Hong Kong warned of an ‘abyss’


How much longer will Beijing’s patience last with riotous Hong Kong? What began as a peaceful protest against key legislative change that would have seen suspects deported from the territory for trial on the mainland has grown over the last three months into major confrontations with the police and a general strike that has severely affected the airport and urban transportation.

At issue has been the proposal of Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing leader Carrie Lam to revoke one of the key terms of the “one country, two systems” agreement when Britain returned its former colony to Chinese rule in 1997. This deal granted Hong Kong citizens a range of freedoms that are not available on the mainland. This high degree of autonomy except in foreign and defense affairs is due to last for 50 years, until 2047. In the face of widespread protests, Lam said she would suspend her plans to legislate for the change. For the protestors, that move was not good enough and they demanded the draft law be scrapped completely.

A turning point in the confrontation was the storming by a crowd of demonstrators of the legislative assembly building. There remain suspicions that this violent assault, which saw much of the building trashed, was the action of agents provocateurs, not least because a large force of police stood by and watched, in no way seeking to intervene.

However, thereafter, the police became increasingly aggressive toward protestors and dozens have been arrested. This has served to escalate tensions. Demonstrators now demand the release of activists, 40 of whom went on trial last week charged with rioting. They could face up to ten years in jail if convicted. There is also a call for a public inquiry into alleged police brutality. However the major demand now is that Carrie Lam resign.

Until this week the Hong Kong leader had been silent for a fortnight. However, at an unruly press conference, during which she was hectored by journalists, Lam has now warned that the territory was facing “an abyss” and was heading down a path “from which there could be no return”.

It remains to be seen for how much longer Beijing will tolerate this standoff. Normal life in parts of Hong Kong has been heavily disrupted. So far only the police have faced the demonstrators, but soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army have a barracks in the territory. A video was released last week in which a soldier was seen on a practice riot drill in which he was bellowing that unless demonstrators obeyed him, they alone would be responsible for the consequences.

It remains to be seen if Beijing will risk a bloody confrontation with multiple deaths that would mirror the massacres in the suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen Square mass protests. That was the most potent challenge that had ever faced China’s Communist party. The Hong Kong protests are of a different order of magnitude. But how they are handled could have a profound impact on Beijing’s international standing. Will Chinese leader Xi Jinping be prepared to sacrifice Lam in order to restore order, which might be taken as a loss of all-important face or will he decide that enough is enough and use main force to bring the protests to an end? It might be feared that when Lam spoke of an “abyss”, she was echoing the words of Beijing.