By Sept. 5, when Hong Kong's government withdrew the controversial extradition bill that had sparked almost four months of unrest, the city's protests had already grown into a larger anti-government movement. The demonstrations now seem to have their own momentum as both sides keep escalating their tactics and responses. With each escalation, the prospect for deadly violence increases, which could rapidly ratchet up a tense situation and force the Hong Kong government and Beijing to embrace options fraught with high political and economic costs.
For the first time in almost four months of anti-government demonstrations in Hong Kong, a police officer shot a protester with live ammunition on Oct. 1. Riot police have fired tear gas, bean bags, rubber bullets and water cannons at protesters during street skirmishes, and they have even occasionally shot live ammunition into the air to try to disperse demonstrators. And protesters have thrown rocks and bricks, vandalized property and beaten police officers. But not until this week had a police officer shot a protester. Though the wounded 18-year-old protester was reported to be in stable condition on Oct. 2 and is expected to survive, the shooting represents an escalation in the violence that has become a regular feature of the protests. Here are the changes we are watching:
Police Violence Emboldens Protesters
Continued police violence could embolden protesters as they seek to justify their confrontational tactics, could boost denunciations of police conduct during the protests and could increase calls for an independent investigation of such conduct. An inquiry was a critical demand of the protesters that the Hong Kong government has so far firmly rejected. Though the clashes have featured scenes of dramatic violence — beatings, tear gas and firebombs — no one has been killed thus far. Both sides have pushed boundaries, but each has exercised relative restraint, pulling back from worse violence.
Hong Kong's Government Lacks Options to Appease Protesters
By delaying its withdrawal of the extradition bill that sparked the protests, the Hong Kong government only deepened the frustrations of the more radical elements of the movement. Now, the protests show every sign of continuing regardless of Hong Kong's political dynamics. As the room for government concessions shrinks, the situation becomes more irresolvable, raising the risk of escalating violence that leads to critical injuries and deaths. And those could prompt more lethal responses from protesters and police alike, and reinforce perceptions of political mismanagement by a Hong Kong government that is widely seen as having generally bungled the whole affair.
International Reaction Strengthens Against City's Authorities
A more violent police crackdown that increases the likelihood of protester casualties would strengthen the political will of foreign governments eager to increase their scrutiny of Hong Kong's authorities. The United Kingdom has already restricted the export of crowd control equipment to the Hong Kong Police Force, and U.S. lawmakers have introduced the PROTECT Hong Kong Act, which would prohibit U.S. exports of tear gas and certain other nonlethal crowd control items to Hong Kong. However, such legislative actions are largely symbolic since mainland suppliers could easily replace Hong Kong's riot control gear, but the region's government will struggle to ignore foreign political pressure as it weighs additional measures against the protesters. In the U.S. Congress, for example, committees in the House of Representatives and Senate have passed a bill known as the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act; the full House is expected to take up the measure this month. The bill would restrict visits to the United States by key Hong Kong officials and even sanction them in some instances.
Hong Kong Moves Toward Enacting Harsher Measures
There has been little sign thus far of the protests expanding beyond Hong Kong to the mainland. If anything, the protests have served as a patriotic rallying point on the mainland for expressing support for the central government. As long as the political and economic costs of the protests are contained, Beijing seems willing to refrain from directly intervening. Still, China has doubled its forces in the Hong Kong garrison and continued a high-profile presence of an armed police force in nearby Shenzhen — signs that costly options have never been off Beijing's table.
As the room for government concessions shrinks, the situation becomes more irresolvable, raising the risk of escalating violence
At a minimum, the anti-government protests and violence seen in Hong Kong on Oct. 1 while Beijing celebrated the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China have renewed the call for the Hong Kong government to consider enacting an emergency ordinance and legislation that would prohibit the wearing of masks. Notably, the Junior Police Officers' Association, Hong Kong's biggest police association, issued a statement on Oct. 2 to pressure the regional government to expand emergency powers. The action further complicates matters for Hong Kong's government, which is caught between a critical institutional supporter and heightened public and international scrutiny of the police force. While Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam's administration has been sharply criticized for its handling of the protests, it so far has taken a relatively cautious approach, fearing the business repercussions that could follow a harsher response. The prospect of further escalation will only increase the chances that the government will enact measures such as the emergency ordinance, which will only deepen the crisis, as it also takes last-ditch steps to head off its most-feared solution: a direct intervention by Beijing.