By Christopher Tan (PZ ’21)
Hong Kong summers are unforgiving. Crowds of people clog narrow streets alongside buses and trams. Dense heat, amplified by the region’s notorious humidity, is trapped between canyons of skyscrapers, leaving citizens to seek respite in tiny apartments. If the sun is not out, typhoons and heavy rain showers batter the territory, swaying buildings and flooding roads.
This summer was unforgiving for different reasons. After Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s China-backed leader, introduced a bill in Hong Kong’s legislature that would allow people accused of crimes to be extradited to countries with which the territory had no extradition treaty, hundreds of thousands of people including elderly residents, professionals, students, and families, joined a march across the city to demand its retraction.
While Lam argued that a bill was needed to plug holes in Hong Kong’s legal system that encouraged fugitive harboring, critics argued that it allowed China to arrest dissidents under phony charges and subject them to Chinese courts. This put any Hong Kong resident at risk of being legally extradited by Hong Kong authorities to China to face trial. Given China’s low scores on Freedom House’s freedom index, this was a difficult prospect for Hong Kong residents accustomed to the territory’s strong rule of law and independent judiciary.
Despite public objection, Carrie Lam’s government failed to heed protesters’ demands, allowing public anger to grow and leaving Hong Kong’s police force to deal with protests that have transformed into a broad pro-democracy movement. It is notable that despite Lam officially withdrawing the bill, violent protests have continued to afflict the city. While many protests have occurred peacefully, this summer has been notable for radical actions taken by protestors. Demonstrators shut down Hong Kong’s international airport, broke into and occupied its Legislative Council, firebombed police stations and staged the city’s largest-ever general strike.
Hong Kong’s protests reflect the culmination of various issues that have plagued the territory for years. Understanding its complex nature merits a deep dive into the history of the territory, its complicated relationship with China, and the flawed political system that it inherited.
Hong Kong’s “One Country, Two Systems” Policy
For over 150 years Hong Kong was a British colony and in that period the city acquired many of Britain’s legal practices. When it was returned to Chinese rule in 1997, both Britain and China signed a deal under a policy that became known as “one country, two systems.” China would rule Hong Kong under the condition the city be allowed to remain autonomous and keep freedoms that it had enjoyed under British rule like free speech, an independent judiciary, unfiltered internet access as well as the right to vote. This was notable for China, as these same freedoms don’t exist within its borders. The catch for Hong Kong was that this agreement would only be in place until 2047.
Any plans China has for Hong Kong after this are a mystery. This is a source of anxiety for Hong Kongers as many fear China is clamping down on the autonomy that the city was afforded in the agreement. In the aftermath of the city’s last major protest movement in 2014, booksellers accused of publishing incriminating details about President Xi’s private life were abducted and made to confess in a Chinese prison. Three years later, a Chinese billionaire was reportedly kidnapped from his Hong Kong apartment and transported to China. Fear that further violations of Hong Kong’s autonomy are likely to occur has turned out protestors in droves. Coupled with unaffordable property prices, lack of public housing and recent anger at police conduct, the movement has developed into a broad show of dissent towards Hong Kong’s political establishment and China.
Hong Kong’s impossible government
The failure of Carrie Lam’s government to quell the unrest speaks more to flaws in the structure of Hong Kong’s government than her deficiencies. Although the terms of the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ guarantees elections in the territory, most seats in Hong Kong’s governing body are appointed by committees loyal to Beijing, with powerful tycoons and other prominent figures given paramount influence. As such, all of Hong Kong’s Chief Executives, the territory’s de-facto leader, has been appointed by committees closely tied to Beijing.
“LegCo (Hong Kong’s legislative council) has been rigged so that it now essentially does the executive’s bidding – and the executive does Beijing’s bidding,” said Yi-Zheng Lian, a former editor of a prominent Hong Kong newspaper, in an op-ed for the New York Times. With Beijing essentially able to assert its control in Hong Kong through the territory’s legislative.
This has created a legislative imbalance as only 35 seats out of 70 are filled with elected representatives. The remaining half are appointed to represent various professions and interest groups, with these councilors linked to Hong Kong’s elite class of property tycoons and Beijing-loyalists. While the council only needs a simple majority to pass legislation, it also needs the approval of the Executive Council, a check on power filled with individuals appointed by Beijing.
While Hong Kongers can vote for representatives in the legislative council, they aren’t afforded enough votes to overturn the vested interests of China and property tycoons. This would explain why many have resorted to protests and acts of violence, as there are few other means of expressing objection. While Lam’s position as leader grants her the ability to assuage protesters’ concerns, the makeup of Hong Kong’s legislature means that her position is still beholden to powerful business interests and China.
Hong Kong’s government handles a complex mediatory role in managing the interests of Beijing, Hong Kong’s elites and the city’s constituents, in that order. Given the nature of Lam’s position, it is perhaps unsurprising that all of Hong Kong’s former leaders failed to seek a second term in office. It remains to be seen how Lam’s tenure will turn out, but a recent poll indicated that she is Hong Kong’s least popular leader ever.
Implications for Hong Kong and China
The short-term consequences have been clear for Hong Kong. The city’s tourism industry, an important source of revenue, has collapsed. Hong Kong tourist arrivals dropped almost 40 percent in August when compared to last year’s figures. Similarly, occupancy rates of hotels fell more than half while room rates have decreased by 40 to 70 percent. An economic recession in the third quarter of 2019 is almost inevitable, with the entrepot already struggling from the impact of the trade war before the protests.
Consumer spending has dropped, with summer retail sales from July to August expected to be down by more than 10% when compared to last year. A two-day protest that shut down the city’s international airport was estimated to have cost the economy US $76 million, as hundreds of flights were canceled.
Long-term implications of the protests are difficult to predict. Hong Kong’s position as an important financial hub is at risk, with protests continuing to destabilize the city. There are fears of a more permanent downturn if China is perceived to resolve the protests by asserting more control over the territory. Earlier this month, credit rating agency Fitch downgraded its rating for Hong Kong’s economy for the first time since 1997, citing growing Chinese influence in the city.
China has already begun cracking down on Hong Kong businesses by forcing executives to suppress dissent. In early August, Hong Kong’s business elite was called in for a conference by Chinese officials that provided guidance on how they could support the Hong Kong amidst the crisis. Failure to quell dissent from employees has already gotten businesses in trouble. Cathay Pacific, Hong Kong’s flagship airline, was forced to fire its several employees for supporting the protests after Beijing threatened to revoke the airline’s ability to use its airspace. The fall out from the incident also saw the resignation of the airline’s CEO. Further indirect pressure from China seems likely to continue.
Reports last month that Beijing refused Lam’s request to resign, suggests that China continues to see the protests as Lam’s responsibility. This puts her in a difficult situation, as Beijing has also been reported to have rejected Lam’s plan to quell the unrest by yielding to several protestor demands. This is perhaps why unrest has continued to drag on, with the government and protestors at an impasse. It is notable that no negotiations or talks between the two sides have been conducted, with both the government and the demonstrators refusing to cave into any demands.
While rumors of direct Chinese intervention in the city continue to be denied by Lam, if her government cannot find an effective way to quell the protests, Beijing may feel as if they have no other choice but to manage the situation directly. Satellite photos from August showed armored personnel carriers belonging to China’s People’s Armed Police parked in a Shenzhen sports stadium close to Hong Kong’s border while rhetoric in Chinese state media labeled protesters as “terrorists.” Although such an intervention remains unlikely, these optics have sent a stark message that Beijing is counting on Lam’s government to manage the unrest. Continued failure to do so will only increase the chances of President Xi taking matters into his own hands.