Hong Kong, long seen as a wealthy colony of China, suddenly asserted independence of mind over the past two weeks. Early protests against a proposed law that would have allowed for extradition to mainland China have spiraled into giant displays of civil disobedience — the last such protest saw an estimated two million people march, the largest in the city-state’s history. The protests went against the most powerful one-party system in the world and were expected to be quickly brushed aside, as had happened in earlier protests in Hong Kong. Instead, the Hong Kong authorities have had to withdraw the bill but have so far refused demands that Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, step down from her office.
The Hong Kong protests are already being touted as a loss of face for the Chinese leader, Xi Jinping. While the extradition law may not wholly have been Beijing’s doing, it did declare its support for Lam and the bill. The Chinese government has been whittling away at Hong Kong’s separate and more liberal political and social status for years. Critics of the communist regime have in the past been kidnapped from Hong Kong and reappeared as prisoners in China. The legislative council has become little more than a collection of pro-Beijing businessmen and bureaucrats. Hong Kong’s financial independence was maintained, however, because it remains the primary entrepot of external capital for the Chinese economy to this day. One fallout of the crisis is that the United States Congress is now expected to review whether it makes sense to let Hong Kong continue to enjoy that financial status, given the controlling influence of Beijing.
Unfortunately, the protests are unlikely to fundamentally change anything in Hong Kong or in China, whatever the fate of the extradition law. But they have served as a reminder to Beijing and the world, both of which were under the illusion that people of Chinese origin, if sufficiently prosperous and well governed, had little interest in their political rights. It is not without reason that Taiwan’s anti-Chinese political movement received a fillip from the developments in Hong Kong. Democracy remains a fugitive in greater China. But Hong Kong’s protests will serve as a reminder that Beijing should not assume that representative government or constitutional liberty are completely foreign to its people or its region. That recognition will inspire a small degree of doubt and fear in the Chinese leadership, especially at a time when Xi and his cohorts have closed the door on dissent and free expression on the mainland.