Can this end well?  It might, depending on what “this” and “well” mean.  The question also has two dimensions: one local, the other national.

If “this” refers only to Hong Kong’s upsurge of public anger over the local government’s attempt to force passage of an extradition bill through the unrepresentative local legislature, then some elements of a solution are already falling into place.

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam never adequately explained her reluctance to kill the bill.  But she has finally accepted that first among the protesters’ five major demands.

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Photo: May James/HKFP.

The proposed legislation would have allowed the transfer of fugitive criminal suspects to all jurisdictions …  including Mainland China …  with which Hong Kong has yet to conclude formal extradition agreements.  After a massive outcry, Lam reluctantly agreed to shelve the bill in mid- June.

But she said at the time that it was a “good” bill, not an “evil” one, and Hong Kong must pass it sooner or later in order to fulfill its international crime-fighting obligations.   She finally announced the unconditional withdrawal of the bill on September 4.

If “this” also refers to the state of incipient anarchy following from the public’s anger over the bill, that also can be addressed.   There are actually faint rays of hope now emerging in this respect after three months of unprecedented protest.

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But the extradition bill and the consequent erosion of local government authority are only the most immediate manifestations of Hong Kong’s discontent. Its origin lies not here, but with the central government in Beijing and on that dimension, there is not even the faintest hint of a breakthrough.

Local initiatives for a state of local disarray

Fittingly enough, August 31 marked not just the fifth anniversary of the event that provoked Hong Kong’s current cycle of resistance, but also a time of all-round disorder.  It actually began early on August 30, when police started rounding up prominent activists.  Why the authorities chose that time and that particular group is for them to explain.

According to official Beijing logic, the hardline approach is supposed to intimidate and subdue.  Here and now, the effect is just the opposite.   Since they are all popular young pro-democracy politicians, not given to violent expressions of their beliefs, the arrests only inflamed passions further.

Among those headlining the morning news on August 31, were Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow, formerly student activists and now members of a new political party they call Demosisto; plus Legislative Councillors Jeremy Tam, Au Nok-hin, and Cheng Chung-tai; Andy Chan, convener of the now-banned Hong Kong National Party; and Althea Suen, a past student union leader at the University of Hong Kong.  All were arrested for actions allegedly committed during various demonstrations in June and July.

Agnes Chow
Agnes Chow. Photo: In-Media.

On the day itself, for a brief few hours it was also possible to experience what life is like in a community with no leaders and minus some of the usual conventions designed to maintain public order.

A rally had been planned by the Civil Human Rights Front, scheduled to begin at 3 p.m., in Charter Garden, on Hong Kong Island.  The rally would end with a march to Beijing’s representative Liaison Office, two subway stops distant from the garden.

Police denied permission for the event on grounds it would likely end in violence as so many others have this summer.   Front organisers have long since mastered the discipline of bringing Hong Kong’s disparate array of social and political groups together for countless peaceful protest demonstrations and had just done so again on August 18.

Nevertheless, organisers agreed to cancel the rally.  But like many other unusual happenings this summer, Hong Kongers have taken to ignoring police bans on public gatherings.

As expected, far more people showed up than could be accommodated in the garden. Within about half an hour from the appointed time, surrounding downtown streets were filled with black-shirted protesters, slow walking their way westward in the direction of the Liaison Office.

Since the event had been banned, Front organisers couldn’t try to lead for fear of being charged with illegal assembly.  And since there was no rally, police were not even on hand to direct traffic.

Halfway to the Liaison Office, calls were shouted out among the crowd to turn back  …  head back in the opposite direction, towards Government Headquarters.  There, in due course, the dramatic scenes televised around the world unfolded.

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Photo: May James/HKFP.

Police stood their ground behind pre-positioned barricades, and protesters again moved out on their own to block Harcourt Road where the Occupy-Umbrella Movement began five years ago.

Then, five years ago, non-violent civil disobedience was the order of the day.    But since then, everyone has learned that “peaceful protest is useless,” a lesson immortalised in graffiti left behind when protesters trashed the Legislative Council building on July First.

On August 31 this year, the multi-lane Harcourt Road freeway was soon reduced to Hong Kong’s new normal:  teargas, petrol bombs, water cannon, and everyone —  police and protesters — well turned out in full riot gear.

Other protesters continued on to Wanchai near police headquarters and further on to the Causeway Bay shopping district, where they again blocked the main roadway, erected barricades, lit bonfires, and eventually engaged in running battles with the police riot squad.

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Photo: Benjamin Yuen/USP.

As the evening progressed, many protesters headed across the harbour to Kowloon, hiding out in subway stations along the way, followed by scenes of police brutality that were matched by others featuring vigilante justice by protesters who trashed stations in retaliation.

Thus, at a time when officials and civic leaders should have been present to influence and manage …  all were absent from these scenes. Protesters and police were left to battle it out on their own at the end of another violence-filled day.

Only later did the Hong Kong Bar Association offer a postscript.  The barristers, who had spoken out forcefully against the extradition bill, issued a statement condemning protesters for ignoring recently issued court injunctions.  These had been obtained by airport and mass transit authorities after repeated disruptions by protesters.  Court orders must be obeyed, admonished the barristers.  Their violation is a ‘flagrant assault on the rule of law’.

A few others, also within the legal community, are also beginning to make their presence felt.  These rays of hope are appearing, for example, among court prosecutors in the Justice Department where a few muted voices were heard during earlier phases of the extradition bill protests.

august 31 china extradition admiralty (15)
Photo: May James/HKFP.

