The contrast in perspectives was striking. Hong Kong’s sudden massive resistance to a local law with national implications made international headlines. An unprecedented number of people… between one and two million… turned out on successive Sundays in June and another half-million repeated the exercise on July First, the anniversary of Hong Kong’s 1997 transfer from British to Chinese rule.

The result has been a protest movement portrayed along three different dimensions.

International headlines were all about opposition to Chinese President Xi Jinping and the new political order that has been imposed here since 1997. “How Hong Kong defied Xi,” proclaimed one headline. “Raising the stakes for Xi’s hardline agenda.” “Save Hong Kong from China,” and so on.

Others focused on the current trade dispute between China and the United States. Hong Kong would surely become an issue at the June 28-29 summit of G20 international leaders in Japan. US President Donald Trump could use the protests as leverage in negotiating with his Chinese counterpart, Xi Jinping. Hong Kong protesters hoped it might make a difference.

A protest on June 26 ahead of the G20 summit. Photo: Darius Chan Ho Shun/CHRF.

They raised millions of dollars almost overnight in a crowd-funding campaign to pay for the international publicity. Their black and white full page open-letter ads appeared in major newspapers around the world bearing a simple headline: “Stand with Hong Kong at G20”

A rebellion in the making?

National headlines reflected a mirror image. Beijing seemed to agree with the international verdict. Radical elements in Hong Kong were challenging the established order, demanding its leader resign. It seemed like another “colour revolution”.

And for sure they were colluding with foreign forces. The pro-Beijing Chinese language daily, Ta Kung Pao, outdid itself with a 27-page supplement on June 12. It featured garish caricatures of “traitors” Martin Lee, Anson Chan, and other Hong Kong “rats,” to illustrate their recent trips to Washington where they lobbied US officials on Hong Kong’s behalf.

These were the very same powerful outsiders, with the United States foremost among them, who were responsible for the post-1989 break-up of the old red Communist Party-led USSR – the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics – and its satellite East European countries.

But those were peaceful people-power movements that had managed the overthrow of repressive communist party dictatorships. The new symbols of the emerging independent republics were the peaceful colours of fruit and flowers… roses and oranges… anything but communist-style revolutionary red. And that set the precedent China still fears today.

In this view, Hong Kong’s “high degree of autonomy,” promised as part of its new post-colonial “one-country, two-systems” governing formula, is comparable to the status of the old “autonomous” Soviet republics.

But China is still Communist Party-red. And it’s also still a mass-based party-led dictatorship, well-schooled in the political strength of genuine mass movements containing large numbers of people unified around a common cause.

July 1 march. Photo: Todd R. Darling/HKFP.

Only this time, in Hong Kong, it was not a CCP-led mass movement like in the party’s heydays. This was something very different… a people-powered mass movement against a Hong Kong government leader whose authority derived not from the people but from Beijing and its CCP-led government.

At the centre of the controversy is a bill the Hong Kong government had fast-tracked for passage by the local legislature before its coming summer recess, which begins this month. The bill would have updated existing legislation in order to allow the transfer of criminal suspects from Hong Kong to all jurisdictions with which Hong Kong does not yet have formal extradition treaties.

This might have been a routine matter had one of the countries not been China itself and had Hong Kong not been one of its autonomous regions. The proposed update is seen by concerned citizens here as yet another of the cross-border integration measures that were not anticipated by the original 1997 handover agreements.

An uprising on such an unprecedented scale, with hundreds of thousands taking to the streets… not as a routine exercise but in obvious anger… contains all the danger signals. The extradition bill protest, said one pro-government Hong Kong legislator, had morphed overnight into a movement to topple the Hong Kong government.

Retired academic and government pollster Lau Siu-kai, now a semi-official authority on all matters related to Beijing-Hong Kong relations, said the extradition bill had escalated into a conflict between China and foreign-force influence.

His reference was to Western chambers of commerce and local foreign consulates here whose representatives had spoken out against the extradition bill.

Lau said the bill could not be abandoned now because it had Beijing’s stamp of approval. Were it to be withdrawn outright, it would be a defeat for the central government in Beijing. “It would open a Pandora’s box of other demands and foreign forces could, through the opposition camp here, take effective control of Hong Kong’s governance.”

Lau Siu-kai. File Photo: CUHK.

But that has not been the view on the ground in Hong Kong… at least not yet, and at least not for the crowds that turned out to march for hours in sweltering heat on June 9 and 16, and again on July 1. The crowd wore white on June 9. On June 16 and July First, the marching colour was black and so was the mood.

Black and white: The colours of local resistance

Grand revolutionary taglines have actually never figured in Hong Kong’s largest mass-turnout China-focused protest demonstrations. Their dates are 1989 and 2003, and this latest is no exception.

