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Yale 62

Hong Kong Heat, Part 5

By William Stork, Yale International Alliance, Regional Coordinator – East Asia

Finally, a breath of fresh air! This is the first weekend in months that Hong Kong has not tasted tear gas in its streets. Many are asking if a turning point has occurred in the political turmoil that has roiled Hong Kong since June 8. This is the eleventh consecutive weekend of protests.

That was the first day of protests, triggered initially by the Hong Kong SAR government’s introduction of “The Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019,” quite a mouthful, and generally referred to as ‘the extradition bill.’ In content, it would allow other countries (such as China) or regions (such as Taiwan) without an extradition treaty with Hong Kong, to request the Hong Kong government turn over individuals they have accused of crimes. Why protest? This would remove the legal firewall enshrined in The Basic Law that was agreed upon as part of the transition of sovereignty from Britain to China in 1997 under the “One Country, Two Systems” policy. Hong Kong would retain among other things its independent judiciary and legal system based on British common law, the right of free speech and assembly, and the guarantee of eventual universal suffrage. It would also retain the colonial Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC). A timeline of the protests and how they grew will follow, as will a series of four articles, “Hong Kong Heat,” written for my Yale class’s excellent website.

On Saturday, tens of thousands took to the streets in protest, wearing the now de facto uniform of black shirts. But there was no violence. It is now Monday, and I spent a good part of Sunday in the comfort of my living room watching the events of the afternoon’s rally unfold, on a channel with multi-screens: Victoria Park, a short distance east of central Hong Kong and the two roads towards that rally venue, from east and from west. The crowd size was estimated at 1.7 million, all of whom braved a horrendous downpour to be in attendance. The sea of umbrellas was reminiscent of the Umbrella Movement that paralyzed the CBD two years ago. The photos capture the dimensions of this peaceful rally better than my words can.

Victoria Park

Victoria Park is the size of six soccer-football pitches,
and organizers asked some to leave so that others could attend

Hong Kong Heat, Victoria Park

Hong Kong Heat, Victoria Park

But even though the huge crowds took over the city streets on their way to the rally, preventing city traffic, for once there was no police presence. The convenors of the rally, the Hong Kong Human Rights Front had received a ‘letter of no objection’ to their rally plans, but the police denied them a march to Central afterward, citing previous protest violence. After the rally some, on their own, moved toward Central, but again the police presence was absent. (Though six platoons of protest police were situated around all of Hong Kong, as a precaution, and one contingent of riot police was several blocks away from China’s liaison office though out of sight.)

Some comments of the participants are illustrative:

Billy Li, of the pro-democracy legal group Progressive Lawyers Group, says reports of the Chinese military gathering in Shenzhen, on the mainland China side of the border with Hong Kong, will not deter them. “The government should not think we are abandoning our demands for setting up an independent commission of inquiry and investigate the abuses of the police.”

Tonny Chan, 32, says that since June 9 he has only attended protests held by the Civil Human Rights Front, the organisers of today’s rally, saying he is a supporter of non-violent action. “The whole world is watching our struggle now and no one would like to see violent clashes,” he says. “I also do not want to see our young people giving up their future to defend us.” He says adhering to peaceful demonstration is even more important in the wake of the airport protests.

Media mogul and owner of pro-democracy broadsheet Apple Daily Jimmy Lai Chee-ying says it is important for the rally to remain non-violent. “Else, we will lose people’s hearts,” he says. Lai also says the People’s Liberation Army should not be deployed to handle the protests as that will only prompt international sanctions against China.

Reading out the rally declaration, Civil Human Rights Front convenor Jimmy Sham Tsz-kit says while protesters have pressurised the government into suspending the extradition bill, Hong Kong police are carrying out Chinese-government-style suppression. He criticised police for firing tear gas, rubber bullets and beanbag rounds on the protesters and even near elderly-care homes. “The people of Hong Kong are outraged at the government and police,” he says. He says the fight will not be over even after the rally ends later today.

Among protesters marching under the pouring rain is Anthony Hau, 23, a City University social science student. “I’m here because the government has refused to listen to our demands, even after all these protests,” he says. “If we give up right now, I fear the government will become more authoritarian. I’m doing this for the next generation,” he says. He adds that he will join strikes after classes resume in September, saying “Hong Kong’s future is more important than my studies.”

