Hong Kong Protests Close Airport, Risk Confrontation With Military
Protests in Hong Kong have been going on for nine weeks now, but they are reaching a point where the patience of the leaders in Beijing is being tested.
The protests that have rattled Hong Kong for more than two months now entered new territory when thousands of protesters took over the public areas of Hong Kong International Airport, leading to a confrontation with police that closed the airport to departing and arriving flights due to the fact that normal operations were essentially impossible. This was actually the fifth day that protesters have shown up at the airport as part of the systemic protests that started over an extradition bill and quickly expanded to cover a wide-ranging number of issues. Those protests continued into today and have once again led to the closure of the airport. All of this is happening amid signs that Beijing may be losing its patience with the restive province:
HONG KONG — As anti-government demonstrations escalate in Hong Kong, each side is staking out increasingly polarized positions, making it difficult to find a path to compromise between the protesters and China’s ruling Communist Party.
The demonstrations, which began as a fight against a bill that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be extradited to the mainland, have more broadly morphed into a call for free elections, which largely do not exist in China. To Beijing, it would be a direct challenge to the leadership, tantamount to losing control of Hong Kong.
The once peaceful demonstrations have now intensified, coming into conflict with Hong Kong’s reputation for order and efficiency. Protesters on Monday filled the airport, crippling one of the world’s busiest transportation hubs. Demonstrators returned again on Tuesday, with more flights canceled that day.
China is also projecting more power, raising the possibility of more intense and more frequent clashes with the police. An official in Beijing on Monday condemned the actions of the protesters last weekend, casting it as the first signs of “terrorism.” The Chinese police also appeared to conduct large-scale exercises across the border from Hong Kong in Shenzhen, a city on the mainland.
“We are at a crossroads,” said Martin Lee, a democracy advocate and former lawmaker. “The future of Hong Kong — the future of democracy — depends on what’s going to happen in the next few months.”
The unrest is exposing the inherent conflict in the political experiment that began when China reclaimed Hong Kong from Britain in 1997, an ambitious attempt to marry Beijing’s brand of authoritarianism with a bastion of civil liberties.
China’s top leader, Xi Jinping, wants to make Hong Kong more like a mainland city, using economic incentives to buy happiness and propaganda to win loyalty. The protesters, who represent a wide swath of Hong Kong, want a government that looks out for their interests, not just Beijing’s, to help resolve problems like astronomical housing prices and low wages.
The two sides no longer seem to recognize each other’s concerns.
The protesters recently adopted a slogan with pro-independence roots: “Liberate Hong Kong, revolution of our times.” Many say they use it to describe their desire for a political voice. But Beijing has held up the slogan as evidence that the protesters support independence.
All of this began roughly nine weeks ago now when residents began taking to the streets to protest an extradition bill under consideration by the city’s legislature. With good cause, the protesters feared that if it became law the bill would make it easier for the government in Beijing to extradite Hong Kong residents and foreigners to mainland China. This would be significant, of course, because on the mainland these people would be without the civil liberties protections they ha pursuant to the 1997 agreement that returned Hong Kong to Chinese control. That agreement roughly abides by the “one country, two systems” idea that former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping advanced during his time in power. Initially, the city government responded to the protests by suspending consideration of the bill, but that wasn’t sufficient for protesters who continued their protests until the government relented by formally pulling the bill from consideration.
It quickly became apparent, though, that this wasn’t sufficient and the protesters have expanded their demands to include the removal of several key city officials. The protests expanded at that point, bringing more people to the streets, and also appeared to have become violent, largely in response to harsh measures by city police and what appear to have been the actions of provocateurs. By that point, even the leader of Hong Kong declaring the extradition bill dead wasn’t enough for the protesters, who have continued to take the streets in smaller protests during the week and large ones on the weekends. The most recent protest took the form of a largely successful General Strike that may be repeated on October 1st when China marks the anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. The recent shift of the attention of protesters from the streets to the airport is, no doubt, an effort to bring international attention to their movement while at the same time continuing their protests in the streets.
All of this has obviously tested the patience of the leadership in Beijing. So far, while the police in Hong Kong have on occasion used tear gas and batons to break up protests, things have been relatively restrained compared to how they would likely react if the protests were taking place anywhere else in China. As noted in the article linked above, the protests have veered into calls for independence at times, and in some cases included the flying of the pre-1997 flag that was flown when the city was under British rule. Obviously, independence is something that Beijing is not going to allow, and the more the protests move in that direction the higher the risk becomes of some kind of punitive action from the mainland will be notwithstanding the fact that it would take place before the world’s television cameras. Already there are reports of a military buildup in the mainland territory bordering Hong Kong, raising concerns that intervention could come without any warning.
As I have said before, Beijing has good reason to give Hong Kong latitude even in the face of these protests:
Another factor motivating China to restrain itself in Hong Kong, of course, is the fact that the leadership is wise enough to know that doing so would be a disaster both in terms of the widespread coverage it would receive from the western media, which is well-established in the city, and internationally. Even in this era where prosperity is becoming more widespread in China a whole, Hong Kong remains the goose that laid the golden egg and the leadership in Beijing is obviously too smart to mess that up. There’s always the possibility that they will lose patience in one of these situations and that they will overreact to the protests in Hong Kong as they did in Tiananmen. At that point, though, they may find that they’ve bitten off more than they can chew.
This is likely why the leadership has exercised patience. How long that patience lasts is now being tested.