There's Only One Way the Crisis Here in Hong Kong Can Be Resolved | Opinion

If you view political engagement as following a continuum—running from total passivity, to peaceful protest, to civil disobedience, to violent protest and ending in widespread social unrest (what Beijing calls "chaos")—then young people in Hong Kong first moved from peaceful marches to civil disobedience in September 2014. A sit-in, known as Occupy Central, by tens of thousands of young people held downtown Hong Kong captive for 79 days.

But rather than respond to that movement's request for greater democracy, the Hong Kong government and those making Hong Kong policy in Beijing tightened political control.

First, in 2016, the Hong Kong government retroactively ejected six newly elected pro-democracy candidates from the Legislature for taking the oath of office in a frivolous manner, costing the pro-democracy forces, known as the Pan-Democrats, the majority needed to block unpopular laws. Several "self-determination" advocates were then denied the right to run for office, and a pro-independence party was banned after discussing Hong Kong independence was ruled treasonous. Finally, people who had encouraged Occupy Central were convicted of various crimes, and several of them, including two university professors, went to jail for years.

These and other actions undermined many political freedoms guaranteed under Hong Kong's constitution and fanned the flames of unrest.

Then, this spring, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam—who had been elected by a pro-Beijing electoral committee of 1,200 members—poured gasoline on the fire.

Believing the Pan-Democrats lacked the votes to stop her, and seeking to ingratiate herself with President Xi Jinping, who would like to extradite many of the estimated 300 mainland white-collar criminals hiding in Hong Kong, she put forth a bill that would allow the extradition of criminal suspects to regions around the world with which Hong Kong has no extradition treaty. What worries Hong Kongers is that the law would lower the barrier between their legal system and the one on the mainland and potentially let dissidents be sent north for trial in China's politically controlled legal system. The Hong Kong courts could also freeze assets linked to alleged crimes on the mainland.

One million people, in a city of 7 million inhabitants, marched on June 9 to protest Lam's decision. Legal associations, foreign chambers of commerce and local business groups also spoke out against the bill. But Lam refused to budge.

So on June 12, the public's political engagement reached the next stage: Young people surrounded the Legislative Council building and tried to provoke the police to respond violently. And when some protesters eventually threw bricks and metal spears, the police were set loose. Using rubber bullets, tear gas, truncheons and bean bags, they drove the protesters away—losing the respect of the community in the process.

The violence on both sides, while shocking and uncharacteristic of Hong Kong, did persuade Lam to set the bill aside and apologize half-heartedly for not listening to the people. Still, her government accused some protesters of "rioting," a crime punishable by 10 years in jail, and rejected several of the public's demands: that the police be investigated for possible violence, that some government ministers be fired, that those arrested for protesting on June 12 be released and that the extradition bill be irrevocably withdrawn.

Even after 2 million people took to the streets on June 16—more than 25 percent of the city's entire population—Lam rejected further concessions.
Her actions sent the unfortunate message that she would respond to only one thing: violence.

On July 1, the 22nd anniversary of the return of Hong Kong to China, two protests formed—500,000 people held a peaceful march and, a quarter-mile away, about a thousand yellow-helmeted confrontationists broke into the Legislative Council building, as if that might ensure the bill's death.

But rather than demobilize Hong Kong's angry youth by responding to some of the protesters' demands or instituting the more "transparent government" that she has recently promised, Lam, who instigated this crisis in the first place, as well as local representatives of Beijing and pro-Beijing politicians in Hong Kong, effectively encouraged thugs to beat up the protesters in the district of Yuen Long. The police, too, refused to intervene while these gangs engaged in violent counter-mobilization.

Hong Kong protest
Thousands of protesters dressed in black, as reflected on the glass over a balcony, as they take part in a new rally against a controversial extradition law proposal in Hong Kong on June 16. HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty

While their use of violence may harm the city, young people see little future in Hong Kong's current political institutions and the economic opportunities offered to them. Few can benefit from the deeper integration with the nearby Pearl River Delta proffered by Beijing. And while 2047, when Beijing will no longer be legally bound to let Hong Kong maintain its own political and social system (what is known as the "one country, two system" principle) is still long off, the young people who vandalized the Legislative Council building on July 1—and continue to rage on a daily basis—will make their careers, raise their children and reach middle age in the subsequent 28 years. Understandably, they do not want to live in a more and more restrictive political environment.

In their view, if political violence leading to jail terms is necessary to hold back Beijing's further political encroachment, so be it. Only if both Beijing and the Hong Kong government understand the young people's determination, and stop the continuing march toward greater authoritarianism, can the current crisis in Hong Kong be resolved.

David Zweig is professor emeritus at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology and director of Transnational China Consulting Limited.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.