trust that this time Lam will actually and completely withdraw the bill.
Lam is a puppet of Beijing, so she couldn’t possibly make the withdrawal decision without Beijing’s blessing. Beijing is known to deal with any dissent with the “take no prisoners” approach. Exhibits A and B are the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre and today’s massive imprisonment of Uyghurs. So the next question is why has Beijing, under the iron fist of Communist Party Chairman and President Xi Jinping, backed down now?
There are several possible explanations. One is that the U.S.-China trade war has caused more economic damage in China than Beijing is willing to admit. Even the heavily manipulated official economic data out of Beijing can’t hide the deterioration of China’s economy: manufacturing activities are slowing down, more factories are closed, and the unemployment rate is rising. More foreign companies are moving or planning to move their productions out of China even before President Trump’s tweet.
Unofficial reports about the actual economic situation in China are more devastating. Matt Shrader, a China analyst at The Alliance for Securing Democracy, tweeted yesterday suggesting that due to the trade war and the spread of swine flu, China is experiencing a pork shortage so bad that the Chinese government brought back ration tickets to limit meat consumption, something widely used under Communist tyrant Mao Zedong. Such economic deterioration will no doubt embolden someone or some faction within the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) to question Xi’s leadership.
At this point, had Xi chosen to crack down on Hong Kong like China did in Tiananmen, the capital flight from Hong Kong and international economic sanctions could have pushed China’s economy over the edge in a way that endangered Xi’s political future. In modern China, no Chinese Communist Party leader can be politically secure with a devastating economic situation. Even a strong man like Xi can’t risk fighting a trade war with the United States and losing control of Hong Kong at the same time.
Especially given that this October 1 marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China, Xi probably wants to put on a good show and doesn’t want unrest in Hong Kong as background noise. Therefore, accepting the protestors’ demand to withdraw the extradition bill is an easier way out for Xi, so he can focus on the trade war.
Let’s not forget that even without an extradition bill, Beijing has never shied from sending plain-clothed police to Hong Kong to arrest anyone it doesn’t like. And by 2047, when the “One Country, Two System” agreement officially ends and Hong Kong becomes just another Chinese city subject to Chinese judicial and political systems, an extradition bill won’t even be needed.
By then, China may have developed a mainland alternative to Hong Kong, a Chinese city such as Shanghai or Shenzhen replacing Hong Kong as an international financial center. Should that happen, Hong Kong will become irrelevant and Hong Kongers’ demands carry no weight.
This outlook probably also explains why, among the five demands protesters made—withdraw the bill, Lam resign, establish an independent inquiry into police brutality, release those who have been arrested, and universal suffrage—Beijing chose only to withdraw the bill, which is the one Beijing regards as a compromise that won’t endanger its bottom line. In Beijing’s eyes, all four of the other demands are not acceptable because they directly challenge Beijing’s authority and legitimacy.
For example, if Beijing allows Hong Kong authorities to investigate police brutality, how will it respond to demands for justice by mainland families who lost loved ones during the 1989 Tiananmen massacre? If Beijing allows Hong Kong to have universal suffrage, how will it address similar request by pro-democracy dissidents in mainland China?
Should the rest of world, especially the United States, move on and shift their attention away from Hong Kong? Sen. Marco Rubio wrote recently that “China is showing its true nature in Hong Kong and the U.S. must not watch from the sidelines.”
He mentioned several things I have recommended before that the United States can do to help protect Hong Kongers’ economic and political freedom: the Trump administration can “impose sanctions against individual officials who have committed serious human rights abuses under the Global Magnitsky Act, which enables sanctions against foreign individuals or entities. In addition, Congress should pass the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act,” a bipartisan bill that “would mandate that officials in China and Hong Kong who have undermined the city’s autonomy are vulnerable to such sanctions.”
In the meantime, the withdrawal of the bill can also serve a sugar-coated poison pill to Hong Kong protestors. The Hong Kong protest started as an anti-extradition bill rally but has expanded to a pro-democracy movement in its 14th week. The question is how many protestors will accept the withdrawal as a victory and want to go back to their old way of life, and how many protestors will want to go on?
So far, the movement has enjoyed wide support from all aspects of Hong Kong society: students, teachers, workers, unions, civil servants, professionals, business owners, and churches. The withdrawal will no doubt sow disagreement and fractions among the leaderless movement. Any disunity within the movement will be a win for Beijing and its puppet Hong Kong authorities. Their dream scenario is that the movement will fall apart on its own.
Following the withdrawal announcement, Hong Kong protestors face a tough choice ahead. But they aren’t the only ones. Beijing has a choice to make too. Rubio summarized it this way: “China’s leaders must either respect Hong Kong’s autonomy and rule of law or know that their escalating aggression will inexorably lead them to face swift, severe and lasting consequences from the United States and the world. Today, that choice is theirs.”