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Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam said Aug. 27 that her government will work within "existing laws" to curb the protests amid speculation it might invoke the Emergency Regulations Ordinance, which would allow the city's leader and advisers to "make any regulations whatsoever" deemed "desirable in the public interests." If the government in fact took the enormously controversial step of invoking the colonial-era ordinance, Lam would obtain a wide range of powers including increased abilities to censor publications, make arrests or deportations, control key transport hubs and change legislation. Doing so would show Beijing that the Hong Kong government is serious about calming the situation, perhaps lessening Beijing's willingness to directly intervene in Hong Kong — unless the invocation inspired protests so intense that the special administrative region lacked the ability to quell them.
Anti-government protests in Hong Kong that erupted over a now-suspended extradition bill and escalated dramatically and violently over the past few weeks have put the city's all-important business and transportation activities at risk and raised the prospect of direct intervention by Beijing. The general course of the protest movement and the demonstrators' deep — and unaddressed — grievances mean the path to a resolution is far from certain.
Lam's statement comes as protests in Hong Kong are now dragging into their third month with no sign of letting up. In the past two months, demonstrations have expanded beyond the central business district and the Admiralty stop on the Mass Transit Railway to affect nearly every part of the Chinese special administrative region. Turnout has shrunk, but rallies have grown more frequent. Arrest and injury reports also support the general impression that the protests are growing more intense.
Though protests against Hong Kong's proposed legislation to establish an extradition agreement with the mainland started as early as March, they did not start attracting massive crowds until early June. Those early protests were large, centrally organized demonstrations led by groups such as the Civil Human Rights Front. In all, there were 10 recorded protests in June. By July, however, the movement had become more grassroots, with other organizations and anonymous cells carrying out smaller actions in support of the larger protests' anti-government message; 17 were recorded that month. By August, the demonstrations had become much more fluid, turning into an almost nonstop melee of hit-and-run attacks accompanied by several days of protests targeting the airport. This month, a protest has been recorded for every day through Aug. 14. At the same time that protests increased in frequency, they also shrank in turnout, dropping from an average of 317,000 in June to just 45,000 in August.
As protests increased in frequency and shrank in size, they also became more intense in terms of the number of violent incidents and clashes with police. We measured intensity by charting the number of arrests and injuries, but these are imperfect indicators. For example, reports that police were using hospital records to arrest people who came in with protest-related injuries discouraged protesters from seeking treatment for minor wounds, leading to undercounts. Injuries numbered 151 in June, 177 in July and 55 through Aug. 14. Arrests show a much clearer increase: 52 in June, 143 in July and 391 in the first two weeks of August.
There have been no deaths linked directly to protest actions. The first fatality will have a dramatic effect on the movement: a de-escalatory effect if caused by protesters or escalatory if the police are to blame.
The fracturing and radicalization of the protests would have several implications. First, the geographic dispersion of protests makes them less predictable, makes clashes with police more likely to ensnare bystanders and threatens business property across a greater swath of territory. Second, the fragmentation of protest organizers makes a negotiated settlement less likely, because there are so many groups and goals; a negotiation with one group or set of groups may not satisfy others. Third, the fragmentation puts the movement on a path to devolve into an insurgency. While that has not developed yet, tactics have gone from one-off protests to actions more like hit-and-run attacks. Should trends continue in that direction, the conflict will look more like urban guerrilla skirmishes than a protest movement. And skirmishing in the streets will increase the likelihood of direct intervention by Beijing.