Hong Kong’s Crisis and Prospects for the Pro-Democracy Movement

Publication: China Brief Volume: 19 Issue: 12

Protestors near the Legislative Council building in Hong Kong, June 12. (Source: Hong Kong Free Press)

Introduction—Disputes Over the Extradition Bill Spill into the Streets of Hong Kong

On Sunday, June 9, just over one million Hong Kong residents took part in a protest rally against the introduction of the “Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019” (hereafter “Extradition Bill”), which had been introduced into Hong Kong’s Legislative Council by the city administration of Chief Executive Carrie Lam (Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, 林鄭月娥). The draft Extradition Bill would allow Hong Kong people to be extradited to regions subject to the full authority of the People’s Republic of China (PRC). [1] As PRC courts are under the control of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and therefore offer no genuine due process to defendants who might face charges for political reasons, the bill had aroused widespread opposition in Hong Kong.

Immediately after the June 9 protest rally, the Lam administration refused to make serious concessions or to otherwise engage with those who opposed the bill. In a press statement released that evening, Chief Executive Lam indicated that the legislative process would proceed on schedule, and that the contents of the bill would not be altered (SCMP, June 10). Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen (梁君彥), the president of the Legislative Council, soon announced the schedule of meetings for the deliberation of the bill, and announced that a vote would be held on June 20. It was this arrogance and total disregard for the protest rally that provoked about 40,000 young people to surround the Legislative Council on the morning of June 12, when deliberations on the amendment bill were to begin. This action led to some violent clashes with the police in the afternoon, who ultimately succeeded in dispersing the bulk of the protesters later in the evening. It was a sad scene as tear gas and rubber bullets were deployed, and at least seventy-two people were injured (Hong Kong Free Press, June 13).

The broader Hong Kong community had great sympathy for the young protesters. Despite Carrie Lam’s promise to shelve the bill, on the following Saturday (June 15) nearly two million people poured into the streets (BBC, June 17)—an extraordinary number in light of Hong Kong’s total population of 7.5 million. The Chief Executive made a public apology on June 18—thereby indicating that the Extradition Bill would likely meet a natural disappearance by the end of the present legislative session in July 2020. However, Ms. Lam refused to resign as requested by the pro-democracy movement, and she also rejected its other demands, to include: formal withdrawal of the bill; retraction of labelling the previous Wednesday’s confrontation as a “riot” (which could expose participants to prosecution); releasing those arrested; and initiating an investigation into alleged police violence.

Beijing’s Efforts to Assert Control, and the Rise of Greater Resistance in Hong Kong

Dating back to the Sino-British negotiations of the early 1980s, Chinese leaders have been most concerned about investors’ interests: they realized that as an international financial center, money could leave Hong Kong quite easily. But in this case, despite reservations on the part of both local business leaders and the expatriate business community, the Lam administration only offered limited concessions—without resolving the basic issue of the Hong Kong public’s lack of confidence in the PRC judicial system. Hong Kong people consider the right to a fair trial to be a basic political right, and they do not have confidence in the judicial system in the PRC. In addition to the supporters of the pro-democracy movement, businessmen are also alarmed: they frequently become involved in corrupt practices and tax evasion while conducting business in mainland China, and could be vulnerable to prosecution, whether politically-motivated or otherwise.

The protests reflected a simmering anger among the people of Hong Kong. Most local people believe that the increasingly tight hold over Hong Kong policy exercised by PRC authorities has been the root cause of the territory’s problems; and in the past five years, they have also witnessed a gradual erosion of the rule of law in the territory. Hong Kong citizens know that democracy has been denied to them since the “Occupation Campaign” (佔領行動)—also known as the “Umbrella Movement” (雨傘運動)—civil disobedience protests in the autumn of 2014. These mass protests were sparked by concerns that the PRC was rigging the electoral system to ensure that only pro-Beijing figures would be selected as candidates to lead the city administration.

The emergence of a spirit of localism, and of pro-independence groups, has provided the PRC authorities and the Hong Kong administration with a convenient excuse: in the name of state sovereignty and national security, and of combating Hong Kong independence, the Lam administration felt it had justification to further bind Hong Kong more tightly to Beijing’s authority. Wang Zhimin (王志民), the head of the PRC Central Liaison Office in Hong Kong, declared in April that on issues of national security, there are not “two systems,” but rather only the responsibility of “one country” (RTHK News, April 15). Such high-handed statements by ministerial officials from Beijing presume the power of re-defining the scope of the “one country, two systems” model—without apparent concern for what public opinion might be among the people of Hong Kong.

Setbacks for the Pro-Democracy Movement Have Mobilized Its Supporters

Recent years have seen serious setbacks for the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. Frequent arrests and prosecutions of demonstrators from 2014 onwards have helped the city’s pro-Beijing administration blunt the impact of the pro-democracy movement. The possibility of arrest can be a strong deterrent for protest activity: young people sent to jail with criminal records suffer substantially in their subsequent career prospects. Furthermore, the pro-democracy camp lost in two successive by-elections in Kowloon West in 2018—elections that were called to fill two seats vacated by pro-democracy legislators disqualified due to controversies surrounding their oaths of office (SCMP, July 14, 2017). The major cause of the electoral defeats was that the pro-democracy camp could only attract about 60% of the voters who had supported pro-democracy candidates in the 2016 elections to the Legislative Council. Differences between generations, and those between the more radical and moderate wings of the pro-democracy movement, were also negative factors.

