Hong Kong protesters have won a stunning victory. Saturday’s suspension of an extradition bill that would allow criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China followed a day of violent clashes on Wednesday that saw the police use tear gas, pepper spray and baton charges. In 2014, the police also used tear gas against demonstrators, prompting an occupation that paralyzed the central business district for more than two months. Yet the government refused to budge, and the protest was eventually cleared by force. It’s worth asking what was different this time.
The most obvious answer is the role of business. Occupy Central had limited support from companies, and what sympathy there was clearly waned as the weeks wore on and the costs to business mounted. By contrast, opposition to the extradition bill has united various strands of Hong Kong society, from civic and trade groups to religious organizations and the legal profession. That’s even more evident after Sunday’s monumental protest, which organizers said drew almost 2 million people.
Even HSBC and Standard Chartered supported the protests by allowing flexible working hours for their staff.
There’s a message here for the protesters – and for Beijing. It’s easier to preserve the status quo than it is to enact change. The common link between 2014 and 2019 is that the status quo has won in both cases. It was also the result in 2003 – probably the closest direct parallel with today – when a proposed security law was shelved after an estimated 500,000 marched in opposition. This means protesters have a better chance of success when fighting to preserve freedoms that already exist than when agitating for change.
Francesco Sisci, characteristically, finds Hong Kong’s lack of faith disturbing:
The core issue is that Hong Kongers don’t trust Beijing’s promises, and this kind of mistrust could take years to rebuild.
Beijing also clearly doesn’t trust Hong Kong. The bill aimed to prevent the territory from becoming a Trojan horse to smuggle revolution and subversion into China. Beijing apparently realized it was not the way and the time to do it. But the mistrust lingers on – and it is mutual.
Why, pray tell, might Hong Kongers fail to trust Beijing? A clue is offered in the second paragraph:
The Hong Kong authorities have already suspended the controversial extradition bill that could have put anybody in the territory in danger of being forcibly brought under the clutches of the Beijing’s opaque judicial system, according to Western lawyers.
I see what you did there. Note the careful choice of words: the worst Sisci can say about China’s judicial system, typified by things like arbitrary, secret detention and torture, is that it is “opaque.” And the suggestion that only “Western lawyers” have concerns about this bill is highly misleading. After all, there is a reason Hong Kong has refused to sign an extradition agreement with mainland China in the 22 years since the territory’s return to the motherland.
Thousands of Hong Kong’s legal professionals, including top lawyers, took to the streets on Thursday in a silent protest against the government’s controversial extradition bill, ramping up pressure on officials to avoid rushing it through the legislature.
The march, which organisers claimed hit a record high of 3,000 people, was the fifth by the legal sector since Hong Kong’s return to Chinese rule in 1997. It was also the first time lawyers had spoken out against a government proposal not directly involving judicial proceedings or a constitutional interpretation from Beijing.