HONG KONG: She is mild-mannered and soft-spoken in person. So it would be difficult to guess that Bonnie Leung is the same lady behind the biggest protests Hong Kong has ever witnessed.
But when the government attempted to expand a bill to include extradition to China and Taiwan, the 32-year-old issued a rallying cry to the people to oppose what she believes would have “destroyed” the principle of “one country, two systems”.
“Anyone in Hong Kong, including human rights activists of course, and even a lot of businessmen … could be in danger of being extradited to China,” says the vice-convenor of the Civil Human Rights Front, which organised last month’s record-breaking protests.
“I don’t want to see Hong Kong become a place without rule of law, without freedom, without human rights … So we need to protect our home and make (it) a better place — make our home as it should be.”
What Hong Kong has become, however, is a city on edge.
Public concern that its residents would be exposed to China’s legal system, which the protestors believe is a flawed system, has not been eliminated by Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s two apologies, one in writing and the other televised.
Her declaration that the bill is “dead” has not placated protestors either. They have promised more rallies until their demands are met, which include her resignation and an official withdrawal of the bill.
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Although demonstrations are not unusual in Hong Kong, and there is a historical mistrust of Beijing that goes beyond the current issue, this is “the biggest political crisis since the handover” in 1997, says Legislative Council member Dennis Kwok.
So will the government cave in? What’s next for Mrs Lam and her leadership? And how can Hong Kong’s problems be resolved? The programme Insight looks at what is on the cards. (Watch the episode here.)
STAY OR GO?
When a million people took to the streets on June 9, the South China Morning Post called it “the most unified protest march in the city in more than a decade”.
A week later, two million protestors piled the pressure on Mrs Lam’s government. So for her to suspend but not withdraw the extradition bill “has got to do with face”, reckons Mr Kwok, the lawmaker representing the legal sector.
“She doesn’t want to appear to cave in to the demands of the Hong Kong people,” he says.
Expressing a different view is Mr Bernard Charnwut Chan, the convenor of the Non-Official Members of the Executive Council. He feels that because the bill is effectively dead, it is no different from being retracted.
“The one reason we aren’t calling it a retraction is that, I suppose, the bill itself has some merit … There are supporters of this bill,” he says.
The original idea, he argues, was not to harm the freedom residents enjoy, but rather to allow Hong Kong to handle — case by case — extradition requests from jurisdictions with no prior agreements with the city.
But some observers cite the reaction against the bill — including the storming, vandalism and ransacking of the Legislative Council complex — as an indication that 62-year-old Mrs Lam, a career civil servant before she assumed office in March 2017, should go.
“I don’t think, nowadays in Hong Kong, a lot of people can trust (her),” says Dr Kwok Ka-ki, the Legislative Council’s medical sector representative. “She was a very competent civil servant, but her judgement and her decision-making are terrible.
“We had three young people dying. They committed suicide because they were so … disappointed with what had happened in Hong Kong. And she didn’t say a word.”
Her approval rating has plummeted to the lowest yet for a Hong Kong chief executive, and Mr Kwok agrees that her administration is “effectively dead”. “She’s dealt a terrible blow to her credibility, to her ability to govern,” he says.
“This is purely her own misreading … of the Hong Kong people. And she has to pay the price.”
Others insist that she should fight on and stay the course. For example, former Legislative Council president Jasper Tsang thinks her administration had been doing well “for a couple of years”.
“She obviously concentrated her effort, and the efforts of the government, on tackling economic and livelihood problems … and everything seemed to be going smoothly,” he says. “I can’t see anyone else who can do the job better.”
Mr Chan is another who hopes that residents can “give her a chance again” following her apologies. “She still has a lot of plans in mind, especially … dealing with the daily lives of Hong Kong people,” he says.
“It’ll take time for her and her administration to prove to the people that she has the ability … But I have confidence that she can do it.”
However, whether she stays or goes — as the pro-establishment figures or pan-democrats see it — political observers agree that the ball is in Beijing’s court, not hers.
