For now, at least, the people of Hong Kong have won. It’s an extraordinary victory, defying the world’s largest and most terrifying dictatorship but what will happen now?

The fatalism and fear which is supposed to have afflicted Hongkongers since the defeat of the Umbrella Movement five years ago has been overtaken by a show of unity and determination that, truth be told, took even some of Hong Kong’s most stalwart democracy activists by surprise.

Photo: Todd R. Darling/HKFP.

In the aftermath, some glimpses of the future are clear – most obviously, the authority and credibility of the Lam administration has been shattered beyond repair. A combination of outright lies, tone-deaf responses, desperate measures and sheer inability to understand what’s happening means that even people who are supposed to be in the pro-government camp can no longer be relied upon to support the government.

This, in turn, means the shattering of the last illusions over the Central government’s reluctance to intervene in local affairs. There will be no more bothering with paper-thin disguises under which the Liaison Office and departments further North have pretended to be hands off.

The furtive way that Carrie Lam was forced to scuttle across to Shenzhen to receive orders on backing down over the extradition bill were maliciously leaked to a leading ‘loyalist’ newspaper to ensure that the Chief Executive’s humiliation would be complete. The public summoning of the first tier of Beijing poodles to the Liaison Office after the decision was announced underlined that in further orders are to be issued directly, not by some circuitous route under the cover of ‘discussion’ and ‘cups of tea’.

Photo: Todd R. Darling/HKFP.

Even more cadres will be shipped into Hong Kong to work alongside the police, civil servants and the tame political bodies that serve Beijing.

Meanwhile, an atmosphere of palpable fear engulfs government stooges. They dare not venture onto the streets, they shuttle from one meeting to the next hoping and praying that no one will see them.

Even the police, who stand accused of brutality in putting down the 12 June demonstration, have taken to bleating about the unfairness of how the public is treating them.

But don’t underestimate the hardcore Hong Kong Communists, who have experienced hard times before and are far more resilient than the opportunist flag wavers who have embraced the Communist Party with the kind of fervor they use to cling to their designer label handbags. The real Communists are something else and they will form the backbone of the loyalist camp’s comeback even if turns out to be anything but pretty.

Photo: Todd R. Darling/HKFP.

Meanwhile, the retreat on the extradition legislation has resulted in an almost total backdown on other issues that the government once believed could go sailing through a legislature shorn of opposition voices. The arrogant strutting of what used to be known as the pro-government camp has been replaced by fear, bitter recrimination and immobilizing uncertainty.

The democrats meanwhile are treading on air, what seemed impossible days ago now seems to be not only possible but highly likely. The self-doubt and depression that had been gripping the opposition camp has simply evaporated.

Yet, and this is a massive yet, does anyone seriously believe that the mighty Communist Party is going to take a defeat of this nature lying down? The hard men in Beijing have enough tactical sense to know when retreat is advisable and they are content to erect all manner of smokescreens to obscure their retreat, such as hauling out the old hoary myths about foreign forces being behind the protests. But they will bide their time and plan revenge because the authoritarian DNA does not sit well with making concessions to opponents, especially when they are in the majority.

This means that Hong Kong faces enormous dangers, both to individuals and to society as a whole. The party – that has repeatedly shown no compunction in eliminating opposition, often in the most brutal manner – has not suddenly sprouted liberal wings. But it is important to remember that the people who run the party know all about how to exercise power and recognize how it is exercised by others.

Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

Like the class bully, the party will carry on bullying those considered to be weak and vulnerable but will not try their luck with opponents who can hit back. Thus when something like one in four of Hong Kong’s population take to the streets in protest, they recognize that they have met their match.

However, it is hardly realistic to assume that the democracy movement can indefinitely mobilize protests of this size. If this massive burst of activity is not replaced by other forms of pressure the bullies will have no hesitation in coming back and doing what they do best.

The feint hearts who never understood the power and determination of Hongkongers are now urging the people to go back home and savour their victory. They may mean well but this is brainless nonsense because silence is just what the Communist Party looks forward to. The comrades see silence as weakness and will act accordingly.

However, pressure does not need to be maintained by mass demonstrations alone, acts of civil disobedience keep the pot boiling, calling to account those who need to be called to account is important, ramping up the reach and resources given to the burgeoning non-mainstream media ensures a steady flow of information and the wonderful spontaneous activity by all manner of community groups and associations digs the spirit of democracy deeper into the lives of Hong Kong people.

The June protests saw professional groups, school alumni, faith groups, groups identified by sexual orientation and shared experience all coming together and working in ways that work best for them as they pursued a common goal of preserving the unique character of Hong Kong. Somehow this glorious spontaneity needs to be maintained.

It will not be easy to keep up the pressure but now is not the time to bleat about ‘lowering the temperature’. The temperature is high for a reason, a very good reason.

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Stephen Vines

Stephen Vines is a journalist, writer and broadcaster and ran companies in the food sector. He left Hong Kong with great reluctance in July 2021 following the crackdown on freedom of expression. Prior to departure he had been the host of the RTHK television current affairs programme ‘The Pulse’, a columnist for ‘Apple Daily’ and a contributor to other outlets. He continues to be a columnist for ‘HKFP’. Vines was the founding editor of 'Eastern Express' and founding publisher of 'Spike'. In London he was an editor at The Observer and in Asia has worked for international publications including, the Guardian, Daily Telegraph, BBC, Asia Times and The Independent and, during Hong Kong’s 2019/20 protests, for the Sunday Times. Vines is the author of several books, the latest being Defying the Dragon – Hong Kong and Worlds’ Biggest Dictatorship