For China’s government, Hong Kong’s street protests against a bill allowing extraditions to mainland China couldn’t have come at a worse time, when it is already facing off against the US in an unrelenting trade war. That may be one reason why it’s been relatively restrained, even as protesters in the streets reportedly topped two million one day last month. Beijing’s been clearly hoping given time, the protests, mostly by students and young people, will die down. But then on Monday, while hundreds of thousands of demonstrators marched peacefully as Hong Kong marked its return to China 22 years ago, a much smaller band of protesters smashed their way into the legislature. The police didn’t block them from entering and only fired tear gas later in the day to disperse them. So far, the protesters have been walking the moral high ground in demonstrating peacefully, but now there are concerns Beijing may decide the violence has handed it an excuse to respond more heavy-handedly.
It was Deng Xiaoping who famously enunciated the constitutional ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principle that would allow Hong Kong to be part of China, but run according to different laws. Hong Kong’s residents have staunchly defended the democratic values enshrined in the principle whenever they have come under threat but Beijing has succeeded in chipping away at the limited democratic freedoms Hong Kong enjoyed at the time of the handover. Still, Hong Kong’s proposed extradition bill’s been a step too far for many in Hong Kong, who were stunned in 2015 when five booksellers disappeared from Hong Kong and Thailand and reappeared in mainland China to “voluntarily” cooperate with investigations. Hong Kong’s independent booksellers were known for stocking “tell-all” books about Chinese leaders not available in the Mainland. While the Hong Kong government has suspended the bill, the protesters are still out on the streets demanding it be scrapped totally.
Will China show its iron fist to quell the demonstrations? It didn’t hesitate to do that 30 years ago at Tiananmen Square and President Xi Jinping’s made it clear the Communist Party is supreme and no dissent will be brooked. Hong Kong’s economically less important now for Beijing than at the time of the 1997 handover when it accounted for 16 per cent of China’s GDP. That’s down to 2 per cent. Nevertheless, it’s still a vital financial centre; its stock market one of the most important globally. It’s also an international trade hub. For now, Beijing may opt for a low-key way out in a bid to win over Hong Kong’s alienated youth. There are hints the extradition bill could be allowed to lapse and also that Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam may take the fall for introducing it. For Beijing, it would be better to continue to play its hand with restraint, even if it recoils at the western democratic values that have brought Hong Kong’s residents out on the streets.