Hong Kong, China – In Hong Kong’s predominantly Chinese society, 2019 kicked off in earnest when the fortune-tellers revealed their predictions for the Year of the Pig, the year according to the Chinese zodiac.
But none foretold the political upheavals that would come to define the year.
About two weeks after the Lunar New Year break, Chief Executive Carrie Lam floated a little-noticed amendment bill with the stated purpose of ensuring a local teenager who had confessed to murdering his girlfriend in Taiwan face justice there.
The bill, which would have allowed suspects to be sent for trial in China, triggered anger in a city where many felt the Communist-ruled mainland was already encroaching onto the freedoms guaranteed when it reverted to Chinese rule in 1997.
Worse, the bill’s passage into law was all but ensured in a legislature controlled by Beijing loyalists. Barely two years before, several popularly elected opposition legislators had been removed after Beijing reinterpreted the city’s constitution to disqualify them from office.
As the government forged ahead with the bill, people took to the streets in their hundreds of thousands in largely peaceful marches.
Then on June 12, protesters amassed outside the legislative building succeeded in stopping the bill from being passed, despite encountering what they saw as aggressive police action.
By the time Lam shelved the bill – stopping short of withdrawing it – on June 15, the confrontations between police and demonstrators had escalated and the demands had expanded to five – including an independent inquiry into police conduct and the right to elect Lam’s successor.
From then on, wrongs and wounds compounded as police ratcheted up their response to week upon week of at times violent protests that had spread across many neighbourhoods.
Over the last seven months of civil unrest – the worst to rock Hong Kong in half a century, the apparent intransigence of authorities in Beijing and Hong Kong fuelled resistance and set in motion a downward spiral of clashes between police and protesters.
“Beijing had to back Carrie Lam all the way because they chose her to run Hong Kong. To back down is to admit to the mistake,” longtime China-watcher Ching Cheong told Al Jazeera. “To a dictatorship, any political conciliation is a sign of weakness. Any dissent is viewed through the prism of power struggle.”
But for all the sabre-rattling just across the border, and even as protesters committed themselves to a scorched-earth strategy – storming the airport, smashing storefronts and plunging the local economy into recession – the 12,000 troops of the People’s Liberation Army stationed in the city remained mostly out of sight.
‘Canary in the coal mine’
Instead, it is the Hong Kong police who have been on the front lines, deploying tear gas, water cannon and rubber-coated bullets against petrol bombs and other makeshift weaponry from the protesters.
So far, more than 6,000 people have been arrested, with nearly 3,000 people injured.
In November, in some of the most intense clashes, a siege at Polytechnic University dragged on for more than a week and shut down the nearby tunnel connecting Kowloon with Hong Kong Island.
The confrontations fuelled support for an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality but even as some pro-Beijing politicians backed the call, the administration has refused to budge.
“Beijing likely has been involved in the policing decision, which will come to light in any inquiry,” said Dixon Ming Sing, an associate professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who studies political culture in Asia.
“That’ll prove too dangerous and embarrassing for the Communist Party and also undermine the legitimacy of Carrie Lam’s administration.”
As Beijing insisted Hong Kong was responsible for its domestic affairs and inveighed against criticism from foreign countries, defiant protesters appealed for support abroad and found a receptive audience at a time when China’s rise has increasingly sharpened diplomatic tensions.
“In Hong Kong’s struggle, other countries could see the handiwork of Beijing’s manoeuvre,” Ching said.
“In a way, the city is the canary in the coal mine of the free world.”
A month ago, Washington enacted laws to sanction officials who commit human right abuses against Hong Kong protesters and even remove Hong Kong’s trade privileges if Beijing is found to have further eroded the territory’s autonomy.
“This may incentivise other countries to follow suit, resulting in a domino effect,” Sing said.
Even if potentially Pyrrhic, the legislation was hailed as a victory by the protesters.
They are betting Hong Kong remains crucial to China as the nominally socialist country’s only internationalised financial hub and stock market.
But on the 20th anniversary of Macau’s return to China earlier this month, like Hong Kong under the “one country, two systems” framework, President Xi Jinping paid an extended visit to the former Portuguese-ruled enclave and praised its patriotism and loyalty.
At least two Hong Kong residents were detained by mainland Chinese officials, not far beyond Hong Kong’s territorial waters on a bridge that links the city to the mainland, as a security cordon was tightened around Macau.
For now, Hong Kong’s opposing sides are watching warily to see what the other will do.
Beyond the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill in late October, authorities appear unwilling to entertain further concessions.
Lam and her Beijing bosses might be hoping the protests will eventually run out of steam, but the protesters show no sign of giving in.
In what now appears to be predictable Hong Kong fashion, 2020 will be rung in with protests and a march.