Forbes India 15th Anniversary Special

Why the Hong Kong protests may have no end in sight

Unrest in Hong Kong could fester for months or even years, and further hurt the city's economy, create a constant headache for Beijing and aggravate an already sore point between the United States and China

By Keith Bradsher
Published: Oct 19, 2019

Why the Hong Kong protests may have no end in sightHong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, speaks at a news conference after her annual policy address was delivered by video on Wednesday, Oct. 16, 2019, in Hong Kong. Resolving the increasingly violent protests in Hong Kong will most likely fall to an influential group of Beijing’s local allies. (Lam Yik Fei/The New York Times)

HONG KONG — Resolving the increasingly violent protests in Hong Kong will most likely fall to an influential group of Beijing’s local allies.

The trouble: They don’t agree on much.

The fissures raise the likelihood that unrest in Hong Kong could fester for months or even years. That could further hurt the city’s economy, create a constant headache for Beijing and aggravate an already sore point between the United States and China.

Some of Beijing’s local allies are populists who want to break up local monopolies, seize private land and build public housing. Some are tycoons who are happy to support the local government and Beijing as long as no one touches their businesses.

The differences within the pro-Beijing camp are even deeper on the protesters’ biggest demand, for greater democracy.

A moderate camp led by the city’s embattled chief executive, Carrie Lam, would like to see gradual progress toward freer elections, at least within Beijing’s predefined limits. The city’s hard-liners loathe the idea, and are deeply frustrated by what they perceive as Lam’s desire to negotiate with democracy advocates and her wariness of ordering a harsher police crackdown.

The divisions were visible Wednesday when Lam gave her annual policy address, Hong Kong’s equivalent of an American State of the Union speech. After months of internal meetings, she delivered a fairly narrow set of initiatives on issues like housing and did not even try to address broad political tensions.

Lam said at a news conference afterward that avoiding the question of democracy in her annual address was “not a responsible act.” But she said she couldn’t tackle the subject, criticizing opposition lawmakers for having blocked the last election proposal from Beijing in 2014.

For the pro-Beijing camp, the disagreements add to the growing weakness among the various political parties. The pro-Beijing coalition has slumped to record-low support in independent opinion surveys in recent weeks, and such parties face the potential for heavy losses in neighborhood district elections in November and again in legislative elections next September.

Politicians in the pro-Beijing coalition in Hong Kong are “like birds in a forest — when things are good, they stay together, but when things are bad, they fly in all directions,” said Jasper Tsang Yok-sing, the main founder of the biggest pro-Beijing political party in Hong Kong, who was the president of the legislature until 2016.

“Our biggest worry now is Nov. 24; we are thinking how we can minimize our loss,” he added.

Lam has tried repeatedly, if ineffectively, to reach what she sees as compromises with the pro-democracy opposition, most notably by first suspending and then agreeing to withdraw the extradition bill that sparked the protests. She has tried to set up public and private dialogues with her opponents, only to have an unflattering audio recording leak from one event and democracy advocates picket at another.

To the pro-democracy side, she is a figurehead for a government increasingly beholden to Beijing. She had to release her policy address Wednesday as a video after pro-democracy lawmakers shouted her down in the legislative chamber.

Any effort by Lam to begin a dialogue with democracy activists, though, has just intensified criticism among Beijing’s most outspoken allies.

“The Carrie Lam government is still trying to curry favor with the opposition, thinking that she has the support of the pro-Beijing people,” said Lau Siu-kai, who was a top Hong Kong official until 2012 and is now one of Beijing’s top advisers on Hong Kong policy. Beijing sees the opposition “as hard-line opponents and as a die-hard, anti-Communist element willing to collude with foreign forces, above all the United States.”

About all that Beijing’s allies agree on these days is their strong support for the Hong Kong police.

“The government ought to have gotten tougher, taking firmer action sooner,” said Regina Ip, a member of Lam’s cabinet and a lawmaker who leads a pro-Beijing political party that supports strict adherence to law and order.

Yet such an approach could trigger further protests. Demonstrators have already complained of police brutality, calling for an amnesty for those accused of rioting and for the creation of a commission of inquiry into the actions of the police force.

The chance of compromise on the issue of democracy seems remote — from all sides.

Moderates in the pro-Beijing camp want to revive a plan offered by the Chinese government to protesters in 2014 and rejected as inadequate. Lam reminisced about the plan Wednesday. But hard-liners say that recent turbulence in the streets of Hong Kong shows that further steps toward democracy are too risky, and oppose making the plan available again.

The proposal would have allowed all Hong Kong adults to vote. But the names on the ballot would have been selected by a 1,200-member committee. The same committee currently chooses chief executives without putting them to a general vote of the population.

The members of the committee are selected mainly by sectors of the Hong Kong public that have traditionally aligned with Beijing. These include neighborhood district councilors, accountants and real estate lawyers.

The paradox of Hong Kong politics today is that the committee might not be so reliably under Beijing’s control. Cornerstones of mainland influence in Hong Kong are eroding.

Many solicitors — lawyers who mainly handle real estate transactions — and accountants have unexpectedly emerged as critics of the Hong Kong government and Beijing over the extradition issue. The largest bloc of committee members is chosen by Hong Kong’s district councils, which makes pro-Beijing parties even more nervous about losing council seats in next month’s elections.

Democracy activists have been cautious about their chances of gaining seats in the coming elections, since the city government has the legal power to disqualify candidates who have advocated independence.

There have also been worries about violent attacks on candidates and voters, and possibly even the postponement of the elections. Jimmy Sham, the leader of the main pro-democracy protest group, the Civil Human Rights Front, was hospitalized on Wednesday after men beat him with hammers.

Regardless of the outcome of the elections, democracy advocates say they cannot endorse the democracy plan now, having rejected it in 2014. “No one ever dares to say ‘think about it’ or ‘accept it’ — anyone who does so will be severely attacked,” said Joseph Cheng, who led a broad coalition of pro-democracy groups in 2014. “We come to a consensus, we stick to that position and we cannot shift.”

The main wild card in all of this is Beijing. The pro-Beijing parties have a history of quashing disagreements and coming together when the Chinese government issues instructions.

Some pro-Beijing politicians in Hong Kong argued bitterly in 2005 that the next chief executive should not be Donald Tsang, a longtime civil servant who had been knighted by Prince Charles for his service to Britain. But when Beijing ordered support for Tsang, he was quickly endorsed even by vehement critics like Ma Lik, the chairman then of the biggest pro-Beijing party.

“He won the trust of Beijing, and we support whoever Beijing trusts,” Ma said in a telephone interview at the time. “That’s why we are called pro-Beijing.”

©2019 New York Times News Service