By Thomas E. Kellogg
Hong Kong is reeling after protests marking the anniversary of the Hong Kong handover turned violent. Protestors forced their way into the Legislative Council building, and committed various acts of vandalism before being leaving of their own accord.
Some protestors were arrested, and will likely face criminal charges. Many in the international community watched with some dismay: up until that point, the protestors had captured global attention, and global support, for their goals, in no small part because they protested peacefully, and stood up bravely in the face of tear gas and rubber bullets.
Those who broke into the LegCo seemed, at least temporarily, to hand the initiative back to the government. According to press reports, the storming of the LegCo created divisions within the protest movement and divided public opinion among the people of Hong Kong.
At the same time, that small group of protesters made it more difficult for those in the international community to continue to offer unfettered support.
One hopes that key observers – including government officials, members of the business community, think tank experts, and others – in Washington, London, and Brussels will continue to monitor the situation closely.
The US, the UK, and the EU should all continue to express support for the vast majority of peaceful protesters who are merely seeking to express their views on a major issue of public concern, a badly-written extradition bill.
The key question remains: how will Beijing respond? On July 2, the Central Government’s Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office (HKMAO) criticised those who stormed LegCo, calling them “extreme radicals” whose actions “trample on the rule of law and jeopardise social order.”
The HKMAO reiterated its support for the Lam administration and said that those who broke the law should be held to account. It was a troubling sign, one that could signal a harder line from Beijing in the wake of the violent protests.
Still, longtime China watchers noted that the official statement came not from senior Communist Party officials, but rather from the HKMAO. It’s possible, then, that Beijing will limit itself – at least for now – to stern warnings from its official Hong Kong mouthpiece.
If senior leaders themselves weigh in, it’s much more likely that other actions – including steps to further tighten Beijing’s grip on Hong Kong – will follow.
As we wait to see how Beijing will respond, it’s worth asking: what should Beijing do? There’s a strong case to be made for restraint. I think there are at least five reasons why Beijing would be well advised to keep its powder dry.
1. It’s the right thing to do. Regardless of what one thinks of the small number of protesters who broke into LegCo – my own view is that their frustration is understandable, but the decision to storm Hong Kong’s legislature was ill-advised – it remains a local matter, one that, under the One Country, Two Systems framework, should be handled by the Hong Kong government.
At this stage, no one believes that Beijing will be guided by the niceties of OCTS. Still, the fact that taking a step back dovetails with Beijing’s legal obligations – and also with what’s best politically for Hong Kong – is a nice ancillary benefit.
2. It reinforces the narrative that it’s Carrie Lam’s fault. It now seems clear that the idea for the extradition bill came from Chief Executive Lam herself, with support from the Secretary for Security, John Lee.
Beijing did bless the bill and certainly stood to gain from its passage. But the Communist Party almost certainly did not push Lam to introduce the bill in the first place, and instead found itself in the uncomfortable position of reacting to events as they unfolded, rather messily, on the ground.
Allowing the Lam administration to try to clean up a massive mess of its own making would, once again, signal that Beijing wasn’t driving the bus on this one.
3. Restraint will play well internationally. Holding back will win Beijing points with the international community, at a time when many in the West are growing wary of growing Chinese assertiveness, both in Asia and also globally.
Sending a signal that the Communist Party knows when to hold back would win some much-needed political capital for Beijing, at a time when it is in short supply in many parts of the world.
4. It can’t backfire. No harm will be done by holding off for now – it is likely better, from Beijing’s perspective, to see if the Lam administration can find a way to deal with the crisis.
On the other hand, any moves by Beijing to further squeeze Hong Kong would almost certainly lead to another wave of protests, which could, in turn, lead to a cycle of escalation that may be difficult to break.
5. President Xi could throw his critics inside China off balance. Many Chinese friends I’ve spoken with over the past few years – including several moderates who generally support the Communist Party – have privately criticised Xi for cracking down too hard on mainland Chinese civil society, media, and intellectual life.
Holding back even in the face of protests that turned violent would give Xi a chance to show his domestic detractors that he’s not just a would-be strongman who sees a threat lurking behind every corner. He has a chance to demonstrate that he can, when the situation calls for it, do nothing, and allow others to take the lead.
No doubt the events of the past several months raise serious questions about the merits of Beijing’s hard-line approach to Hong Kong, so much so that even some pro-Beijing voices are calling for renewed efforts at constitutional reform.
But for now, Beijing faces the immediate question of how to respond to protests that turned violent on a day that is meant to be a showcase for CCP rule. The Party’s best move is to adopt a wait-and-see approach. Rather than taking over in the midst of a crisis and potentially making a bad situation even worse, the Party should let the Hong Kong government at least try to take the lead.
Thomas E. Kellogg is the executive director of the Georgetown Center for Asian Law, and also an adjunct professor at Georgetown University Law Center.
Correction 7/7/19: This article was updated to reflect that protesters left the legislature of their own accord.