Where Do Hong Kong's Protests Go From Here?

6 MINS READAug 30, 2019 | 21:28 GMT
Protesters cover their right eyes as they attend the Stand in Silence for the 74th Anniversary of the Liberation of Hong Kong event at the cenotaph in Hong Kong on Aug. 30, 2019.

Protesters cover their right eyes as they attend the Stand in Silence for the 74th Anniversary of the Liberation of Hong Kong event at the cenotaph in Hong Kong on Aug. 30, 2019. Beijing would rather Hong Kong's authorities deal with the city's protests, although it will step in if it needs to.


What Happened 

With new protests and potential violence in Hong Kong a distinct possibility in the weeks ahead, the city's police force is striving to stay a step ahead of its competition. Authorities detained seven prominent activists, including Joshua Wong, Agnes Chow and Andy Chan, on Aug. 29 and Aug. 30 on charges that they were organizing protests. The arrests coincided with a ban on a major rally that the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), a key organizer against the contentious extradition bill that first ignited Hong Kong's protests, had scheduled for Aug. 31. As a result of the prohibition, the CHRF called off the rally, during which it had planned to demand universal suffrage on the fifth anniversary of Beijing's controversial white paper that effectively rejected the request.

The Big Picture

Now nearing its 14th week, anti-government protests in Hong Kong have escalated violently and dramatically in recent weeks, putting the city's all-important business and transportation activities at risk and raising the prospect of a harsher crackdown or direct intervention by Beijing. The general course of the protest movement and the demonstrators' deep — and still unaddressed — grievances make the chances of a de-escalation remote. 

Meanwhile, the Hong Kong airport authority said it would strictly enforce an earlier court injunction to ban demonstrations at the hub amid some protesters' plans to conduct another nearby "stress test" (efforts that have, in effect, disrupted the airport for several days since earlier this month). At present, the situation on the street remains volatile, as protesters plan new rounds of industrial strikes and class boycotts and the police prepare for a harsher crackdown with advanced equipment, including water cannon. At the same time, Hong Kong's authorities have been in discussion about making a final roll of the dice — a far-reaching emergency ordinance that would further restrict people's ability to protest — in an effort to head off the nuclear solution: direct intervention by Beijing. 

Why It Matters

Despite the ban on the Aug. 31 rally, the detentions and the ongoing crackdown, the authorities' actions are unlikely to quell the situation on the ground due to the fluid nature of the opposition movement and the demonstrators' deep-seated grievances against Hong Kong's government and Beijing over their refusal to meet protesters' demands. In fact, the measures could provoke more radical protesters to resort to more aggressive tactics, inflaming the situation. 

This chart shows the size of various protests in Hong Kong since the beginning of the city's unrest.

With a political settlement a remote possibility and the police unable to suppress the unrest at this point, Hong Kong's authorities are increasingly looking into legal options to beat back the demonstrators. One such means that has attracted heated debate is the potential invocation of the 1922 Emergency Regulations Ordinance, which could grant Chief Executive Carrie Lam near-unrestrained power to control the internet, seize key transport hubs and arrest and deport demonstrators.

But given the potential legal hurdles to such a step, as well as the disruptions it would cause to businesses and the wider public, Hong Kong authorities are likely to apply the ordinance only in a small geographic area and avoid censoring the internet too much. In the end, however, the law might be Lam's last chance to quell the protests on their own — and preempt Beijing, which would intervene reluctantly, though heavy-handedly. And given that Oct. 1, China's National Day, is just a month away, Hong Kong will be under unprecedented pressure from Beijing to stabilize the situation, which China's central authorities believe Lam's government made on its own. At this stage, however, it is unclear whether the Hong Kong police are powerful enough to halt the protests even if authorities invoke the ordinance, meaning Beijing's foreboding presence will continue to loom over proceedings.

This map shows the location of protests in Hong Kong.

What to Watch for Next

Protest movement: The success of the upcoming protests and strikes will be critical in gauging the trajectory of the movement and, in turn, evaluating the government's options. If the protests remain peaceful, there will be less need for the emergency ordinance or Beijing's intervention — something that would help restore business confidence, which has been shaken by the crisis. But a further escalation in which protesters overwhelm the airport, key transport links or politically symbolic buildings such as Beijing's liaison office will strengthen the hand of those advocating a harsher crackdown through the imposition of the ordinance.

Internal debates: The Hong Kong government remains extremely divided over the emergency ordinance, with some in the administration even unclear as to which authority would approve the move. A possible legislative process to impose the act would likely have to wait until the Hong Kong Legislative Council reconvenes in October, but Lam's government could take the unilateral step to invoke the act if it deems it necessary, although that would ignite a firestorm of controversy and risk further splitting the government. At the same time, the administration is debating the scope of the possible ordinance, with some recommending the implementation of an anti-mask law (such laws exist in the United States and Canada) to discourage violence.

Coordination with Beijing: Beijing, which does not want to take blame for the crisis, would certainly prefer that Lam's government and police handle the unrest instead of conducting an intervention that would immediately result in U.S. sanctions and disrupt its efforts at maintaining its "one country, two systems" with regard to Hong Kong. Given the high stakes in Hong Kong and the prospect that Beijing may feel compelled to intervene if local police fail to enforce the emergency ordinance, signs of coordination between the central government and Lam's administration will be critical in tracking Beijing's position. Other signposts would include the mobilization of the Chinese People's Armed Police, the security forces just over the border in Shenzhen, as well as the military in the Hong Kong garrison to see whether these forces could play an assisting role.

Reaction from the business community and foreign governments: Foreign and domestic businesses are stuck between a rock and a hard place, as they have no desire to see the crisis continue or a possible state of emergency — let alone an intervention from Beijing. Besides the toll on Hong Kong's economy, sentiment among the all-powerful business community and foreign governments, particularly the United States, will be key to follow regarding a possible emergency ordinance – since their opposition could go a long way to restraining both Lam's government and the one in Beijing. 

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