And the idea that her departure could “help improve the existing situation”, and that of the Hong Kong government, is “only a theoretical viewpoint” to government and public administration senior lecturer Ivan Choy at The Chinese University of Hong Kong.
“(Leung Chun-ying) was also very unpopular, but the central government let him finish his first term,” he cites. “(Tung Chee-hwa) provoked half a million people (to take) to the streets, but the central government also allowed him to stay.
“The most important point here is that Beijing would only allow you to resign when the Beijing authorities have found another suitable guy.”
FIGHTING FOR THE FUTURE
The reality of a fractured Hong Kong also goes beyond a loss of trust in Mrs Lam. Its pro-democracy activists see any attempt to speed up Hong Kong’s integration into China as an interference in their internal affairs.
This is fuelled by their fears about the erosion of the civil liberties that set this former British colony apart from the rest of China. In terms of economic importance, however, cities like Shanghai and Shenzhen have surpassed Hong Kong.
WATCH: The widening gap between Hong Kong and China (8:04)
So with Chinese cities that boast greater resources, a wealth of talent and powerful ambitions, Beijing does not rely on the special administrative region as much as it did. The importance that it places on international opinion has also diminished.
“Prior to, for example, the Olympics, I think China was a lot more careful about doing things that might sour its international reputation,” notes Mr Duncan Innes-Ker, regional director (Asia and Australasia) at The Economist Intelligence Unit.
“In more recent years, China’s been willing to kind of take the pushback from countries like the United States and the United Kingdom on Hong Kong because it feels stronger.”
With other Chinese cities growing at breakneck speed, Mr Chan is concerned that if Hongkongers “don’t start to pay attention and care about what’s happening to China, then we’d easily be made irrelevant”.
One disappointment for Beijing, however, is that the mindset of Hong Kong’s residents has not changed since the handover, despite the influx of mainland Chinese into the city.
“(The mainland Chinese) started to … adopt many of the political values that most Hong Kong people cherish,” says Professor Jean-Pierre Cabestan, who heads the Hong Kong Baptist University’s Department of Government and International Studies.
“Now, Beijing isn’t going to admit it’s been defeated. I think Beijing will continue to intensify its migration policy … and encourage more mainland Chinese people to come here in order again to integrate Hong Kong into China.”
It would also suit President Xi Jinping’s governing style “to do something” to change things, says Mr Choy. “He’s a strongman. He can’t be patient … any more.”
But the consolidation of Hong Kong’s culture, political identity and legal values — and the use of Cantonese, versus Mandarin — over the last 20 years tells Prof Cabestan that many people will “want to protect Hong Kong the way it is”.
“Some people are going to leave, but most young people are, I think, going to stay and try to fight,” he says. “That’s my prediction.”
Among those who feel that Hong Kong is still one of Asia’s gems, whose freedom, rule of law and “one country, two systems” are at its core, is Ms Leung, who is also a district councillor.
“We’ve shown to the world that we’re prepared to sacrifice a lot … to protect all these values,” she says.
(If) we can have one man, one vote for the chief executive and for the whole of the Legislative Council … and if we can build up this system, we can be a showcase for China.
Despite such idealism, Hong Kong’s fate may have already been decided, with the “one country, two systems” formulated by former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping coming to an end in 2047. So are the current acts of defiance a futile effort?
Mr Kwok thinks it is “too early to say that”. He says: “Our mini constitution, the Basic Law, doesn’t say that, by 2047, it will expire. So what will happen post-2047 is obviously a question that we need to address.”
For now, the activists have scored a victory by getting the extradition bill shelved. But as they rally week after week, it is also becoming clearer that Beijing holds the trump card and remains instrumental to Hong Kong’s future.
Prof Cabestan’s worry is that “revenge” will come “sooner or later”. Mr Chan is hoping for compromise.
“It’s going to be very challenging to explain to the rest of the country why Hong Kong can continue to retain these special privileges after 2047 … if we don’t offer them anything new,” the latter says.
Watch this episode of Insight here. New episodes every Thursday at 9pm.