Not Mollified By Concessions, Hong Kong Protests Expand
If Hong Kong's leaders thought protesters would be satisfied with relatively minor concessions, they have significantly miscalculated the situation.
In what was clearly an effort to placate the protests that have swept through Hong Kong’s streets over the past several weeks, egged on in part by a violent response from police, the city government took measures to make it appear as if they were stepping back in the ongoing controversy over an extradition bill. First, the city’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced that she was indefinitely suspending consideration of the bill that had raised concerns due to the fact that it would appear to make extradition of Hong Kong citizens to mainland China easier. Then, in a step unusual for her and atypical for government authorities in the People’s Republic, she issued an apology for the manner in which the issue had been handled. However, if Hong Kong’s leaders and the Chinese leadership in Beijing, which is of course largely calling the shots in the ongoing political crisis in the city, thought that those concessions would be the end of the matter, yesterday’s protests showed that they were woefully mistaken:
HONG KONG — Protesters poured into the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday with renewed determination and a lengthening list of demands, rejecting the government’s retreat on a contentious extradition bill and extending the political crisis gripping the semiautonomous territory.
Hong Kong’s embattled leader, Carrie Lam, shelved the bill on Saturday and followed that up with a rare apology the next day, actions that pro-democracy activists dismissed as too little, too late.
And the sheer size of the demonstration — organizers gave an unverified estimate of close to two million of the territory’s seven million people — made clear the public remained unsatisfied.
Many of the protesters said they were disappointed with Mrs. Lam’s statement, saying it seemed insincere.
“She only did it under pressure,” said Leo Cheng, a 19-year-old student.
The marchers’ resolve is sending tremors to Beijing, where President Xi Jinping’s carefully nurtured image of strength and competence is being put to the test.
“They want to send a message to Beijing,” said Willy Lam, an adjunct professor at the Center for China Studies at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “If Beijing wants to do something that really infringes upon Hong Kong’s basic value, Hong Kong people will turn out in force, again and again, to pour out their discontent.”
The marchers filled broad avenues and ran the length of downtown Hong Kong, parents with their children, groups of students and numerous retirees. Reflecting their changing mood, most dressed in black, a stark change from the white most wore the previous week.
They chanted and carried signs listing their demands: the complete withdrawal of the bill, not just an indefinite suspension; an impartial investigation into the police use of force during Wednesday’s clashes with protesters; and the rescinding the official description of that protest as an illegal riot, which could expose anyone arrested during the violent demonstration to long jail terms.
In contrast to Wednesday, police officers stood by on Sunday in a crowd-control role, with no altercations or arrests reported.
There were no immediate plans for another march. But labor unions, which tend to be weak in Hong Kong, have called for different sectors of society to take turns holding strikes of an hour or two on Monday, including a general strike by many businesses early Monday afternoon.
Perhaps most broadly, the demonstrators are increasingly demanding the departure of Mrs. Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong. The many calls for her resignation — and increasingly, for those of her ministers for justice and security — seemed to put in question her continued viability as the territory’s leader.
“Some heads need to roll,” said Emily Lau, the former chairwoman of Hong Kong’s Democratic Party and still a leading voice in the territory’s democracy movement.
It is far from clear whether that will happen. China’s leaders want to avoid starting the public selection process for a successor, as Mrs. Lam does not have an obvious political heir.
A commentary on Sunday in the People’s Daily, a news outlet run by the Communist Party, backed the Hong Kong government. But, in a departure from previous commentaries in the state news media, it conspicuously failed to mention Mrs. Lam.
The bill has fed rising fear and anger over the erosion of the civil liberties that have long set this former British colony apart from the rest of the country. The local authorities have also rejected demands for free elections and ousted opposition lawmakers, and critics say Beijing’s supporters are diminishing the independence of the territory’s courts and news media.
It was a resounding statement that Mrs. Lam’s political crisis was far from over. Finding little support from her superiors in Beijing, Mrs. Lam is still trying to thread the needle of restoring order without making concessions that would weaken her standing.
Sunday night’s apology, distributed as thousands of protesters converged on the Legislative Council building more than six hours after the march began, was the first time she had acknowledged fault in the debacle.
“The Chief Executive admitted that inadequacies of the government’s job has caused major contradictions and arguments in Hong Kong society, making many citizens feeling disappointed and upset,” the government said. “The Chief Executive apologizes to Hong Kong citizens for this, and promises that she will take on criticisms in the most sincere and humble way, striving to improve and serve the general public.”
At this juncture, Mrs. Lam is no closer to passing her unpopular legislation, which she had pushed since February as necessary to address a murder case that could only be tried in Taiwan. Critics see it as a Trojan horse that would allow Beijing to target activists, journalists and others in Hong Kong with dubious charges.
And she is now facing an expanding list of demands from the protesters, who were outraged by the harsh police response last Wednesday when some marchers tried to storm a government building, with a few throwing bricks and other projectiles at officers in riot gear. The police pushed back, hitting the protesters with batons, rubber bullets, pepper spray and more than 150 canisters of tear gas.
On Sunday, marchers waved more signs about the conduct of the police than about the extradition bill. The chants were varied: “Carrie Lam step down!” “Withdraw the bill!” “We are not rioters!” “Release the arrested students!” Some carried blown-up photos of a bloodied demonstrator from Wednesday.
“Last week, there was only one thing we were marching against,” said Katherine Lam, a 39-year-old data analyst. “But this time, there are a lot more reasons.”
The protest on Wednesday, a mostly leaderless act of civil disobedience organized through social media, came together to prevent legislators from discussing the bill. Tens of thousands of demonstrators blocked roads near the Legislative Council building, filling the streets of the Admiralty neighborhood in a scene reminiscent of 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement.
Last Sunday’s march, which organizers say was attended by more than a million people, was entirely peaceful, with no arrests reported. So was this Sunday’s, which the police said was attended by 338,000 people at its peak.
But that figure was limited to people who were on the roads of the original procession route approved by the police, while huge throngs marched down parallel roads.
It’s not at all surprising that Lam’s decision to suspend consideration of the extradition bill combined with what appears to have been something of a ham-handed apology wasn’t enough for the protesters. The stealth manner in which the extradition bill was introduced, as well as the government’s initial response to the protests, meant that whatever credibility they may have had on the issue was essentially destroyed very early-on in the crisis. There may have been a time in the past where these half-measures would have been good enough to slow the momentum of the protests, but that time passed weeks ago. At this point, the protesters are clearly emboldened and the concessions that the government made over the weekend have only seemed to increase the enthusiasm of the protests and harden the demands of the protesters. Additionally, those concessions appear to demonstrate that, in the end, the government is likely to back down in the face of mass protests and certainly seems unlikely to respond violently as they did on Wednesday since that only seemed to inflame the protesters.
In the end, the next step for Hong Kong’s government is in the hands of the Chinese leadership in Beijing. While they have yet to openly move against Lam or any of her supporters there have been some signs that preparations are being made to essentially turn her in a sacrificial lamb in the hope that this would be enough to stem the tide of protests. Whether that is true or not is something only time will tell, but it is clear that stability in Hong Kong is much more of a priority for Chinese leadership than protecting Lam and her supporters. If they believe that getting rid of Lam, and the extradition bill, is a necessary step in that direction then there seems to be no doubt that they’ll take it.