Weeks of protests in Hong Kong have resurfaced the thorny questions about the city's status within China. They have not only highlighted the volatility that can be expected to accompany attempts to incorporate the city more closely with the mainland but they have also raised questions about the long-term prospects of the city’s business environment. As protests continue, Hong Kong's plight could play into the mounting competition between the United States and China.
One day after protesters stormed Hong Kong's legislative council building, China’s central government condemned the actions of those who led the takeover. At an early morning press conference on July 2, after the activists, mostly young people, had been cleared from the building, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam vowed to pursue those who committed violent actions. While Beijing expressed support for the Hong Kong government and police, it also called on them to restore order as soon as possible.
Why It Matters
The hourslong occupation of the Legislative Council Complex, coming after a day of peaceful demonstrations marking the 22nd anniversary of Hong Kong's handover by the United Kingdom, highlights the divisions between the city's more organized protest groups, which insist on nonviolent, less disruptive tactics, and student-led elements more willing to adopt radical tactics to sustain their demands. Persistent protests among the younger generation captured their core grievance over the erosion of the city’s autonomy and their lack of upward mobility. But the extreme tactics adopted by some risk jeopardizing the momentum of the protest movement and alienating broader society in a city known for its pro-business environment and rule of law. It also justifies the police operations and a crackdown, raising the possibility that additional clashes between police and protesters could lie ahead.
At the same time, such radical tactics test the limits of Chinese restraint. To date, the central government has refrained from direct interference, fearing it could unleash a greater backlash in the city where anxiety about Beijing’s influence over a recent bill authorizing extraditions to the mainland sparked the recent mass protests in the first place. The risk that its direct involvement would dramatically unsettle the city will likely stay Beijing's hand, leaving the Hong Kong security apparatus to take lead in the operations — that is unless the recent spate of protests coalesces into a broader uprising against central government power. Nonetheless, the rising antagonism and distrust, coupled with a growing movement in the city toward self-determination will further reinforce Beijing’s hard-line political policy in regards to Hong Kong, while compelling the central government to try to further economically diversify away from the city.
The extreme tactics adopted by some risk jeopardizing the momentum of the protest movement and alienating broader society in a city known for its pro-business environment and rule of law.
The extent of the splintering among the protest movement will determine whether a broader swath of Hong Kong society, particularly the business community, will continue to support it. On June 30, tens of thousands of people notably marched to show their support for police, with some calling for the extradition bill to progress. But the protest climate could cool in the near future. No major protest actions have been scheduled, the controversial extradition measure has been put on pause, and the legislative council will begin its summer recess on July 20.
While the demonstrations have remained tightly focused on politics, sustained protests and political polarization would risk further jeopardizing business confidence, driving capital outflow and accelerating the city’s already declining economic fortunes. At the same time, the Hong Kong government will need to walk a fine line between enforcing the law through arrests and avoiding provoking further protest activity with a too-aggressive crackdown.
The Hong Kong protests against the proposed extradition bill reached a crescendo during mid-June protests, drawing upwards of 1 million people to the streets. The protests compelled the Hong Kong government to suspend consideration of the bill, yet the government stopped short of withdrawing it altogether. The demonstrations that occurred July 1 were not surprising considering that the anniversary of the city’s handover to Beijing is a traditional day for large rallies.