Following weeks of peaceful protests by millions of Hong Kong residents opposed to the erosion of their civil liberties the city’s conflict has turned violent. Days after days an aggressive police crackdown that injured protesters and drew criticism from international human rights groups, hundreds of protesters bashed through doors into the city’s legislature. USIP specialists discuss the escalation of the conflict between residents and the city’s authorities—and the implications for one of the territory’s largest protest movements since Britain handed it over to Chinese control two decades ago.

Pro-democracy demonstrators prepare to face riot police who fired tear gas outside Hong Kong’s Legislative Council chambers after hundreds of protesters stormed the offices. (Lam Yik Fei/The New York Times)
Pro-democracy demonstrators prepare to face riot police who fired tear gas outside Hong Kong’s Legislative Council chambers after hundreds of protesters stormed the offices. (Lam Yik Fei/The New York Times)

Initially, protests over a proposed extradition law had largely been peaceful. What led to the violence and vandalism?

Throughout June, the protests in Hong Kong were remarkably peaceful. Millions of people (up to 25 percent of Hong Kong’s population, according to some estimates) took to the streets to march, chant, and sing, yet there were no reports of looting or property damage, and the marchers even picked up their own trash. As the weeks went on, however, the situation became more tense. The police response grew more aggressive, using tear gas, rubber bullets, and batons against the protesters, and the chief executive refused to concede to the public’s demands or even meet with the marchers. Beyond the extradition bill, there is a mounting sense that the government is no longer beholden to the interests of the people and that Hong Kong’s defining freedoms are eroding.

On July 1, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from British to Chinese rule in 1997, a small group of protesters broke into and vandalized the legislative council building in a last-ditch effort to get the government’s attention.  Many of the protesters did not take part. But one of these, interviewed by the Los Angeles Times, expressed sympathy, noted that the students felt angry and abandoned by the system: “They don’t have votes or any actions that count. They don’t have another way to do this.” Once inside, students spray-painted a message to Hong Kong’s government leader, Carrie Lam: “It was you who taught me that peaceful protests are futile.” Despite the violence this week, most people in Hong Kong continue to support a peaceful approach, and many worry that the vandalism may undermine the movement’s broader aims.

Hong Kong’s protest movement had been largely unified. What’s next for the movement after the fissures we saw Monday?

The movement has been unified around the goal of opposing the extradition law, but one of its features is that it was never unified under a clear leadership. The movement was deliberately set up this way to avoid having leaders who could be easily targeted by police. That was partly a reaction to the failed Umbrella Movement protests of 2014 that saw a number of student leaders arrested. This year’s protest movement was loosely coordinated by the Civil Human Rights Front, a coalition of 50 organizations, including pro-democracy parties, which sees its role more as facilitator than leader. Protesters developed strategies and organized rallies by voting for proposed actions in online apps and forums, and embraced the principle of “do not split” to bridge divides among those with different views on what actions should be taken.

But Monday’s storming of the Legislative Council divided the movement into two groups. A minority now advocates more aggressive means, raising concerns that the momentum of the majority will be hampered by the minority group’s actions. It underscores one of the disadvantages of the movement’s decentralized structure—the lack of a strong leading voice that can dissuade protesters from using tactics that risk violence. And it tests the movement’s ability to evolve and adapt. The stage is set for protracted protests in Hong Kong, and it will be important to watch how the Hong Kong public responds to the prosecution and treatment of protesters who used the more aggressive tactics, as well as what specific demands the movement will rally around now that the extradition law is no longer front and center.

How could the continuing unrest in Hong Kong impact its relationship with Beijing? Could it to lead to China tightening its grip over the semiautonomous region?

Beijing is likely to respond to continued protests—whether by groups practicing orderly nonviolent action, or by those employing more destructive means—by tightening its grip over Hong Kong. On July 2, Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong issued a statement calling the demonstrators who broke into the Legislative Council “ultra-radicals” whose behavior “could never be tolerated.” Chinese officials criticized the United Kingdom and other countries for statements that Beijing claims are meddling in its internal affairs. Leadership in Beijing, acting through its proxies in the Hong Kong government, is likely to try to suppress civil society groups and their leaders through any means necessary. Those measures include arrest, detention, intimidation and other forms of pressure. Escalating unrest in Hong Kong poses a dilemma for Beijing: crack down and risk inflaming the movement, or practice restraint and risk the movement gaining momentum unhindered. Beijing worries about protests in Hong Kong crossing over to neighboring regions of China, so it is inclined toward more aggressive suppression measures.

Following the Umbrella Movement in 2014, the Hong Kong government, at Beijing’s behest, arrested and imprisoned protest leaders and prohibited legislators elected to represent the movement from taking seats in the Legislative Council. Similar tactics could work over time. But the size and intensity of the current protests might persuade leaders in Beijing to resort to more immediate and drastic actions—perhaps even state violence against its citizens. The People’s Liberation Army disclosed that its Hong Kong garrison conducted training exercises last week. Eventually, Beijing wants to make the “one country, two systems” framework something that exists in name only and turn Hong Kong politically into just another Chinese city, even while continuing to reap the financial and economic benefits of Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status.

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