Following a heady few weeks in Hong Kong where millions of protesters forced the government into a dramatic U-turn, eyes are now on Beijing as people wonder what’s next for the embattled territory.

The shelving of the contentious extradition law in the face of massive protests was a rare retreat for Beijing and regarded as the first major concession made by Xi Jinping’s administration since he came to power seven years ago. 

With growing economic woes, an escalating trade war with the United States and a G20 summit in Japan looming, sources said Beijing decided to take a step back, for now at least. 

“They want to get this over with before the summit actually begins,” said Jason Y Ng, convener of the Hong Kong-based Progressive Lawyers Group. However, he said, the extradition Bill saga would not have gone down well on mainland China, and Beijing would likely take action in response.

“Beijing has egg on its face. This makes Xi’s leadership looks weak, or at least no longer invincible,” he said, adding that he felt chief executive Carrie Lam’s days were numbered. “In the mid-term, Beijing will be looking for a suitable replacement to get rid of Lam. They have lost all confidence in her ability to govern.” 

As two million people marched through central Hong Kong on Sunday, calls for Lam’s resignation reverberated through the city. On Tuesday she said she would not be stepping down but she did have to accept responsibility for the related “controversies, disputes and anxieties”. 

“For this, I offer my most sincere apology to all people of Hong Kong,” she said.

While she has not succumbed to the demands that the Bill – which would enable the extradition of people from Hong Kong to mainland China – be scrapped entirely, she has indicated it was dead in the water and there would be no resuscitation attempts.

Impossible role

Lam has been roundly criticised for her inability to gauge the public mood in the extradition law debacle, but analysts say her role simultaneously serving Beijing and Hong Kong is a tricky, if not impossible one.

There is a structural problem inherent in the “one country, two systems” framework, according to Jean-Pierre Cabestan, professor of political science at Hong Kong Baptist University. The chief executive is “both responsible to Beijing, and accountable to the Hong Kong people”, he said. “It’s an impossible job.”

Frank Ching, a Hong Kong-based political commentator, agrees, saying the arrangement puts the leader in “an untenable position when interests conflict”.

Hong Kong is a rickety bridge between a one-party socialist state and western democratic liberalism, and in speeches and policies Xi makes it clear he sees no place in China for concepts such as universal values, press freedom, civil liberties, multiparty politics and the independence of the judiciary. Under the “one country, two systems” arrangement, China pledged that Hong Kong could maintain a high degree of autonomy for 50 years until 2047, but Beijing increasingly sees the Hong Kong system as intent on undermining its “one country”.

Consequently, there have been many clashes over the years. Since the 1997 handover, there have been several incidences where the introduction of unpopular policies was followed by mass protests, most notably the anti-sedition law protests in 2003 that drew 500,000 protesters on to the streets, and the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement in 2014 that brought the city centre to a standstill for 79 days.

Lack of ‘legitimacy’ 

While protesters are now baying for Lam’s blood, they also say a successor appointed in the same way she was – by a Beijing-appointed, 1,200-member selection committee – would also not receive their support.

“As long as the chief executive is selected by the so-called ‘small circle’ selection committee, he or she will not have the legitimacy or mandate from the people to govern,” Ng said. “Until we have full democracy, we’ll always be at the mercy of whoever Beijing appoints and however that person wants to treat us.”

Cabestan believes that Beijing will not introduce full democracy, but, as it did in 2015, might again propose to introduce a system where its committee selects some candidates and the electorate votes on those. “And this is a non-starter for most Hong Kong people,” he said. “So the status quo will persist.”

Xi Jinping, who was travelling in central Asia recently while the protests were going on, will have viewed the events “with dismay”, he said.

China’s paramount leader currently has little room for manoeuvre on this issue but he will take stronger action as soon as circumstances permit, Cabestan added. “Beijing will take its revenge later, for sure.”

Article originally appeared in The Irish Times on 31 May 2019