Offering her first concession since protests began three months ago, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam on Wednesday said she would scrap the hated extradition bill that had initially galvanized the protest movement when the HK government tried to fast-track it this spring.
If passed, the bill would have allowed the Chinese government to demand the extradition of people from Hong Kong with near-impunity, effectively exposing Hong Kongers to Communist Party-controlled courts.
However, many activists are now saying that this gesture is too little, too late – and that the movement has evolved from its opposition to the extradition bill to supporting broader pro-democracy themes.
Before Lam had even finished her speech, pro-democracy activists were already complaining that her concession was too little, too late. And the endorsement of Global Times editor Hu XiJin didn’t do much to help that perception, since he has functioned like the voice of Beijing since the demonstrations began.
Support the Hong Kong SAR government to withdraw the extradition bill. I hope this will be a new starting point. I also call on Western media and politicians to support a turnaround in the situation of Hong Kong. https://t.co/lM3m8VLikg
— Hu Xijin 胡锡进 (@HuXijin_GT) September 4, 2019
After a long summer of protest, nobody wants to be seen kowtowing to Beijing. Especially after all of the arrests, violence and blood that has been spilled in the streets of the special autonomous region.
“Hong Kong people will not be satisfied, which is absolutely reasonable after three months of blood, sweat and tears,” said Alvin Yeung, an opposition lawmaker.
Of course, it will take a few weeks before we can gauge whether Lam and her backers in Beijing successfully appeased the protest movement. While the market rallied the most in ten months on the news, signifying extreme optimism, analysts worried that the gains would be short-lived.
“It’s positive but may only provide a temporary solution,” said Stephen Innes, Asia Pacific Market Strategist at AxiTrader. “I can’t see Hong Kongers going merrily along. I think the divide runs deeper.”
More critically, if Hong Kongers sense that the protests are working, it could inspire more people to take to the streets to participate in another massive, peaceful march.
That would be one way of letting Beijing know that Communist Party leaders will need to meet more of the movement’s demands if the Party wants to peacefully celebrate 70 years of Communist Party rule next month.
While addressing the protesters other demands on Wednesday, Lam mostly downplayed their significance. She said she typically tried to avoid using words like ‘riot’ to describe the protests. She also insisted that she couldn’t grant amnesty to protesters arrested during the demonstrations. And although she pledged to launch a review of the government’s handling of the protests, her promises fell short of the ‘independent commission’ to examine abusive police conduct that protesters have demanded.
“Our response to the five demands have been made with full consideration to different constraints and circumstances,” she said. “I recognize these may not be able to address all the grievances of people in society.”
Protesters weren’t pleased. Soon after it ended, users of online forum LIHKG, a popular sounding board and organizing platform for demonstrators, slammed Lam’s address. Joshua Wong, the student protest leader who was recently arrested over his participation in the rallies, warned that a crackdown was coming: “Whenever there are signs of sending a palm branch, they always come with a far tighter grip on exercising civil rights.”
More than 1,000 protesters have been arrested so far as they hold running battles with police. The most recent clashes last weekend saw protesters set a massive roadblock on fire in central Hong Kong and hurl around 100 Molotov cocktails at police, who responded with pepper spray and water cannons.
And since Lam’s biggest concession so far comes after a day of radical violence, it reinforces the notion that more extreme actions by the protesters will yield more concrete results.
Protesters’ most difficult demand – universal suffrage – can only be granted by Beijing.
But many recognized that this was a big ask – and that Beijing never would allow itself to look like it was caving to the protesters.
“Genuine democracy in Hong Kong is not on the agenda, and will not be on the agenda,” said Steve Tsang, director the China Institute at London’s School of Oriental and African Studies and the author of several books on Hong Kong. “They are not just going to get softer and softer and softer. Xi Jinping cannot afford to allow the Hong Kong protesters to win against the Communist Party.”
In summary: The protesters aren’t simply going to put down their Molotov cocktails. It’s not over yet.