LONDON: This year was a torrid time for the city of Hong Kong and one where the year’s end brought only a little respite.
The complacent image of Hong Kong being a place of political passivity – conveyed throughout the period under British colonial rule up until 1997 – had been dispelled by major protests in 2003 and then the Occupy Central movement in 2014.
Yet, the events of 2019 offered something of an order of magnitude distinctly different from anything that occurred before.
It was as though a whole generation had become wedded to protest at whatever the cost and the administration, which was meant to supply security, had run out of ideas. Even the political overlords in Beijing sometimes seemed at a loss for what to do.
The question is whether the current situation can be sustained.
A DIVISIVE ISSUE
Hong Kong is an issue which outsiders often feel the need to take sides on. This is because the city is one that has gained the affection of many across the world. A unique and often quirky place of cultural hybridity, Hong Kong rightly badged itself as Asia’s global city.
The events since mid-2019 raised, for the first time, real questions about this image and many other aspects of the place and the key players in it.
All of this was ostensibly triggered by the attempt of Chief Executive Carrie Lam and her administration to bring into law an extradition treaty with China.
This was seen as a step too far for the hard-won integrity of the rule of law in the city. Almost immediately, protests erupted and grew in numbers until hundreds of thousands took to the streets over the summer.
While there had been large marches during 2014 when changes to the voting arrangements for chief executive had been discussed, the difference this year was the depth and extent of the pushback and the ways in which it deteriorated into violence.
While the vast majority of events were peaceful, there was plenty of evidence of brutality from the police, security forces and protesters. University campuses became infernos and the metro system was trashed and frequently evacuated. Those for and against the administration received beatings. Large numbers were detained, with many claiming ill treatment.
Hong Kong did not become just a physical battlefield. A war of words between the administration and opposing groups was waged throughout the year.
Lam herself was unable to address the Legislative Council in October and had to finish her remarks by video conference because of protests in the chamber. There were times when she almost disappeared.
Within society too, social media spread contesting images of local residents supporting and opposing what was happening. The city grew more divided by the day, while sinking into two successive quarters of negative economic growth rates.
Beijing’s response to this was largely behind the scenes.
In November, a meeting of the central leadership issued a dire statement after some months of silence. It demanded that order be restored vowed to fight those who were attempting to use the ongoing unrest to promote a pro-independence agenda.
Rumours of Beijing using proxy agents swirled throughout the year as mysterious, mafia-like figures sometimes emerged to beat up those wearing the garb of protestors – granted seeming impunity by the police.
Whatever the truth of these claims, it was clear that Beijing was aware that its many critics, particularly the United States, would use this as a further point of attack.
This was only confirmed when the US Congress in November passed an act committing to support freedom and democracy in the city. Dismissed as grandstanding by Beijing, it at least showed that the world was watching – and that China needed to be circumspect in what it does, if nothing else.
The protestors issued a set of five demands. One demand was that the administration drop the extradition treaty proposal, to which it acceded.
But there was little appetite by Lam and her colleagues and, by implication, their taskmasters in Beijing, to meet the protesters’ other requests.
The local elections held in late November resulted in what was widely seen as a big victory for pro-democracy parties and a slap in the face for pro-Beijing ones.
The high turnout rate meant the legitimacy of the results were hard to contest too. The citizens of the city had been given a chance at the ballot box to express their anger at someone, but it had not been the protestors they were most irritated by, going from the results.
WHAT’S NEXT FOR HONG KONG IN 2020
All of this means that 2020 is going to be a momentous year for Hong Kong.
The coalition of disparate groups that have worked together in the protest movement through 2019 has to decide what their next step is and how to capitalise on the November elections. They are, however, famously disunited and have no key spokesperson, despite the prominence of figures like Joshua Wong.
For Beijing too, management of Hong Kong will have global consequences as it tries to repair its relations with an increasingly fractious United States.
And for Lam, the vast question marks hanging over her head need, somehow, to be dispelled.
Everything for everyone is still up in the air. 2019 resolved nothing. It has just postponed things until 2020.
Kerry Brown is Professor of Chinese studies and Director of the Lau China Institute at King’s College London and Associate Fellow with the Asia Pacific Programme at Chatham House. This commentary first appeared on East Asia Forum.