The Chinese cut their losses and staved off a potentially global PR disaster by bowing down to the will of the people in Hong Kong on Wednesday. The controversial Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019, which would have allowed extradition of criminal suspects to the mainland was withdrawn by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam.
Three months ago the introduction of the Bill had triggered city-wide protests. Demonstrators suspected that this was a bid to emasculate the commitment of ‘one- nation, two-systems’ Beijing had made when the British handed over the control of the colony in 1997 to an autonomously run Hong Kong administration.
Since then, China has most insidiously encroached on the democratic rights of Hong-Kongers, virtually remote-controlling the city-state through its hand-picked chief executive, Carrie Lam.
Regardless, the demonstrators showed extraordinary determination and grit in the face of unspeakable police brutalities and genuine threats of the Peoples’ Liberation Army marching in to enact another Tiananmen Square.
For days in well-publicized exercises, the PLA contingents staged marches on the formal Hong Kong-China border, indicating readiness to walk in to crush the protests at a moment’s notice.
Not unlike the pro-democracy 1989 massacre under the PLA tanks at the Tiananmen Square, the students and the youths were in the vanguard of the Hong Kong protests as well. They enjoyed widespread local support, with ordinary people, including working classes, willingly joining the street protests.
It was a battle of wits, with the police battling the demonstrators at popular shopping centers, metro stations, the airport and public parks et al. Sensing the angry mood, the chief executive suspended the controversial Bill in June itself, hoping this would lead to the end of the protests.
It did not. Protests gathered further steam instead, with the demand for the outright withdrawal of the proposed Bill gaining further ground.
Both sides dug in their heels. Meanwhile, the demonstrators upped the ante, asking for direct election of the chief executive and of legislators, release of all arrested demonstrators, an independent investigation into the police brutalities, and a withdrawal of reference to protesters as ‘rioters’ which entails stringent punishment including imprisonment under the law.
As the world watched, angry students massed in strategic locations seeking democratic rights, Beijing raised the pitch, calling them ‘terrorists’ and implying that they were instigated by western powers.
A home-brewed movement for safeguarding autonomy, guaranteed to the city-state at the time of its handover in 1997, was sought to be maligned by the Chinese autocrats with an eye on throttling its civic freedoms.
But in the end, the Chinese calculated that it was the wrong time to enact another Tiananmen Square. It was already in the grip of an economic downturn, worsened further with the trade-war with the US, its largest trading partner.
The world was sullenly watching, albeit without doing much about it , the crushing of the Uiguhur Muslims in Xinjiang province with millions confined to concentration camps, hundreds of mosques demolished and an all-enveloping surveillance system put in place.
And a concerted effort was made to change its demographic character by settling Han Chinese in the province. It was a grim reminder of the Soviet era gulags Stalin had run to mercilessly crush real or assumed opposition
Besides, Hong Kong was the milch cow which bolstered the Chinese capitalist system, with its own independent currency, stock exchange and a vibrant global financial centre.
The costs of a military intervention in Hong Kong would have been too high for Beijing, particularly when it is staring at a marked economic slowdown. Its ambitions to play a dominant role at the global stage would have taken a hit had it done something rash in Hong Kong.
Reportedly, internal struggle for power in the top echelons of the politburo over Hong Kong remained unresolved with caution winning over a misadventure.
Be that it as it may, it is unlikely that the students are likely to return to classes after the partial retreat by the Hong Kong administration. The distrust and suspicion that separates ordinary people from the Chinese-controlled city-state administration is so great that it is unlikely to make for normalcy.
Hong Kong is set to remain on edge unless Beijing can undertake concrete steps to regain its confidence in the ‘one-country, two-systems’ promise.