In Depth

Hong Kong protests: can there be a resolution?

The demonstrations in Hong Kong are no flash in the pan. But what do the protesters want, and can they achieve their aims?

The Hong Kong protests, sparked initially by a proposed bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, have morphed into a movement with a momentum and ferocity few expected.

The past weekend has demonstrated conclusively that Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam’s declaration that the controversial extradition bill was “dead” - she did not formally withdraw it - has failed to tame the crisis. 

Demonstrations on Sunday morning saw up to 110,000 people taking part, though police put the number at 28,000. As is the new norm by the end of the day the protests had descended into running street battles.

“Sunday's clashes took place at the end of another huge rally,” says the Telegraph. “Violence broke out briefly in the afternoon after the rally as protesters seized a junction and built barricades, causing an hours-long stand-off with riot police. But the worst clashes happened late evening inside a shopping mall where hundreds of protesters fled after police moved on the barricades and then charged into the shopping complex.”

Another of the protester’s demands - that Ms Lamb resigns - also seems to be off the table for now, with the Financial Times revealing yesterday that she has attempted to do just that on a number of occasions in recent weeks, only to have her offer refused by Chinese authorities.

The paper continues that “Beijing… has insisted that Ms Lam ‘has to stay to clean up the mess she created’, according to one person with direct knowledge of the situation. ‘No one else can clean up the mess and no one else wants the job.’”

A full-scale political crisis now grips Hong Kong. The protester’s list of grievances is long and varied. As the New York Times details, there are specific, localised issues like the influx of Chinese tourists and ‘parallel traders’ - people who buy from Hong Kong retail to sell without import tax for a profit in mainland China - into the semiautonomous territory, which locals claim is driving up the cost of living and changing their communities.

However, uniting the millions of protesters are more substantial issues. As Al Jazeera's Jamela Alindogan, speaking from the march, said: "[They are] speaking out against what they call creeping authoritarianism, threats to the way of life in Hong Kong."

“The youth of Hong Kong… are accustomed to freedom, personal rights and access to information. They have watched the freedoms of Hong Kong… slowly slip away, and they know that the Communist Party stops at nothing in pursuing its interests”, writes artist Ai Weiwei in the New York Times. “They know that Hong Kong, with its habits of civil freedoms inherited from British rule on one side and its confrontation with China’s dictatorship on the other, is a laboratory for the world. Will — can? — a free populace that wishes to remain free be annexed by an authoritarian machine?”

“Hong Kong's government late Sunday said it 'strongly condemns these illegal acts' by protesters, saying roads were blocked and officers assaulted”, the Telegraph says.

The intensity of the feeling is undeniable. The city has been rocked by unrest since early June. Upper estimates put protests on 9 June at 1 million people and on 16 June at 2 million. Perhaps the most dramatic moment came on 1 July, when demonstrators stormed the legislative council building. There have been four suicides in recent weeks by people citing the struggle with China as the cause, according to Sky News

The protests are led by the young, many of them in their teens, but have grown to encompass the full range of Hong Kong society. According to Reuters, “young, elderly and families joined the latest protest.” They have had to use Western social media platforms to coordinate their efforts - any use of Chinese tech platforms is either blocked or monitored, says CNBC.

“The weekend demonstrations were the latest indication of a sustained wave of dissent here that has grown to include demands unlikely to be met by Beijing authorities”, Shibani Mahtani reflects in the Washington Post. “Many in Hong Kong argue that their leader, who is not directly elected, is illegitimate. Half a dozen more protests are planned for the coming week, including a march led by the elderly.”

Few commentators can see any path to victory for the protesters, resisting, as they are, an overwhelmingly powerful state. As Tony Saich anticipates in the Harvard Gazette, when it comes to the long-term outlook for liberty in Hong Kong, “so much depends on what happens and what evolves in Beijing. If the political system, the overwhelming desire to control as many aspects of state and society as you can, persists, then by extension... that would also find its way through into Hong Kong.”

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