In 1989, Hong Kongers identified with the demands of democracy protesters in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square. No one then was asking for liberation, but only political reform. In 2003, Hong Kongers turned out to protest at national security legislation. Again, no one was calling for independence but only for relief from mainland definitions of political security.

The motives that have just provoked Hong Kongers to pack the main streets of Hong Kong Island again were immediate, specific and subjective – as clear as black and white, but not including any of the rainbow colours of independence.

There was first the eventual prospect of being sent to China for trials that would lie beyond the jurisdiction of Hong Kong courts and the safeguards they provide.

But in addition, more immediately, Hongkongers’ political sensibilities were provoked by the government’s insistence on ramming the extradition bill through the Legislative Council in record time minus even the conventional vetting procedures.

This is a weakened “gerrymandered” body that has now become almost unrecognisable as an assembly purporting to represent the will of the governed.

Anti-extradition rally on Sunday, June 16. Photo:

The marchers thus represented a people whose patience has been pushed to the limit by Beijing’s guarantees of autonomy for post-colonial Hong Kong that have not materialised.

On the contrary, promises made in 1997 about universal suffrage, the right to stand for elections, free speech, a free press, academic freedom, judicial independence… all are being qualified and compromised, translated by the language of official Beijing to mean something different from what people here were led to expect in 1997.

The years since have been like a slow-moving exercise in the old bait-and-switch routines of savvy negotiators everywhere.

The “evil” law

And now Hongkongers are being told they must accept an updated extradition arrangement that would, in effect, place everyone with cross-border interests at risk. The law would also co-opt the one institution the community still regards as relatively safe from Beijing’s interventions.

Despite the effects of prosecutorial discretion, and judicial deference to the executive now evident in many politically-related decisions, Hong Kong still looks to the local judiciary as its court of last resort, the last reliable safeguard.

Photo: Isaac Yee/HKFP.

According to the new procedures, Hong Kong judges would be required to authorise transfers, without knowing more than the superficial details – as provided by their mainland counterparts – of each suspect’s case history. Hong Kong courts would be signing off on trials to be conducted in China, where the judicial system does not meet international standards mandating fair treatment and humane punishment.

The new law would apply to both Hong Kong citizens and other residents here who might have fallen afoul of mainland law while working or travelling there.

Yet despite the bill having finally been suspended, on June 16, hundreds of thousands turned out the very next day for the second of the mammoth June protest marches. Obviously, something else was at work, and “foreign force” intervention seemed the furthest thing from anyone’s mind.

Disastrous leadership

The law’s potential impact was compounded by Hong Kong’s tone-deaf Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, together with the circle of Executive Councillors and leading officials she has chosen to advise her and implement her policies.

Carrie Lam. Photo: Kris Cheng/HKFP.

Her administration’s unforced errors culminated in Lam’s reluctant decision, announced at her June 15 press conference, to suspend the bill. But she is refusing to withdraw it altogether.

She also has yet to demonstrate any understanding as to why the public rose up in such anger against her insistence on trying to ram the bill through a bifurcated Legislative Council that had been further weakened by the very measures her administration has methodically enforced since she became Chief Executive in 2017.

Her administration has presided over the disqualification of six pro-democracy Legislative Councillors and the candidates who sought to replace them. The six, newly elected in 2016, were selectively and retroactively disqualified in the oath-taking saga by a compliant judiciary.

Subsequently, the candidates to replace them were disqualified on grounds that they had advocated the principle of self-determination. The disqualification was enforced by civil servants working under Carrie Lam’s Home Affairs Department.

Taking advantage of the depleted ranks of pan-democrats, pro-government legislators amended the Legislative Council’s rules of procedure, making opposition tactics that much more difficult.

Lam’s Justice Department oversaw the prosecution and conviction of democracy movement leaders, four of whom are now serving prison sentences.

Her administration was also responsible for the expulsion of a foreign correspondent, threats to the Foreign Correspondents Club, and the banning of a small political party that advocated Hong Kong independence.

Andy Chan and Victor Mallet. File photo: Pool/SCMP.

All of this has occurred on Carrie Lam’s watch while she continues to boast of the “calm” she is working so hard to achieve. She has referred to it as creating the favourable conditions that will allow the reintroduction of national security legislation, shelved after the massive July 1, 2003 protest.

She also oversaw the defeat of the 2014-15 campaign that was supposed to have achieved the long-promised goal of universal suffrage elections. She did so while encouraging the community to contribute its proposals, which everyone did in good faith.

But she never once intimated that Beijing had already decided on the format and would approve no other. The public naturally sensed deception but Lam evidently did not, because she offered no apology or explanation.

