As the protests in Hong Kong enter their fifth month, the world is still watching China closely in their highest-stakes demonstration since Tiananmen Square.
What started as demonstrations against Hong Kong’s new law to allow authorities to extradite citizens to Taiwan and Mainland China have erupted into the largest and longest series of demonstrations the Communist Party has ever faced. For over five months, hundreds of thousands of people have taken to the streets of Hong Kong with their pleas and demands, and it’s been estimated that some days have seen as many as one million protesters fighting against what they view as the Mainland’s continuous oppression of their semi-autonomous city.
The situation in Hong Kong took a major turn the other day when the government withdrew the extradition bill that threw the city into such a frenzy in the first place. Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, insists that this decision was hers and did not come from Beijing, but despite her assurances, the protests are still expected to continue full steam ahead.
Put simply, Lam’s actions to withdraw the bill are too-little-too-late. Many feel that if she had acted earlier when the protests began, she could have saved herself a lot of grief (not to mention her political career). Since March, however, the demonstrations have evolved into something she can’t hope to appease by simply withdrawing a piece of legislation.
Police brutality, corruption and false promises have become such prevalent focal points of the demonstrations, to the point where they have almost entirely overshadowed the issues regarding the extradition bill. In fact, many of the protesters have become even more upset with Lam since the she withdrew legislation, claiming she has been too slow to act and is out of touch with the real issues at hand.
This all begs the question, however, of what the Mainland is going to do about the protests, if anything. While several People’s Liberation Army troops arrived in Hong Kong last week, this movement of troops is officially a standard rotation of the garrison; there isn’t evidence to suggest (yet) that Beijing has increased the troop presence in Hong Kong. Even so, these troops have been confined to the barracks. So far, President Xi has done little to instigate the protesters and destabilize the area any further.
Hong Kong’s strategic importance to the Mainland cannot be understated, and there can be no doubt that the city’s value to Beijing will play a tremendous role when the brass decides how they react, even if it’s just letting these events transpire on their own. The Hong Kong stock exchange is one of the largest in the world, and there are tens of thousands of expats living in the city who contribute a great deal to the country’s economy. Furthermore, Hong Kong has historically served as a stepping-stone for foreign corporations before they expand into the broader Chinese market, and in turn, Chinese companies have made Hong Kong a base of operations to accumulate clientele, international recognition and clout before they expand overseas.
The city’s output as one of the world’s epicenters of trade, finance and industry is dependent on the autonomy and security its residents have enjoyed, and all of this could be jeopardized if Beijing decides to crush these protests. On the other hand, doing nothing and allowing the people of Hong Kong to continually challenge the status quo brings the Communist party’s entire ideology under scrutiny. For decades since China began its free-market experiment, the party has assured its people and the world that it can operate in a capitalist economic system whilst maintaining complete control over its citizens. The protests in Hong Kong may force the party to sacrifice one for the other.
Ultimately, these protests are not likely to stop any time soon, as much as it would please the party to not have any media distractions from the Communist revolution’s 70th anniversary festivities in October. Only time will tell what more, if anything, Hong Kong will concede to its citizenry and whether Beijing can continue to ignore one of its greatest challenges yet.