Why Hong Kong Will Still March on Sunday
Yes, the extradition bill has been suspended.
No, that will not be enough.
By Yuen Ying Chan (Ms. Chan is a professor at Hong Kong University.)
“I believe that we cannot withdraw this bill, or else society will say that this bill was groundless,” Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, said at a news conference on Saturday.
In many ways Saturday’s announcement might be viewed as a small victory for Mrs Lam’s opposition. A draft bill that would allow citizens and foreign residents and even visitors to be extradited to mainland China has been suspended, indefinitely. But Mrs. Lam stopped short of withdrawing the bill. If she hoped that a delay would allow people to cool off and move on, that is wishful thinking.
Protesters said they will not accept anything less than withdrawal of the bill. On Sunday, hundreds of thousands — and by some estimates, 2 million — were back in the streets; authorities were so stunned that Mrs. Lam issued an unexpected apology for her handling of this episode. For Hong Kong, this battle, more than the protests that have come before, feels like a last stand.
For 79 days in 2014, thousands of protesters set up camp in Hong Kong’s main thoroughfares. The mood of Occupy Central was often sober, but sometimes idyllic, as the mostly young activists took up space, protested, and shared their hopes for free elections. Then came the police and the arrests.
Much has happened since. After the camps were removed, with none of the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement’s goals met, the movement split into factions and several of its leaders were sent to jail.
Many people were apprehensive that Hong Kong’s special status within China would be in jeopardy. Those fears have proved well-founded: In 2015 five Hong Kong booksellers known for selling political titles were abducted to the mainland; in 2017 a billionaire, Xiao Jianhua, disappeared from his room in a luxury hotel and has not been seen in public since; pro-Beijing forces have taken over the legislature; and Beijing’s representative office in Hong Kong has become much more assertive in local affairs.
As well as the mainland’s gradual encroachment, Hong Kongers have had to cope with rising housing costs, long waits for public medical services and record numbers living in poverty. Even the subway system, once the pride of the city, has been plagued by construction problems.
For five years change has seemed very far away. People felt stuck. The city was in the grip of a malaise.
Then came June 9, and an estimated one million Hong Kongers were in the streets — this time to protest the extradition bill. When Mrs. Lam, who was handpicked by Beijing, vowed that the bill would go ahead, a second protest was held on June 12, the day the bill was up for final debate and voting by lawmakers. The debate was postponed for the rest of the week.
But on Saturday, Mrs. Lam seemed to back down: The bill is suspended indefinitely. But protesters know that they need to hear that it will be withdrawn completely, whatever it takes.
The last five years have been hard, but they, and this bill, have served to create a more determined movement. In 2014, the peaceful sit-ins of the Umbrella Movement had support from certain groups but not across the board. They wanted to expand Hong Kong’s freedoms but many people felt that things were O.K., so why rock the boat?
This time around protesters organized quickly, communicated on encrypted messaging applications and wore face masks. They seemed even younger than the Occupy generation. And the opposition to the bill has not been limited to a loose coalition of students and democracy advocates. It encompasses almost every sector of society, including moderate professors, writers, former senior government officials, religious and business leaders. When protesters took to the streets last Sunday under 90-degree summer sun, restaurants and small shop owners offered them water and ice. Students, housewives and professionals of many walks of life signed petitions demanding the bill’s withdrawal.
But the government has also learned. This time it has not allowed public spaces to be occupied, and police are more readily resorting to force. They have normalized the use of tear gas, and on Wednesday police fired 150 rounds of tear gas in one day, almost double that of the entire duration of Occupy Central. The police hit unarmed protesters with batons and fired rubber bullets at individuals or crowds without warning. They aimed at body parts. Hong Kong had never seen such a level of police brutality, and so brazenly, too — the authorities apparently unfazed by being recorded on live video and broadcast around the world.
Until Saturday, Mrs. Lam refused to budge. She seemed determined to ram the bill through the establishment-controlled legislature before its recess in July. Never in the history of the city had a bill of such magnitude been enacted in such a short time without public discussion or review. On Saturday, Mrs. Lam said that she felt sorry that she had failed to convince the public that the bill was needed, and that she’d listen to more views.
So Hong Kong is not dead — not yet. But it is still under serious threat.
The “one country, two systems” arrangement and the Basic Law, Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, are marked by uncertainty. They are, of necessity, works-in-progress that require creativity and good faith on the part of the governing powers in Hong Kong and Beijing.
Hong Kong’s people have lived with that uncertainty, struggling to defend their freedoms but sidestepping direct confrontation with Beijing. But they, especially the young, are ready to stand up for their rights.
Maybe, this time, the people of Hong Kong will have the last laugh.