SINGAPORE: The peaceful protest in Hong Kong that began on Sunday (Jun 30) has slid into anger and disobedience.
Amid the unfolding outrage apparent in the storming of the Legislative Council Building, however, is an emerging consciousness of self-determination, something not usually seen in Hong Kongers.
A CHANGED PEOPLE
Hong Kong’s geographical location and historic particularity as a city under British rule for so long have been key strengths that have transformed it into a hub for international finance, and since its return to China in 1997, a door for the mainland to engage with the world.
Hong Kongers have been known to be ruthlessly pragmatic people who prioritise stability, obedience to authority and indifference to each other’s business.
The long colonial period has left Hong Kongers to become followers, a people who have stringently observed the law and left public policies largely to be meticulously worked out and implemented by administrative bureaucrats.
On these accounts, Hong Kongers would be the last to launch a strike, let alone adopt violent measures to contest the city’s politics.
Then, why the protests?
BREWING CONCERNS ABOUT EXTRADITION TO CHINA
Two reasons stand out. First, many ordinary Hong Kongers feel concerned about the risk, no matter how small, that a Hong Kong resident could be transferred to China to stand trial.
In other words, Hong Kongers are more concerned about the chance of facing trial in China themselves and the unknown corresponding consequences, such that they discount the fact that only criminals of serious offences would do so.
For them, the risk of any unfair trial or inhuman treatment outweighs the need to have justice served in the country in question or redress suffering of the victim’s family.
GROWING POLITICAL CONSCIOUSNESS
Second, the protests reflect a certain growing sentiment among Hong Kong youths. After all, it was Hong Kong youths who adopted the shocking measures in the LegCo building storming this week.
No doubt what is lurking behind this sea of anger and dissatisfaction is an emerging political consciousness and a desire for greater civil participation in shaping Hong Kong politics.
Younger Hong Kongers have expressed positive reception to the Umbrella Movement, according to a poll conducted by the Chinese University of Hong Kong in March to April 2019.
There is a budding consciousness of a desired common future and the sense that this can only be shaped if the city’s people get involved in politics. For these young Hong Kongers, this desire for political involvement is slowly becoming part of their identity.
READ: Behind Hong Kong’s extradition bill protests – a looming divide, growing pessimism about the future, a commentary
But how far can this seemingly unstoppable push for autonomy go before it brushes up the reality that Hong Kong has been returned to China and will see greater Chinese control of all aspects of Hong Kong affairs eventually?
This risk is that this belated awakening to politics is crystalising into a certain understanding of what it means to be a Hong Konger that is vastly different from what it means to be Chinese.
On one hand, Hong Kong has enjoyed decades of rule with a free media, the rule of law and free civil liberties that have spawned a brimming civil society.
Yet, there is no guarantee that this vibrancy can evolve and drive political maturity over what the realities of Hong Kong’s return to China entail.
A mature society might see a plurality of participation in politics, which can both benefit and challenge the ground-up model Hong Kongers are used to.
A mature Hong Kong society will understand that painful compromises and a skillful mediation of interests are needed to negotiate political outcomes going forward.
GROWING POLITICAL MATURITY
Still, the events also suggest a growing political maturity. While the building was defaced and vandalised, the reality is that the protests did not result in mass open clashes with the police. It could have escalated but did not.
The break-in of the LegCouncil building ended relatively peacefully, when protesters withdrew from the scene after lengthy deliberations and internal confrontations among protesters themselves.
The earlier confrontational clash with Hong Kong police in mid-June, which authorities have called a riot, may have had the effect of restraining more moderate protesters.
A GROWING POLARISATION
But there’s no denying that a growing polarisation has begun, since the restrictions placed by Beijing on how Hong Kong’s chief executive will be chosen and the reactionary Umbrella Movement began.
The mid-June protests against the extradition bill and the accompanying use of force by the police have triggered a larger part of the younger generation of Hong Kongers to get involved in politics and aggravated government-society relations.
Still, the Jul 1 storming of LegCo has been a turning point. The images of protesters rushing into the building and smashing windows suggest a brewing desperation on the part of some Hong Kong youths who see their autonomy and agency shrinking.
They have sought to take matters into their hands and claim what they see is rightfully theirs.
For them what is at stake is political autonomy, fairness and what it means to be Hong Konger as the window for such expression shrinks over the next 28 years.
The concern is how far this segment might go in order to realise their goals and protect their interests.
Katherine Hui-Yi Tseng is a research associate at the East Asian Institute.