China doubled down on its miscalculation in Hong Kong overnight after more than a million people spilled onto the streets to protest an extradition law demanded by Beijing. Roughly a seventh of the enclave’s population put the city in gridlock and prevented its semi-autonomous legislature from considering the bill. Police were ordered to break it up with teargas and water hoses, which already appears to be backfiring:
Protests in Hong Kong have now turned violent.
This comes after more than a million people marched Sunday, according to organizers, in protest against a hugely controversial extradition bill with China.@IvanCNN is live and on the ground there. https://t.co/VYpuUND8Mj pic.twitter.com/oUdPK14vLq
— CNN (@CNN) June 12, 2019
Despite the huge turnout and opposition across a wide swath of society, it seemed there was little anyone could do to stop it. Protests were expected Wednesday but more as a display of anger and venting of frustration, rather than an effective blocking tactic.
The young protesters, most in their teens or early twenties, had other ideas, however. By noon, the protest had transformed into a redux of the 2014 Umbrella Movement.
“(This) boils down to a display of people power in Hong Kong, a display in particular of young people power,” opposition lawmaker Claudia Mo told the tens of thousands who had gathered outside the Legislative Council building.
“At the end of the Umbrella Movement, didn’t we say, ‘we will be back’? And now, we are back!”
The Washington Post also recalls the 2014 protests in its report on today’s unrest. The larger issue is Beijing’s attempts to fully incorporate the former British colony and Commonwealth partner into its control. For the second time in five years, Beijing has miscalculated:
It was the second time in five years that Hong Kong’s main roads have been occupied in defiance of Beijing’s tightening control on the semiautonomous city. Hong Kong’s Harcourt Road, a major thoroughfare tying the city together, was the scene of massive street battles between the young protesters and police throughout the afternoon until the rally was dispersed by evening. …
Protesters said they wanted to send a clear message: that Hong Kong will continue to fight to the end against any move to extend Beijing’s dominance into their unique territory.
“We are trying to tell the government that the more they suppress us, the more we will fight back,” said Justin Tang, 25, an airline employee who was sitting on a road that would normally be filled with Hong Kong’s red-and-white taxis and speeding buses.
“Being the last city in China that is able to do that, we are going to hold on to that right,” he said.
The proposed law would essentially eliminate Hong Kong’s negotiated special status after the British pulled out in 1997. It would grant extradition requests with countries even without extant extradition treaties. That includes China, which would undoubtedly use that new authority to demand custody of dissidents remaining in Hong Kong, and more broadly have it as a threat against the enclave’s leadership. If they got too enthusiastic about autonomy, it wouldn’t take much for Beijing to trump up charges and force their extradition.
The miscalculation came not just in the law, but in the heavy-handed manner in which Hong Kong’s chief executive attempted to force it through. Carrie Lam is already known as “just a puppet of Beijing,” as one protester told the Post’s reporters, but this might put her in a new league of collaboration. Lam owes her appointed position to Beijing, and paid it back immediately on her installation two years ago by forcing out four pro-democracy legislators in a court challenge, then disqualifying a replacement for her support of “self-determination.” Lam’s status as a Beijing toady was therefore already well known, but this attempt to fully extend their authoritarian grip on Hong Kong may have been the straw that broke the camel’s back.
Needless to say, this is not a good time for Xi Jinping to have to put down a revolt of his own making. The US is fighting a trade war with China, and a brutal suppression of democracy activists might swing even Trump’s opponents into supporting tariffs as a rebuke. Both the US and Europe are isolating Huawei, a Chinese telecom giant at the center of Xi’s plans to steal Western technology for its CM2025 project, and a new fight over Hong Kong will remind everyone as to what’s at stake in that fight, too. If Xi orders another Tiananmen-style assault on civilians, it might cut China off from the markets it needs to keep its grip on everyone else in China, if those repercussions last long enough.
Of course, they didn’t last anywhere near long enough after Tiananmen Square, the anniversary of which just passed in recent days. Have we learned a lesson from that failure?