Unfulfilled promises have fuelled anger in Hong Kong

Conciliatory moves by the government in Hong Kong are unlikely to placate the public and resolve old grievances.

hong kong protests reuters
Protesters are seen in Hong Kong's Legislative Council building during the anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China on July 1, 2019. The banner reads 'There are no thugs, only tyranny' [Reuters]

As Hong Kong awaits the next convulsion arising from an unprecedented upsurge of protests one image neatly sums up where the former British colony is nowadays.

Next to the city’s airport stands a recently completed bridge linking Hong Kong, Macau and the Chinese mainland city of Zhuhai. Built at massive cost, with heavy loss of life, the world’s longest sea bridge was designed to reinforce the physical ties between the two former colonies and the Chinese motherland. The closer they could get together, the better they would be, at least that was the idea.

The reality is that the bridge is a forlorn white elephant. It is largely bereft of traffic aside from lumbering tour buses carrying mainland visitors to casinos in Macau and shopping centres in Hong Kong. Business is distinctly one-sided and even if Hong Kong residents wished to drive on this gleaming new edifice they cannot because vehicle access is confined to special permit holders: the rich and the politically well connected.

The near empty bridge reflects the convoluted history of Hong Kong and its new masters in Beijing, where misunderstanding is rife and promises remain unfulfilled.

The gap between assurances and reality has generated growing anger and disillusionment. It is in this context that millions of people took to the streets when it looked as though Hong Kong’s cherished rule of law was about to be undermined by the introduction of new extradition legislation which would have put the people of Hong Kong at the mercy of China‘s notorious justice system.

More fundamentally, however, the outpouring of anger was about broken promises of autonomy and a sense that the distinctiveness of Hong Kong is being subsumed by the all-powerful Chinese state.

In 1997, when China regained sovereignty over the enclave, the Beijing government proclaimed that “Hong Kong’s tomorrow will be even more beautiful”. On July 1, the 22nd anniversary of the handover, that beauty was not apparent to local government officials who were so fearful of protests that they abandoned the traditional outdoor ceremony marking the event and moved it to a tightly controlled indoor location.

Later in the day half a million people took to the streets to express their anger and disappointment with the government, fears over the erosion of autonomy and, as one protester put it to me, “just about everything”. Following a previous march of some two million people, around a quarter of the entire population, this demonstration did not seem that big and was overlooked when a much smaller group, almost entirely consisting of young people, subsequently burst into the legislature and trashed part of the building.

The police stood by and let them get on with it, the suspicion lingers, as legislator Fernando Cheung told me, that this was a trap set to turn public opinion against protesters and to characterise the opposition as being a threat to law and order. The police deny this charge.

However, suspicion is the order of the day here in Hong Kong. Trust in the once highly regarded police force has sunk to all-time lows following the violent suppression of another demonstration last month. Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, does not dare emerge in public and only appears in venues where unvetted people are kept at bay. Even government supporters have taken to abusing her after the scrapping of the controversial legislation and are now running around like headless chickens.

Mrs Lam will probably linger on in office, for no reason other than that her departure would represent another loss of face for Beijing. However, she is an increasingly isolated figure, whose popularity ratings have crumbled.

Control has firmly and visibly moved to an austere building called the Central Government Liaison Office where mainland cadres issue edicts, coordinate support for the fast-sinking Hong Kong government and summon senior Hong Kong officials to receive “guidance”.

Lurking in the background is the fear that, if push comes to shove, the Chinese government might decide to mobilise its People’s Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong to suppress protests. In an unusual move, on July 2, the army newspaper gave details of a large air and sea exercise in the territory, pointedly reminding people of the army’s readiness for action.

The hard core of the protesters, particularly the young people who stormed into the legislature on July 1, appear to be fearless but the much wider mass of people who have joined the street protests are not eager for violence and are fearful that a crackdown will follow what has, after all, been an enormous retreat by the world’s largest dictatorship.

The rulers in Beijing do not take setbacks of this kind lightly. Under Xi Jinping, the crackdown on dissent has reached levels not seen during the Maoist era. Where repression has been most harsh, in the northwestern Muslim region of Xinjiang, much of what happens is out of sight to the outside world. This is not the case in Hong Kong.

Yet, Beijing cannot do nothing – doing nothing is not in the Communist Party’s DNA, so some kind of reaction is highly likely. It may take some time to be rolled out, as it was in the wake of the defeated Umbrella Movement five years ago, when a trickle of arrests turned into a surge, where a political party was banned and dissident legislators were kicked out of the chamber while others were banned from standing for election.

The general view back then was that nothing could be done to thwart this onslaught and that those advocating democracy had been taught a lesson which was to bow to the inevitability of doing things China’s way.

The eruption of protest against the extradition laws seemingly came out of nowhere but, in reality, it provided a trigger for discontent which had long been simmering in the background. It is hard to predict what will happen next.

In another about face on July 9, Carrie Lam announced she was “willing to engage in an open dialogue with students”, alongside other measures to improve communications with the wider community. However, her credibility is now so low that it is doubtful that this too-little, too-late move will have much effect. 

At the same time given that the protest movement has been largely spontaneous and leaderless, it is unclear who can represent its demands if dialogue with the government is indeed to be held.

For the time being it seems a tense stalemate prevails in Hong Kong.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.