HONG KONG Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s withdrawal of the controversial extradition bill was nothing more than a drop in the bucket in the face of the tidal wave of massive protests happening in its 13th consecutive week.
What once could have been the balm to soothe the anger of the Hong Kong people was nothing more than a passing report in the news. Lam’s refusal to listen to the position of the anti-extradition bill movement and the harsh treatment of police towards its own people have fueled the protests even further, elongating the list of demands from one to five.
Lam’s handling of this crisis in Hong Kong is a foreshadowing of what Hongkongers fear the most under complete integration with Beijing: unyielding and unhumanitarian rule. Even reports of a slowdown in tourism-related revenue (hotel bookings, retail, and others) do not seem to make a dent in the resolve of the protesters, many of whom press on day after day.
Instead of being worn out, it looks like the protest movement is finding new ways to express itself, from screaming messages of support (“Hongkongers, add oil!”) from the windows of their apartments at 10 in the evening to school children choosing to sing the song from Les Misérables “Do You Hear The People Sing?” over the national anthem. The song in question has become the unofficial anthem of what has been dubbed as the Summer of Discontent, heard from protests on the streets to sit-ins at the Hong Kong International Airport.
Beijing has been largely flummoxed about the situation in Hong Kong, unable to respond with its conventional tools of crushing dissent. The diplomatic rumor mill is awash with stories of growing discontent at President Xi Jinping’s handling of the Hong Kong problem, with many quietly expressing doubt whether the situation can be resolved at all in China’s favor.
China cannot afford a repeat of the June Fourth incident in 1989, more popularly known as the Tiananmen Square incident. More than 10,000 people then were said to have been arrested during and after the protests, while the death toll remains a mystery as the Chinese government never released an official count.
While replicating their response to Tiananmen Square is within the universe of possibilities, China knows that it cannot do so without severe consequences from the international community. China cannot cement its superpower status in the global community with a massacre in Hong Kong. There are too many eyes, too many ears, and too many mouths that won’t be shut in the event of a violent massacre of Hong Kong citizens.
But the longer the protests go on, the more China loses face with its own citizens in the mainland. The hawks within its ranks are constantly squawking that the failure to definitively resolve the Hong Kong situation shows weakness on the part of the Chinese government, a weakness than may be exploited by the “enemies” of China. So as each day passes, there is likely a more aggressive push and pull between those advocating a swift and final solution to the protests and those who would like a more tempered approach.
Either way, in its own absolutist perception, China loses.
It seems like the people of Hong Kong will continue to give Xi Jinping more sleepless nights in the weeks to come.