William Wong, Chairman of the Justice Department’s Court Prosecutors Association targeted the timing of the seven activists’ arrests, just ahead of the sensitive May 31st anniversary.  In a leaked e-mail message, sent to the Secretary for Justice and the Director of Public Prosecutions, Wong suggested that the police should at least not have lied when they told reporters the arrests were not timed to coincide with the anniversary date.

He wrote that the police should be cautioned on the need for honesty and reliability before their actions do real damage to Hong Kong’s legal system.

Some recent court decisions might also provide cause for hope.  During the past two years, there has been an almost unbroken stream of negative court judgements in political cases brought by prosecutors against pro-democracy politicians and activists.  The sequence has contributed much to the pent-up anger and sense of futility underlying current protests.

These rulings have resulted, among other things:  in the disqualification of six pro-democracy Legislative Councillors during a lengthy process that has never been adequately explained to voters; and in the disqualification of several pro-democracy candidates, all on political grounds.

Perhaps this consideration underlies some recent rulings that seem to be based on more liberal readings of the law.  Or perhaps someone hopes Benny Tai Yiu-ting might do more good outside prison than within, given his long-standing insistence on peaceful protest.

Professor Tai has recently been released on bail after being granted permission to appeal his sentence. He was found guilty on public nuisance charges and had been serving a 16-month prison sentence handed down earlier this year.

Occupy nine sentencing
Benny Tai. Photo: Jennifer Creery/HKFP.

Also recently granted permission to appeal was Edward Leung Tin-kei, originator of protesters’ current favourite slogan “Liberate Hong Kong, the Revolution of our Times” (their preferred translation, not mine).  He is currently serving a six-year prison sentence for his leading role in a 2016 Lunar New Year confrontation with police that pales in comparison with events here during the past three months.

Finally, Agnes Chow’s disqualification to stand as a candidate for election has been overturned in a just-announced judicial review ruling.  She had been barred from standing as a candidate for a special election in early 2018, because she, and her Demosisto party, advocate self-determination for Hong Kong.  

Beijing holds that self-determination is the same as independence, which violates the all-important principles of national unity, security, and sovereignty.  She may well be disqualified again on the same grounds.  But the court ruled on a technicality, namely, that she was not given an opportunity to explain why self-determination need not be synonymous with independence.

These few flickering rays of hope all derive from court rulings in political cases.  One of the Chief Executive’s few confidantes to speak out on such matters is lawyer Anthony Neoh, current head of the Independent Police Complaints Council.  He has said the only real solutions for Hong Kong’s current crisis are political and that Carrie Lam says she is working in that direction.

Beijing and Hong Kong’s political predicament

The Chief Executive may privately admit that her dilemma is political, but in a series of recent statements  …  some public, others leaked …  she has said only that her room for manoeuvre is limited.  She didn’t need to spell out the limits.  It was done for her by another hardline message from the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing, the fourth since the extradition bill protests began.

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Yang Guang. Photo: iCable screenshot.

At a September 3rd press conference, office spokesman Yang Guang dismissed the entire anti-extradition bill uproar as a sham.  He said Hong Kong protesters and democrats were exploiting the issue as a smokescreen to pursue their goal of universal suffrage elections, with the aim of turning Hong Kong into an independent or semi-independent entity.   He included the standard reference to outside manipulators as well.

In fact, it is this contradiction …  between Beijing and the electoral reform goal …  that has created the greatest challenge for Hong Kong’s judiciary and its executive officials, by obliging them to stand in as Beijing’s political enforcers here.

But for Beijing’s insistence that self-determination and independence are synonymous, Chow Ting would not have been deprived of her right to stand for election, in the first instance by the government vetting officer.

And she may be disqualified again, unless some judge reviews the case and dares to split hairs with Beijing over definitions of self-determination and independence.  But how can this be done on so important a question without violating the principle of judicial deference to the executive?

Similarly, Beijing officials had argued that one of the earlier universal suffrage slogans, “Power to the People,” is tantamount to a demand for independence.  In Beijing’s Communist Party eyes, that would make the people sovereign, whereas it is the party that must represent the people and thus safeguard the all-important imperatives of national sovereignty, security, and unity.

That’s why the current popular slogan about liberation and revolution is on par with “returning power to the people”  …   definitely an attempt to subvert state power and threaten the national order.

july 28 sheung wan china extradition tear gas
Photo: May James/HKFP.

Hence Yang Guang’s message on September 3rd returned full circle to the predicament created by Beijing on August 31, 2014.  The 8.31 decision from the National People’s Congress Standing Committee mandated mainland-style vetting for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive candidates, with nominations by an Election Committee that, like Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, is designed to produce “safe” results.

Another of the protesters’ current demands is the relaunch of the abandoned 2014 universal suffrage project.  Be forewarned, said Yang.  Whenever it is relaunched, the same 8.31 framework …  that Hong Kong’s democracy campaigners rejected in 2014  …  must still apply.

He said there was no other option, and why should there be?    The NPCSC’s 8.31 decision incorporated all of Beijing’s promises about the one-country, two-systems governing framework that is guaranteed by Hong Kong’s Basic Law constitution, with follow-up decisions to be made by the National People’s Congress Standing Committee, as and when Beijing deems necessary.

So, the stalemate continues.  As of now, protesters are even less likely to accept the 8.31 framework.  The community’s resentment is wide and deep, as seen in the unprecedented number of professional groups that spoke out against the extradition bill.

Frustration is so great that aversion to violence and commitment to peaceful protest are receding.  Court orders are not obeyed, and police bans ignored.  The expected public outcry over the vandalised Legislative Council building never materialised.

The only constant is Beijing’s hardline attempt to force its unchanging political logic on a community that during the past two decades has grown more antagonistic, not less.

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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.