In her view, calming social tensions is essentially an exercise in political pacification. This can be deduced from the recitation of her achievements related to “calming social tensions.” Even at her June 15 press conference, she would not let it go and used the example of the new express railway terminal that allows mainland law enforcement authorities to work on Hong Kong soil for the first time.

After long years of protest, the railway is now working smoothly and so far without incident. She and her officials interpreted this to mean that her determination to ram approval of that project through the Legislative Council was the way to proceed.

This is why her officials came out to say the best way to win approval for the extradition bill was to pass it and let everyone see just how harmless it is. The principle at stake apparently escaped them all.

That some of the most basic 1997 promises were being violated at the express railway’s Kowloon terminus apparently also escaped them all. Not surprising, then, that the public’s sensibilities escaped them as well.

Like others before her, Lam seems incapable of grasping even the most basic concepts that differentiate Beijing-style dictatorship from Western-style democracy. This contradiction has been responsible for the political tensions here that have persisted unresolved since the early 1980s, when Beijing told the British, they would have to leave in 1997.

Victim Poon Hiu-wing (left) and suspect Chan Tong-kai (blurred).

Yet all this seems to have passed her by, along with any sense of personal responsibility for exploiting the tragedy of the young Hong Kong lovers holidaying in Taiwan and the grief of the murdered girl’s parents. They were used in a cynical ploy to win public sympathy for an extradition bill that had the potential to create all kinds of grief and anxiety for ever more.

Resignation, yes; Regime change, no

If ever there was a leader who should resign for the mismanagement of her office, it is Carrie Lam. She has now joined all her post-1997 predecessors who have governed as Beijing’s representatives in Hong Kong but not the other way around.

They have all followed the same playbook designed and mandated by Beijing. This aims to disregard and delegitimise Hong Kong’s voting majority by relegating it to the status of a disparaged “opposition” and vilifying its leaders as traitors and rats.

So now, that section of the public is reciprocating to demonstrate that it has not been pacified and is resisting Carrie Lam’s authority as it has that of her predecessors: Tung Chee-hwa, Donald Tsang, and Leung Chun-ying.

It is true that in Beijing’s eyes, any challenge to its unified leadership under one-party rule is, as has been said many times, tantamount to treason because it challenges Beijing’s authority. Hence, because Beijing approved the extradition bill, it must be passed and enforced regardless of the consequences.

Yet Hongkongers had never demanded separation from the established order until some disillusioned members of the younger generation gave up on the promises of 1997, after the 2014-15 defeat of the universal suffrage campaign. The banned independence party represents this marginal wing of the pro-democracy movement.

Beijing’s suspicions about a “colour revolution” perpetrated by foreign forces, are only another example of the deliberately deceptive dual-use terminology that was used in drafting the solemn promises Beijing made in 1997. This left everyone else to “learn by doing” what the promises were actually going to mean in practice.

At issue especially are political terms like “universal suffrage” that can be read two ways. This habit is symbolised, appropriately enough, by Carrie Lam herself who has taken to using Beijing-style dual-use definitions that make little sense here. One of her favourites is the retort that speaking about independence has nothing to do with free speech.

Photo: Tom Grundy/HKFP.

In practice, “universal suffrage” means one thing in the Western use of the term, but something else again in mainland practice where one-person, one-vote does not mean open, free, and fair elections. All citizens have the right to vote and are mobilised to come out and exercise it for local elections. But the ubiquitous party organisation is everywhere, and must approve the candidates.

The 2014-15 political reform campaign Carrie Lam oversaw was doomed by Beijing’s insistence on a similar design for electing Hong Kong’s Chief Executives. But at least Legislative Councillors then had the option of exercising a veto. Since 2016, that same sequence – political vetting first, voting afterwards – is being introduced for lower-level elections here, without the veto option.

Hong Kong’s “high degree of autonomy” also seems reasonable enough. But in Beijing’s eyes, anything other than party-managed autonomy is a slippery slope down which autonomous territories can slide, like all the new independent republics of today where the old Union of Soviet Socialist Republics once stood.

So, all Carrie Lam and her officials could say throughout the extradition controversy was that everyone had “misunderstood” their new law. The vicious circle of misunderstandings seems set to continue until someone somewhere musters the skill to cut through the dual use terminology.

Carrie Lam’s resignation need not mean the end of days for Beijing’s authority. Just as free and fair elections need not be tantamount to treasonous independence, unless Beijing persists in trying to foist its party-mandated definitions on an unwilling Hong Kong public.

Suzanne Pepper

Suzanne Pepper is a Hong Kong-based American writer and Hong Kong resident with a long-standing interest in Chinese politics. In her book, 'Keeping Democracy at Bay: Hong Kong and the Challenge of Chinese Political Reform', Pepper addresses debates surrounding democracy and dictatorship. Her blog following Hong Kong's integration within the Chinese political system dates back to 2009.