HK protests in a regional perspective

HK protests in a regional perspective

When Hong Kong's protest movement against the Extradition Law Amendment Bill began on March 30, few could have anticipated that it would become a full-blown popular revolt. The protesters initially opposed the bill because it would allow the Hong Kong government to detain and extradite fugitives to mainland China. Despite the suspension and subsequent withdrawal of the bill by Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the protest movement has taken on a life of its own. As its end goals of universal suffrage, an independent inquiry into police conduct and Ms Lam's resignation harden, its endgame appears fraught with risks of intensifying confrontation and violence.

At its most extreme, the protest movement has come to resemble a kind of separation and distance from mainland Chinese rule. At a minimum, it appears to be in search of some local autonomy and democratic governance with greater upward mobility, away from Chinese supervision but with more equitable income distribution. Many of the protesters are reportedly young and economically deprived with few prospects of better standards of living, while the territory is famously wealthy and glitzy to outsiders.

What's happening in Hong Kong is also taking to task China's "one country, two systems" pledge after the Chinese government regained sovereignty over the territory from British rule in 1997. Either way, Hong Kong will likely end up a shadow of itself, no longer the bustling, gleaming metropolis and regional financial hub it used to be.

Tourists, investors and residents alike are having second and third thoughts about the former British colony. The corollary is that nearby neighbours will become a refuge for people and money leaving Hong Kong. Singapore is the most well positioned to provide the logistics and facilities as a regional safe haven. If Thailand's political environment were more settled and stable, this country would also be attractive as a sanctuary.

To be sure, Hong Kong is still an immense and vibrant destination. With all the news flashes and dramatised media coverage out of Hong Kong, I had no idea what to expect for an overnight work visit last week, just a day before the Hong Kong government promulgated a ban on face masks to deter protesters. It seemed like another ordinary Thursday in Hong Kong. The MTR subway train system ran as it was supposed to, streets were beset with the usual traffic, shops were busy, restaurants were noisy.

But as the weekend approached, when protesters normally take to the streets in the face of a heavy police pushback, the air felt tighter and more ominous. By lunchtime, word had gone out that the government's face-mask ban would be announced at 3pm. High-rise buildings began preparations. Gates and doors were shuttered and offices told workers to go home early, while protesters began to make their presence felt.

In conversations with interlocutors and colleagues, Hong Kong after four months of weekly street demonstrations, with some violence by both protesters and police, is divided and torn much like the nasty and ugly old days of yellow-red demonstrations in Bangkok, splitting families and friendships.

By and large, the turning point was when the protests took on a violent streak from June 9. Many protest marchers, supporters and sympathisers began to have misgivings about the dynamics and direction of the protest movement. Now, many Hong Kongers still want considerable latitude and autonomy for their government and way of life on the territory, but they are also apprehensive about where the protest movement is heading and about its mob mentality.

Like Bangkok at several junctures over the past 14 years, the protest movement will now persist in spite of police suppression and countermeasures. Restoring order and a semblance of stability will be difficult for the Lam government as it has lost legitimacy and credibility. Even Ms Lam's resignation may not be enough to placate protester demands. The police force that I saw on street corners looked determined and committed to keeping order. It appears something will soon have to give.

When the "Emergency Regulations Ordinance" was enacted on Oct 5 to implement the anti-mask legislation, outlawing the donning of masks in legal or illegal assemblies, it also gave Hong Kong's Chief Executive sweeping powers to "make any regulations whatsoever which he (or she) may consider desirable in the public interest". This is virtually a blank cheque for policymaking and power, including potential curfews, bans on public gatherings, and internet censorship.

If the protest movement cannot be subdued and dispersed by more authority and power under the ordinance, Hong Kong's Basic Law, tantamount to a constitution, allows its government under Article 14 to "ask the Central People's Government for assistance from the garrison in the maintenance of public order and in disaster relief". This means the People's Liberation Army, which keeps a number of barracks in Hong Kong, may eventually deploy on request from Hong Kong's government based on the territory's laws.

Ultimately, if order cannot be restored and Hong Kong ends up in an outright state of emergency, Article 18 allows Chinese authorities to apply China's laws in Hong Kong. This would be a cataclysmic outcome. It would be China's forceful subjugation of Hong Kong. It would make China look bad as an aspiring superpower, and it would spell the end of Hong Kong as the world has known it. In such dire circumstances, a compromise is still the best way out. But getting rid of Ms Lam would also make Beijing look weak, and it may not be enough to satisfy protesters' demands.

For Southeast Asia and Thailand, how China handles Hong Kong will be indicative of Beijing's intent and role in this neighbourhood. Hong Kong has had an indigenous democratic system that is now under China's sovereignty. If China overruns Hong Kong's political system, it will mean a mean China that is willing to run over other democratic systems elsewhere in ways that it can. But if Hong Kong somehow emerges in sufficient shape to be recognisable as "one country, two systems", then China will be seen by many as a country of its word.

Thitinan Pongsudhirak

An associate professor at Chulalongkorn University

An associate professor and director of the Institute of Security and International Studies at Chulalongkorn University’s Faculty of Political Science, with more than 25 years of university service. He earned his MA from The Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and PhD from the London School of Economics where he was awarded the UK’s top dissertation prize in 2002.

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