Was it “too little, too late”? Hong Kong’s city’s chief executive Carrie Lam has withdrawn the controversial extradition bill which provoked three months of street protest. But the drama is far from over.
The move by the embattled Lam has clearly been backed by Beijing and seen by observers as a concerted effort to cut the head off the protests. Bill Bishop, in his closely followed Sinocism newsletter, described it as “some sort of 离间计 [deviation]” strategem.
It follows last week’s round-up of leading democracy advocates — including Demosisto secretary-general Joshua Wong, and protest figureheads Andy Chan and Agnes Chow.
But in ignoring four other key demands which have emerged from the protests, Lam and Beijing have ensured that the protests will continue; their calculus being that the central concession would take sufficient heat off the demonstrations.
Tellingly, the move comes only three weeks out from major celebrations planned for the October 1 National Day — the 70th anniversary of the victory of the Communist Party and the establishment of People’s Republic of China. The stage is now set for security forces to stage a more emphatic crackdown at a later stage.
The initial protest laid bare the stark reality of the Mephistophelian contract between the United Kingdom and China for a 50-year “hand over” of the city at the end of Britain’s lease in 1997. It quickly morphed into a broader democracy movement challenging Beijing’s authority over the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
This was met with a violent reaction by police and proxies — some of whom have been reported as members of criminal triad gangs. There have been concerns of undercover police — and perhaps police surrogates — dressing as protesters to help incite police retaliation. Tear gas has used in underground metro stations — a rare step by police anywhere — and there has been serial use of water cannons and rubber bullets.
People who have been arrested have also complained about being mistreated at police stations. The events have left the reputation of the police force, which it has rebuilt since violence during the Cultural Revolution of the 1960, in tatters. Observers have suggested that an inquiry into the police behaviour combined with a withdrawal of the bill would have been far more effective.
So, what happens next? Pro-Beijing lawmakers who met with Lam ahead of the decision have voiced concern that the move could have the opposite of its intended effect of calming the city down. Protests could escalate as the people of Hong Kong demand the further demands are met. Some at the meeting called for emergency powers.
There are plenty of options left for Lam and Beijing still on the table. Lam can still declare an emergency ordnance order under Hong Kong’s Basic Law, which would give her sweeping powers. They could opt for a bloody Tiananmen-like crackdown and/or a declaration of martial law.
Now, for the world and for the people of Hong Kong, we must wait and see what the weekend will bring.