Tensions over mainland China's growing influence on Hong Kong have driven massive protests in the city since 2003, leading Beijing and the Hong Kong government to back down from attempts to integrate the two systems, including with a national curriculum. Now, they have suspended a controversial extradition bill that had fostered the biggest protest yet, further alienating Beijing from the Hong Kong public and risking transforming the business-oriented city into a much more political space.
The city of Hong Kong again turned into a "sea of black" on June 16 as huge crowds took to the streets demanding the full withdrawal of a highly unpopular extradition bill and the resignation of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam. In response to the ongoing protests, Lam announced the bill's suspension on June 15 and issued a public apology in an attempt to appease the protesters. But she fell short of saying the bill would be withdrawn fully, prompting the main protest organizer, the Civil Human Rights Front, to call for more strikes unless their demands — including the release of arrested protesters and investigations into a police crackdown during June 9 protests — are met.
In February, Hong Kong's government introduced a bill to allow extradition to mainland China, something that had been discussed since the British handover in 1997. But the bill sparked deep, widespread fear that Hong Kong and foreign citizens would be increasingly subject to the mainland's unfair and opaque judicial system and that its implementation would further erode Hong Kong's judicial independence. The bill's introduction, in addition to the Hong Kong government's decision to shorten the traditional bill reviewing period, sparked consternation and anger among Hong Kong's businesses and public, culminating in a mass protest on June 9. Several foreign countries, including the United Kingdom and Australia, expressed their own concern over the implications of the bill. Indeed, there is speculation that in response, the United States could review Hong Kong's special trade and economic status and potentially subject Hong Kong to U.S. tariffs, visa restrictions of its citizens and currency destabilization, exposing significant financial risks to one of the most important global financial hubs.
Why it Matters
The weekend protests' turnout — estimated at 2 million, which was even larger than the June 9 protests — creates major pressure against the Hong Kong government to completely withdraw the bill. Hong Kong's legislation session closes on July 20, meaning the bill's suspension effectively eliminates the possibility of further debates or voting until July 2020, before which lawmakers can either reintroduce the bill or let it naturally lapse. But that's not enough for protesters. By refusing to announce a full withdrawal, the government could still push the bill in the future — especially, in the protesters' eyes — if Lam remains in power.
Using Lam as a scapegoat by forcing her to resign would only drive the protesters' to directly target the central government and could encourage public demand for universal suffrage and greater autonomy – issues Beijing is deeply unwilling to consider.
Lam's political career is at stake, and though the poorly handled bill has exacerbated Beijing's existing challenges as it deals with the trade war, the Chinese government has largely backed itself into a corner to support its own appointed official to avoid a larger crisis. Reports have surfaced that on June 16, the central government's liaison office convened 200 pro-Beijing delegations to support the Hong Kong government. But other reports also indicated Chinese officials' frustration over Lam's poor management; the central government has tried to distance itself from the controversies and might even have influenced Lam's decision to suspend the bill following her reported meeting with Han Zheng, a Politburo standing committee member.
Many have wondered if Beijing could use Lam as a scapegoat by forcing her to resign, but that outcome would only drive the protesters to directly target the central government and could encourage a public demand for universal suffrage and greater autonomy – issues Beijing is deeply unwilling to consider. If Lam doesn't resign, however, that will mean even greater antagonism between Beijing and Hong Kong's public in the next three years, until she will almost certainly be forbidden from running for a second term.
As protests continue, there are questions of whether the Hong Kong police will crack down again, whether protesters can sustain their momentum and employ more radical pressure tactics or, whether, under more extreme scenarios, Beijing might dispatch its own security forces — a prospect guaranteed to dramatically unsettle Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, the ongoing protests expose two additional front lines for Beijing. U.S. President Donald Trump has hinted that he intends to leverage Hong Kong issues in U.S.-China trade talks at the upcoming G-20 summit. Additionally, it could strengthen Taiwan's pro-independence ruling party as it is capturing public sensitivity over the "one country, two systems" formula in the leadup to a high-stakes election. Tensions over the controversial bill and over Beijing's intervention are unlikely to ease any time soon, jeopardizing business confidence and driving capital out of a city already facing a declining economic fortune — and set to struggle more if the United States possibly removes Hong Kong's special trade status.