A full week of protests in Hong Kong, culminating with as many as 2 million people taking to the streets on Sunday, June 16, is pressure-testing Beijing’s “one country-two systems” administrative policy.
The protests themselves, historic in scale, as well as the absence of a clear response from communist officials in Zhongnanhai, reveal a stark contrast between authoritarian rule in the mainland and the vestiges of Western-style democracy that still survive in the former British colony.
If such demonstrations were to take place elsewhere in China, regardless of the scale, one should expect to see police and the military called in to crush its unruly citizenry. Protesters would be met with violence, charged with “disrupting the social order,” and cast into China’s murky and corrupt prison and labor-camp system—the very nightmare that the people of Hong Kong are fighting against, as they try to push back a law that would broaden Hong Kong’s extradition policy with China.
Images like those from Tiananmen Square in 1989, when military tanks and machine guns rolled over pro-democracy demonstrators, or of Falun Gong practitioners being beaten and dragged away in windowless vans, would remind us what a police state can really look like.
However, Beijing’s silence and inaction toward Hong Kong might also reveal something else—an acute fear on the part of the Party’s Standing Committee that globally televised protests in the special administrative region could soon spill over to the mainland.
After all, what if all the people in China demanded human rights, along with their cousins in Hong Kong?
Chief Executive Officer Carrie Lam, who was approved by Beijing and who answers directly to Party Chairman Xi Jinping, had vowed to push the new China-extradition bill through Hong Kong’s Legislature before the end of its summer working session. Just one week ago, when 1 million demonstrators filled the streets to express outrage, Lam casually dismissed the protests as the antics of “unruly children” who needed a parent’s supervision and discipline.
The protests continued unabated throughout the week, with demonstrators showing steely resolve in the face of riot police who threw tear gas, sprayed water cannons, and even fired rubber bullets into the crowds. The Hong Kong Legislature was forced to cancel its session on Wednesday, June 12, when tens of thousands of demonstrators surrounded the Legislative Council Complex, preventing formal debate on the bill.
By Saturday, amid mounting pressure from former Hong Kong officials and 200 members of Hong Kong’s Election Committee (the group that anoints the Special Administrative Region’s executive), Lam had no choice, but to suspend her controversial legislation for the time being. She held a news conference to deliver carefully-prepared remarks. “The decision I made is not about pacifying people or, as some have said, restoring my damaged reputation,” Lam told reporters. “This is time to restore as quickly as possible calmness in society.”
In her statement, Lam apologized for being inarticulate, and perhaps a bit insensitive, in explaining her China-extradition law, but she gave no indication that it would ultimately be withdrawn. By giving her statement, Lam hoped that civil protests would die down and that Hong Kong would shortly return to business as usual.
However, that has not been the case. Instead, the number of protesters doubled to 2 million on Sunday.
In a tremendous display of civil disobedience, the people of Hong Kong remained peaceful as they marched through the streets, spoke out, and held signs. Some even sang songs to express their heartfelt desire to maintain their freedoms. The world’s media are capturing striking footage of the demonstrations by the hour, while people on the streets are snapping pictures and videos with their smartphones.
News of the events in Hong Kong has become pervasive, enough to seep through the reality-distortion field that China’s state-controlled media have worked assiduously to create.
It would seem that Lam is about to be overrun. The people of Hong Kong are showing that they have awakened, and they are determined not to allow encroachment upon their rights. In the mainland, people are being shown just how powerful they too might become if they worked together and practiced similar methods of peaceful protest.
Meanwhile, behind the walls of Zhongnanhai, the Party’s Standing Committee can only look on in silence.