COMMENTARY: Hong Kong Protests Show Disconnect Between People and Their Leaders

Extradition bill on ice after massive demonstrations bring out city’s wide spectrum of opponents, who span a range of ages, classes and professions.

Mark Melnicoe
    Jul 06, 2019 5:05 AM  PT
COMMENTARY: Hong Kong Protests Show Disconnect Between People and Their Leaders
author: Mark Melnicoe   

Last month's massive protests in Hong Kong succeeded in at least the temporary shelving of a bill that was widely despised. And it displayed the level of distrust most Hongkongers have for an increasingly authoritarian government in Beijing.

But beyond that, it's hard to fathom that the city's 7.4 million residents are going to be satisfied anytime soon. They are locked onto a path of fully coming under the political umbrella of Beijing in less than 30 years, and their government seems tone deaf to the people it supposedly represents.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her legislative allies seem to answer more to Beijing, where authorities are pulling the strings. It was Beijing that pressed Lam to pass the extradition bill that prompted the biggest street demonstrations in Hong Kong history. The bill would have allowed suspects charged with crimes by China's government to be sent across the border to face the Communist authorities.

Lam and others pointed to the exclusion of people accused of political crimes, but that was of zero comfort to opponents who know of Beijing's penchant for charging people who have spoken out with bribery or blackmail or other such inventions. With Chinese President Xi Jinping's government clamping down against free speech and peaceful dissent for the past four years, few in Hong Kong have any interest in falling under Beijing's rule.

They know the judiciary, like other instruments of power in the mainland, bows to the party. When it comes to politics, there is no such thing as a fair trial in China, and to be charged is tantamount to being convicted and facing years in prison.

Lam's Resignation May Not Lead to Change 

With that in mind, hundreds of thousands of Hongkongers turned out to protest the extradition bill on June 9 in one of the biggest demonstrations since Britain handed Hong Kong back over to Chinese rule in 1997. Three days later, a second peaceful protest was met with tear gas and rubber bullets by Hong Kong police, which put 70 people in the hospital and further enraged the protesters.

The result was a much more massive rally on June 16, which flooded the streets over much of downtown Hong Kong. Organizers put the total at 2 million demonstrators – more than a quarter of the entire population of the city. By then, Lam had already suspended the extradition bill but the anger had set in. Protesters' demands now include that the legislation be permanently pulled, those arrested be released, and Lam resign.

The protest movement includes a huge array of Hong Kong's population, noted Helen F. Siu, a professor of anthropology at Yale University who has conducted decades of field work in South China.

"Those opposing the bill represent a wide spectrum of age, class, profession, ethnicity, and political conviction, including lawyers (even the practical-minded Law Society), chambers of commerce, diplomats, journalists, religious organizations, and schools," she wrote for China File. "They are the professional backbone of Hong Kong society, whose voices have been compromised, if not silenced, since 1997."

Lam was forced to apologize but few of the protesters' demands are likely to be met. Lam was designated by the leadership in Beijing, which does not allow free elections for Hong Kong's chief executive. Even if Lam is ousted, the Legislative Council is stacked with anti-democracy candidates after six democratically elected representatives were purged by the government in 2016 and 2017. Beijing is not going to allow the former British colony's political bent to change.

A Crossroads for Hong Kong

Hong Kong stands at an odd crossroads. The city's robust, freewheeling capitalistic economy is slowly falling under Beijing's spell. It is nearly halfway through a 50-year "one country, two systems" transition where Hong Kong retains freedom of speech and an independent judiciary. The city's courts and rule of law, built on the British legal system, are key to its phenomenal economic success. 

If mainland China truly reforms its economy in the ways it has promised for many years, Hong Kong could continue to perform well even after 2047, when it goes fully under Chinese rule. But today's tension is political, not economic. It took several huge protests to get Lam and her legislative colleagues to grasp the depth of popular discontent with the extradition bill.  

"One can hope that Lam has learned some hard political lessons about the need for dialogue, transparency, and basic honesty, wrote Thomas Kellogg, executive director of Georgetown Law Asia. "After all, though the Chinese Communist Party put her in office, she still works for the people of Hong Kong. They are the ones who will have to live with her decisions, for however much longer she remains in office."

A big problem is Hong Kong's political system itself.

"Hong Kong has a chief executive who isn't elected by the people and doesn't represent them," wrote Mark Clifford, executive director of the Hong Kong-based Asia Business Council who has lived in Hong Kong since 1992.  "This is deliberate, and in line with the pre-1997 British colonial approach to government. It was a top-down style of governance that China's leaders embraced during the handover negotiations. The system is inadequate in a prosperous, tech-savvy, well-educated 21st century city."

Siu may have hit upon the crux of city residents' discontent when she wrote about the generational experience of Hong Kong as a land of opportunities and refuge.

"The proposed extradition bill would discourage participation in the life of the city out of fear, thus shrinking the social connections and diverse cultural resources Hongkongers have used to forge distinctive identities, livelihoods, and lifestyles."

It should have come as no surprise to Lam and her colleagues – or to Beijing – that the city's residents would rise up against the extradition bill. That it did shows the depth of their disconnect from Hong Kong's population and how the political system is out of sync with the people.