The protests in Hong Kong have reached a convulsive new peak. Saturday’s demonstrations, the New York Times reported, saw “the most intense clashes since protests over the city’s fate began in June.” On Tuesday, it carried the striking headline “Hong Kong Students Begin School Year With Gas Masks, Class Boycotts and Protests,” while the Chinese government’s mouthpiece warned “the end is coming for those attempting to disrupt Hong Kong and antagonize China.” And just hours ago, in a significant concession to protesters, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam announced she would withdraw the extradition bill that set off the initial protests (and which critics decry as an attack on civil liberties).
The rolling protests are at once a testament to the inventiveness of protesters and a threat to the Hong Kong government, headed by the Beijing-backed Lam. As the Chinese government works to shore up its rule at home and its rise globally, the Hong Kong crisis has assumed outsized significance, eclipsing the local political dynamics.
Here’s where things stand.
The kaleidoscope of protest tactics is keeping the authorities on their toes.
The protests are now in their fourth month, thanks to the ever-changing shape and form of demonstrations: from peaceful mass rallies of millions to violent, small-group battles with police; from general strikes and airport occupations aimed at maximizing disruption to more symbolic student boycotts. In particular, the protesters’ guerrilla strategy — declining to occupy any one place, which might exhaust protesters and weaken the movement’s shock value, but instead moving around the city from week to week and splitting into different groups to target governmental institutions — has enabled the movements to renew and regroup.
The general strike on August 5 was more political than economic. While inequality and poor employment prospects for young people are inescapable realities, the movement cannot be reduced to these material considerations. The Left has tried and failed to raise social and economic demands. Unions’ previous calls for workers to walk out gained little traction, and the general strike that did materialize was organized online, without the trade unions’ initiative (though with key support from the flight attendants’ unions). The strike’s disruptive potency came from its targeting of urban transportation rather than the number of workers that stayed out.
One new development is that violent street fighting has become an accepted tactic both within the protest movement and by the Hong Kong public writ large. When protests spill into residential areas, denizens tend to side with demonstrators over police, who are criticized for excessive force, particularly when deploying tear gas. Previously seen as among the more restrained in the world, the Hong Kong police force is giving protesters grist for escalation — making more than 1,100 arrests since June — and deepening the authorities’ legitimacy crisis.
The youth-driven movement continues to hold together despite sharp internal differences.
Prioritizing action over ideological agreement has been key to sustaining the protest movement given its extreme heterogeneity. The core group of protesters — a mishmash of students, employed and unemployed youth, and new and veteran political activists — hails from the Left, the Right, and everywhere in between.
They’re united by a basic set of demands: complete withdrawal of the extradition bill (which they finally won on Wednesday); universal suffrage (Hong Kong residents are unable to directly select their top leader as well as the bulk of parliamentary seats); and accountability for police (who have shot upwards of two thousand rounds of tear gas since the protests began).
This is a movement spearheaded by the young. Historically, the so-called pan-democrats, who preached a gradualism that tried to hold China to its promises made before the 1997 transition away from British rule, formed the main opposition in the city. Their legitimacy has collapsed. Already marginalized in the 2014 Umbrella movement, the pan-democrats’ credibility as an oppositional force has reached a new low.
Even the youthful leaders of the Umbrella movement are not recognized by the current movement. As far as they’re concerned, the 2014 movement’s attempts to disrupt politics from within by forming parties and running for office failed. They reject the notion of movement leadership and favor disrupting politics from without.
The present approach has strengths and weaknesses. Lacking any visible organizational form, the decentralized movement has ensured the government cannot decapitate the protests by arresting its leadership. The blurring of ideological lines has created a tent big enough to hold most anyone critical of Beijing’s heavy hand (including, most troublingly, many “localists” with a strong xenophobic streak). Yet the ideological capaciousness and the aversion to structure also undermine the movement’s ability to act as a progressive, democratic force with real staying power.
The crisis in Hong Kong is a crisis for China.
Simmering below the surface is a crisis of Hong Kong itself as a liberal free-market enclave within a state-managed capitalist nation-state, an always-unstable configuration now on the verge of exploding.
Hong Kong prospered from, and continues to be dominated by, finance and real estate capital. Its residents enjoy a range of civil liberties while having severe limits placed on their popular sovereignty. For a while, the combination worked well not only for global capitalism, which gets an international financial hub, but Chinese capitalism, which has used Hong Kong to finance companies and internationalize the economy.
But now Hong Kong is experiencing relative economic decline, eclipsed as a trading port and financial center by Chinese cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen. This fuels fears among ordinary Hong Kongers about further integration into mainland China and the lack of civil liberties that would go with it.
The protests are coming at a particularly delicate time for the Chinese state as well. The ruling Communist Party is attempting, all at once, to shift from the low-wage, export-driven model that made China the “workshop of the world”; crack down on internal political corruption and enforce ideological discipline; and manage the country’s international expansion and reputation. Xi Jinping has stepped up the state’s control over the flow of information and public discussion, surveilling people between Hong Kong and the mainland and harassing individuals who express support for the protests.
More than anything, the Chinese state cares about its own legitimacy within its borders and peripheries (Hong Kong, Taiwan, Xinjiang, Tibet) as well as in the international arena. The Hong Kong protests expose cracks in the façade.
But this isn’t Tiananmen redux.
The increasingly alarming rhetoric from Beijing, with not-so-subtle threats of military intervention, hangs over the movement. Everyone understands that any military intervention would cause civilian casualties, destroy Hong Kong’s economy and its position as a financial hub, and spark an international crisis. The protesters and the Chinese government are daring the other to blink.
The situation bears some resemblance to the 1989 Tiananmen movement, which China put down violently. But Tiananmen was a nationwide protest movement of students and workers that took place at a time when the fall of state socialist regimes around the world was imminent. The Hong Kong protests, however massive, do not pose a similar regime-level threat.
At the same time, the withdrawal of the extradition bill may fail to quell protesters’ anger. This is a full-blown political crisis, more fundamental than the fate of any one policy or law. Lam’s concession could give protesters and the Hong Kong public more confidence to make greater political demands, including universal suffrage.
However it ends, the movement will leave an indelible mark on the consciousness of those who directly participated and those who witnessed and supported the upsurge. Just as the Umbrella movement paved the way for a new explosion of popular energy, so too may the current protests.