Following months of unrest, Hong Kong’s Chief Secretary Carrie Lam has formally withdrawn the controversial extradition bill that spurred the protestors when introduced earlier this year.
The extradition bill would have allowed Hong Kongers — who are supposed to enjoy English rights of trial in their native city — to be removed to mainland China for trial and punishment under the Communist regime. It was seen by many as the end of the “one country/two systems” protections Hong Kong residents enjoyed since reverting to Chinese rule in 1997, under the 1984 treaty between Britain and China. As the city’s chief executive, Lam has until now worked hard as Beijing’s tool, putting activists on trial, squashing the independence-minded Hong Kong National Party, and of course pushing for the new Beijing-approved extradition law.
China insisted in 2017 that the treaty no longer had “practical significance,” meaning that this year’s attempted legal crackdown was all but inevitable. Hong Kongers, jealous of their liberties, were ready to protest from the get-go this spring.
So what made Lam reverse course — and did she make her sudden move with Beijing’s acquiescence?
Michael Yon, who has been reporting for weeks from Hong Kong, told Austin Bay that the weeks-long protests had evolved into “general civil unrest.” But there’s more:
Has their cause gone beyond autonomy? Yon considered that. Sometime during the past three weeks, he mused, the situation went beyond civil unrest. “It is clear that a growing number want to overthrow the HK government,” he said. Though he had yet to hear anyone say it, he bet that “within just a week or so they will be saying it.” He speculated an insurgency could erupt because “clearly many protestors would rather see the city burn than just surrender.”
That’s an informed reporter’s dire impression. What would ignite this insurgency? I fear my second question is the likely answer: Beijing’s army or the Peoples Armed Police attacking Hong Kong’s citizens.
Beijing must de-escalate the Hong Kong crisis.
Within hours of publication, Lam apparently tried to do just that, by withdrawing the extradition bill. But is it too little, too late?
Just because the bill has been withdrawn, doesn’t mean that Beijing has given up at all on its quest to fully integrate Hong Kong into President Xi’s increasingly totalitarian system. Maybe Beijing gave Lam the order to withdraw the bill in order to quell the protests and then …ahem… more quietly deal with Hong Kong troublemakers. Maybe Lam’s decision blindsided Beijing, making a bloody, Tiananmen-style, military crackdown more likely. Maybe the protestors, having tasted victory, won’t return peacefully to their homes, but will instead make fresh demands. That’s a real risk (for Lam and Xi), since, as Yon wrote, “the obvious majority of people were just sick of the police and government in totality. The general population seems to view the government as illegitimate.”
We’ve already seen some of the evolution, in fact. The WSJ reminds us this morning that in addition to the withdrawal of the extradition bill (which they got), protestors now also want things they probably cannot get, like “an inquiry into the Hong Kong Police Force’s handling of the demonstrations and calls for greater democracy.” Emphasis added.
Lam gave the protestors the bare minimum of what they’re already demanding. But an honest investigation of the police is probably intolerable to her, and their call for a freer Hong Kong is certainly intolerable to Xi.
The only real protection Hong Kong residents might enjoy from communist ambitions is full independence, which ultimately may be the real reason that elements of the People’s Liberation Army have massed on the mainland just across from Hong Kong.
At this early stage, about the only thing we can say for certain is that Lam’s early morning move isn’t the end. It isn’t even the beginning of the end, but it might just be the end of the beginning… of something.