On Wednesday, the Hong Kong police opened fire at tens of thousands of young protesters who had gathered outside the Legislative Council in the city centre of Admiralty hoping to stop the second reading of the controversial extradition bill with China from taking place. Young people equipped themselves with face masks, goggles, helmets and umbrellas stood in a line of defiance against the authorities.
At first glance, the scene felt like déjà vu, a scene from the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement. But in reality, this is Umbrella Movement 2.0. It is not only opposition against the Carrie Lam-led Hong Kong government and the extradition bill. It exposes the fundamental flaws of the ideals of “one country, two systems” as China grew stronger as an economic power that attempts to challenge the dominance of the West, while Hong Kong’s attempts to hold onto its identity and accidentally embroils itself in these global conflicts. The latest protest has also united more people and public opinion than four-and-a-half years ago.
The “612” (named for the date, 12 June) violent clashes, which involved the firing of 150 rounds of tear gas and 20 bean bag shots at not only protesters but also the press, were a direct result of the Hong Kong government’s blatant rejection of the voices of more than one million people who took to the streets just days before (Sunday, 9 June). The government proposed amending the existing laws so that it will allow Hong Kong to send suspects to stand trial in mainland China. The Progressive Lawyers Group explains the current law does not allow mainland China to extradite suspects from Hong Kong, but once the amendments are made, anyone who is considered a suspect by mainland China can be sent to the Chinese court, regardless of nationality, as soon as they set foot in Hong Kong.
This is further complicated by the tension between China and the US, over an ongoing trade war and political conflicts. For over a century, Hong Kong has acted as a bridge between China and the rest of the world, and this status remains after the handover because of “two systems”. This puts Hong Kong in an advantageous but also an awkward position. When “one country” is above all, it is fundamentally in conflict with the city’s Westernised system that respects freedoms and the rule of law inherited from its British days. Hong Kong can be collateral damage when China is in conflict with others.
Things are already set in motion. The US has already weighed in on the matter. House Democrat Nancy Pelosi warned that the Congress might review the city’s special status. Almost immediately following the 612 violent clashes, Ten congressmen led by Senator Marco Rubio introduced a bill to amend the US-Hong Kong Policy Act. Signed in 1992, the act recognises Hong Kong special status under “one country, two systems”, and allows the US to continue the bilateral relations between the US and Hong Kong as an autonomous region after the handover. The act also protects the non-discriminatory trade treatments for Hong Kong. The amendments, if approved, could remove the special status of Hong Kong and tariffs applied to Hong Kong exports will be the same as that to China.
In the face of strong oppositions from locally and abroad, Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam, however, still refuses to back down and drop the extradition bill. A lot of people have questioned why she is willing to sacrifice the future of Hong Kong just to get the bill passed. Is she merely executing Beijing’s order? China’s ambassador to London Liu Xiaoming told BBC that the extradition bill was the Hong Kong government’s own idea. If Liu was telling the truth, then the responsibility of causing more than a million people to take to the streets – the largest protest Hong Kong has seen since the 1989 protest against the Tiananmen Square crackdown – and the subsequent protests and chaos rests on the shoulders of Lam.
During the chief executive election in 2017, Lam was called “C.Y. 2.0” by her opponent to mock her even greater ability to divide the society than that of her predecessor Leung Chun-ying, who provoked the crowd to take to the streets in 2014, leading to the three-month Umbrella Movement. And Lam has “successfully” lived up to her reputation with the controversial extradition bill.
Hong Kong’s chief executive is a politically sensitive and delicate position as while it requires the person in the job to walk the fine line between pledging loyalty to Beijing and serving the best interests of Hongkongers. It requires someone who is good at politics and has a great deal of street smart to do the job. But the former straight-A student and long-time civil servant who has been good at executing orders since the colonial days does not seem to have what it takes to run the city. Lam has failed her job spectacularly. And how things pan out in the coming weeks will depend on whether Lam can rectify her mistakes before it is too late. A Tiananmen 2.0 in the heart of Hong Kong is the last thing the world wants.
Article originally appeared in The Interpreter on 14 June 2019