Despite the lower level of electoral participation among Hong Kong youth, their anger was definitely building. Young people have been the principal casualties of a number of socioeconomic factors, including the widening gap between the rich and poor; the decline in upward social mobility; and cramped and expensive housing conditions. These frustrations burst into the open when opportunities arise, as with the recent protests. Many young people participated in the three protest rallies against the Extradition Bill on April 28, June 9, and June 16, 2019—with estimated turnouts of 130,000, 1.03 million, and 2 million people respectively.

Why Did Beijing Push for the Extradition Bill Now?

Although Lam has stated that the initiative for the Extradition Bill did not come from the PRC central government, her legislative proposal received strong endorsement from the CCP leadership in Beijing. In recent months, pro-Beijing groups from Hong Kong have travelled to Beijing to meet with senior CCP officials including Han Zheng (韩正), the Politburo Standing Committee member responsible for Hong Kong and Macau Affairs (People’s Daily Online, May 22). A small number of business leaders, legislators, and academics within the pro-establishment camp who had earlier indicated reservations about the Extradition Bill soon altered their positions and returned to the fold. [2]

In the broad context of deteriorating domestic and external environments for the PRC, the Xi Jinping administration continues its trend of increasingly authoritarian policies: setting up taboos for discussions in university campuses; cracking down on underground churches, autonomous labor groups, and human rights lawyers; and suppression of national minorities, especially the Uighurs in Xinjiang. Beijing’s policies towards Hong Kong naturally follow this pattern. The combat of localism and pro-independence groups has added political significance in this environment: nationalism is being steadily whipped-up to shore up support for the CCP regime, and the opposition in Hong Kong is constantly accused of colluding with foreign forces (China Daily, June 17).

Furthermore, PRC leaders consider that Hong Kong is quite dependent on the broader Chinese economy; and in view of China’s overall economic strength and prosperity, Hong Kong’s contributions to China’s modernization are not as important as they once were. This attitude has often been voiced by local leaders of the pro-Beijing united front, as well as by mainland visitors to Hong Kong. PRC leaders also perceive Hong Kong as overprivileged, especially since the controversies surrounding political reforms in 2013-2014 that resulted in the Occupation Campaign: hence, Hong Kong should be taught a lesson, and made to respect the parameters and red lines of the “one country, two systems” model as defined by Beijing.

Finally, Hong Kong remains a significant source of information on China for the international media, and this includes criticisms of the PRC and its leaders. The territory’s special role has been perceived even more negatively in step with the apparent sense of insecurity felt by the Xi Jinping administration. The introduction of the Extradition Bill—and the frequent discussions in the pro-Beijing camp on the urgency of “Article 23” national security legislation (HKU Faculty of Law, undated)—reflect the intention of exerting stricter controls over both political opposition and criticisms of the CCP authorities.

The business environment of Hong Kong would be adversely affected by these measures. Hong Kong functions as an international financial center, and an international business center demands freedom of information and the rule of law. This understanding is essential to the maintenance of the “one country, two systems” model. It had been expected that a respect for investors’ interests on the part of the authorities, and their eagerness to maintain the territory’s business environment, would have been sufficient to uphold this understanding. However, this expectation is now in doubt.

Prospects for the Future of the Democracy Movement and Civil Society in Hong Kong

Given the pro-Beijing positions of the Hong Kong city administration, the most serious challenge for the pro-democracy movement is the lack of realizable objectives in the short-term. Few people in Hong Kong believe that demands for democratic reforms, such as the direct election of the Chief Executive and that of all the seats in the legislature, are meaningful. The disappointment and pessimism of the community have made it difficult to mobilize people since the end of the 2014 Occupation Campaign, as reflected in the small numbers of people taking part in various campaigns and protest rallies in subsequent years—at least, that is, until the mass protests of the past month.

The PRC authorities are reluctant to accept the clear-cut withdrawal of the Extradition Bill. They will therefore seek to ensure support for the Lam administration in the current (and ongoing) crisis, but this will likely further erode the latter’s legitimacy. Lam’s loyalty to Beijing is exactly why she has been criticized for betraying the interests of Hong Kong. Lam’s popularity rating is now lower than that of her predecessor C.Y. Leung—something that hardly could have been imagined when she first took office (HKU Public Opinion Program, undated).

Going forward, the weakened Lam administration will be even more dependent on Beijing. This reliance will likely lead the local pro-Beijing united front to seek even more support from the PRC authorities—which will lead in turn to more interference, and stronger influence exerted over Hong Kong affairs, on the part of the CCP regime. The pro-democracy movement continues to serve as the only available force to maintain the weakening checks and balances that maintain Hong Kong’s freedoms. Hong Kong people realize that they will have to work hard to safeguard their values and interests. Hong Kong people may well face the future options of either emigrating, or keeping their heads low while concentrating on making money. This is a testing time for the usually pragmatic Hong Kong people, but they have shown that they have not abandoned hope.

Joseph Yu-shek Cheng is a retired Professor of Political Science and the Coordinator of the Contemporary China Research Project, City University of Hong Kong. He publishes widely on the political development of China and Hong Kong, Chinese foreign policy, and development in southern China.  In Hong Kong, he was the convener of the Alliance for True Democracy, and a trustee of the Justice Defense Fund.


[1] For the full text of the bill in English, see https://www.legco.gov.hk/yr18-19/english/bills/b201903291.pdf.

[2] For example, one Beijing-friendly legal scholar no longer insisted on his counter-proposal as he noted the skepticism of Beijing, which viewed the proposal as a challenge to its sovereignty. See: https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/politics/article/3011577/hong-kong-extradition-law-beijing-friendly-legal.