Under heavy rain Sunday, hundreds of thousands of protesters in Hong Kong marched against the city’s executive government demanding its resignation. Observers believe “peaceful” protests will continue this week also.
According to organisers, 1.7 million demonstrators have participated in marches, thousands have occupied the city’s airport (which some activists have apologised for) and China has described these as “indicators of terrorism”.
Hong Kong police described the protests Sunday as peaceful but warned that some demonstrators intentionally vandalised the facades of public buildings, and pointed laser beams at the faces of the police.
Protests began in February when the government of this autonomous city, which is separate from mainland China, proposed a bill that would allow the handing over of criminal suspects to China. Lawyers, business leaders and activists feel this will harm the city’s democratic system and economy.
At the end of the 19th century, Hong Kong came under British rule for 99 years, which ended in 1997 when it was returned to China as part of an agreement between London and Beijing under the slogan “One country, two systems.” This upholds the Westernised nature of the city until 2047.
Protests continue, although the government of Carrie Lam (who is appointed by mainland China) amended a draft law by removing several crimes that were eligible for deportation to mainland China, such as economic activities (bankruptcy, dealing in securities, futures and intellectual property).
Protests continued to escalate despite another amendment to the draft law that Lam suggested before the end of the parliamentary session in July, limiting crimes eligible for deportation to those requiring seven years or more of imprisonment.
By July, protests turned against China itself and activists organised marches to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989.
Such activism is prohibited in China, and Beijing blocked any reference to it online in the Chinese language.
Tiananmen is a main square in Beijing where according to Western estimates thousands of students gathered to demand democratic reform, which the government of the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping rejected.
Protests were eventually suppressed, and the opposition in exile commemorates this anniversary every year.
After massive protests, the numbers of which organisers and police disagree, Lam decided to suspend discussion of the draft law without withdrawing it, and apologised to protesters.
The next day, on 16 June, more than two million protesters, according to organisers, took to the streets in the largest demonstration since the return of Hong Kong to mainland China.
Since then, protests have become more violent with demonstrators and police have clashed several times, protesters have raided shopping malls, underground stations and the airport, which caused flights to be delayed for more than a day. Shares of the city’s airline, Cathay Pacific Airways, plummeted to their lowest level in a decade.
A strike on 5 August paralysed the city, especially during the morning rush hour when many underground lines were disrupted and dozens of stations were shut down, as well as 170 flights cancelled.
A few days later, American diplomats met with protesters and said, “a responsible state does not act in this manner.” The US administration repeatedly said that China must be responsive to the demands of Hong Kong protesters, because “suppressing protests will impact our [US] relations with China.”
US President Donald Trump invited his Chinese counterpart to a “personal” meeting on Hong Kong, saying it is crucial to reach agreement in light of trade talks between the two sides, and to avoid another Tiananmen.
The US State Department said 14 August that Washington is “very concerned” about “Chinese military movements” on the border with Hong Kong, urging Beijing to “exercise the utmost level of self-control” with regard to the former British colony.
Several US officials reminded China of events at Tiananmen, including National Security Adviser John Bolton who said “the US remembers Tiananmen Square.”
The semi-official English-language Global Times newspaper published an editorial claiming Beijing “has not yet decided to intervene with force to stop the riots in Hong Kong, but this certainly is an option”.
It added that even if China decided to send the army to stop protesters, “it will not repeat the political incident of 4 June 1989”, in a rare reference to Tiananmen.
Many Western media reports doubt the Chinese army will invade Hong Kong before celebrations on 10 October, which is the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China by former leader Mao Zedung after communists defeated nationalists who withdrew to the island of Taiwan and created the Republic of China.
Others believe China would never consider a military solution in Hong Kong due to potentially massive economic and political losses.
Beijing accuses former coloniser Britain, Taiwan (which China does not recognise) and several Western powers of fanning the flames in Hong Kong, saying that some in the US and West want to see a “colour revolution”, in reference to popular uprisings in several former Soviet states and East Europe.
Demonstrators continue to demand the same things, most notably eliminating the draft law, Lam’s resignation, an independent investigation into the protests, political reform that allow Hong Kong residents to elect a president instead of an executive director appointed by Beijing.
China will most likely reject the majority of these demands, to prevent protesters from imposing their will on it. The most it could compromise is to temporarily cancel the draft law which can be reintroduced in a new format at a later date.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 22 August, 2019 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly under the headline: Stand-off in Hong Kong