So to my mind a turning point of sorts has arrived, and here are my indicators:

In an interview on the major TV channel Felix Chung, leader of the business-backed and pro-Beijing Liberal Party indicated that as a member of the Chief Executive’s ExCo he would promote a move for the government to respond to two of the protester’s demands, the withdrawal of the now-‘suspended’ extradition bill and the formation of an inquiry commission into the recent violence.

Beijing, which continues to misunderstand Hong Kong, has backed away from its severe hard-line stance, after threatening use of the PLA garrison in Hong Kong and the mobilization across the border in Shenzhen of the People’s Auxillary Police (PAP), used domestically to quell ‘disturbances’. Beijing is apparently no longer pushing that aggressive strategy adopted when there were thoughts that Chief Executive Carrie Lam could not handle the situation. I am uncertain as to whether public opinion (Hong Kong or internationally) is playing a role. I see both actions as a show of force neither of which could be enacted as either would undermine Hong Kong’s independent financial status and China is dependent on Hong Kong as its major international financial hub. Additionally, there was consternation amongst government officials when Carrie Lam, at a recent press conference, five times dodged giving a direct answer to the posed question, ‘Do you have the autonomy to withdraw the extradition bill?”

[An aside: Now that a turning point is in view Trump has added Hong Kong into his considerations with the trade negotiations with China. Should the turning point prove real for Hong Kong, I am sure that I know just who will take the credit!]

On this past Saturday there was another rally in Central, this time not organized by the protesters but by ‘those opposed to violence’. Seen as a pro-government effort, it was for the first time attended by some of Hong Kong’s major tycoons, who seem to be rightly concerned about the devastating effect the protests, along with the US trade war with China, have had on the Hong Kong economy, now predicted to have marginal growth in the coming year. (Already the Financial Secretary has announced plans to inject a stimulus of HK billions of ‘sweeteners’ into the economy.)

Ronny Tong, the only member of Carrie Lam’s ExCo with a pan-democratic background, has submitted a ‘suggestion’ for the creation of a Committee of Reconciliation (not an inquiry commission) to move the dialogue forward now that protesters have had a peaceful weekend, responding to am implication in a comment of Carrie Lam’s, that ‘listening’ to protesters requests might come once Hong Kong became ‘peaceful’. Tong also suggested giving the Committee the power for granting amnesty. [Ronny Tong was a founding member of the Civic Party, the largest of the pro-democracy block. He has repeatedly taken issue with his party for its stance regarding electoral reform, pushing initially for implementation of Article 45 of The Basic Law which calls for universal suffrage. Citing these differences he resigned from the Civic Party and also the seat to which he had been elected in the Legislative Council (Legco).]

Whether these overtures will lead to dialogue is uncertain. Carrie Lam has touted promises for an overhaul as to how the government is to do its business, to be announced in her upcoming October annual policy address. Bonnie Leung, a vice-convenor of the Civil Human Rights Front that has mobilized millions to its rallies, is dismissive of Carrie Lam saying that nothing came of her promises after the Umbrella Movement. She further has said that accepting only two of the five demands (plus universal suffrage) would not be sufficient, as the demands are a ‘matter of principle’ and are not subject to negotiation.

While we wait for this to play out, the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Hong Kong, of which I am a member, has announced an upcoming panel discussion featuring two: a former British colonial official now a university professor here, and an attorney member of the Basic Law Committee, Queen’s Counsel and Senior Counsel, and member of the mainland’s Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference. Topic: Is the Sino-British Joint Declaration Dead? “Signed by British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chinese Premier Zhao Ziyang in 1984, the Sino-British Joint Declaration laid the foundation for Hong Kong’s handover in 1997. With Hong Kong’s current political unrest, the question has been raised as to whether the Joint Declaration has been irrevocably violated. Beijing calls it a historical document that no longer has any realistic meaning while London insists it is a legally binding treaty that is registered with the U.N. and continues to be in force. The panelists will discuss from their perspectives whether the document is all but dead.”

Did you miss our earlier accounts? Catch up below.

Hong Kong Heat, Parts 1 and 2
Hong Kong Heat, Part 3
Hong Kong Heat, Part 4