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What’s Next for Hong Kong Protests? Geopolitics Will Drive China’s Response

This summer marks one full year of continuous protests in Hong Kong against encroachment by mainland China. Although the territory is no stranger to popular protests, the latest movement in response to proposed amendments to Hong Kong-China extradition policies has weathered police brutality and a global pandemic, speaking to the fortitude and dedication of today’s protesters. The 2019-20 protests are an outgrowth of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, with effectively identical demands. However, recent geopolitical shifts have increased the stakes for mainland China, making them vulnerable to reputational risk from ongoing protests as well as condemnation from the international community. While Beijing will prioritize indirect means of controlling Hong Kong, military force may be on the horizon if China finds appropriate justification.

Hong Kong Anti-Extradition Bill Protest. Image by Studio Incendo © July 2019

The current protests began in June 2019 when China proposed amending their extradition policies with Hong Kong. Such changes would have allowed Beijing to prosecute Hong Kong citizens for acts that were illegal under Chinese law, even if they were allowable in the territory. The proposed bill was met with widespread opposition in Hong Kong where protest leaders issued five key demands. Although the first demand, the withdrawal of the extradition bill has been met, protesters continue to fight for the remaining demands, including complete universal suffrage. Even amid the Covid-19 pandemic, demonstrations have occurred at least once a week since their onset last summer.

The 2014 Umbrella Movement, named after  the protesters’ use of rain gear to shield themselves from tear gas, was fundamentally a democratization movement. The core contention was Hong Kong’s lack of autonomy in selecting the territory’s chief executive, since any candidate appearing on the popular ballot must first be nominated by a committee dominated by Beijing interest groups. Today’s protesters fight for the same cause as did earlier movements in Hong Kong: True universal suffrage and autonomy from China until the 2047 deadline prescribed by the handover agreement.

In contrast to Hong Kong’s ideological continuity, Beijing’s interests have shifted since 2014. Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping, mainland China has become increasingly involved in global affairs. Through economic dominance, de facto control of the South China Sea, and soft power projection through the Belt and Road Initiative, China today is widely considered a world power, a classification that was not yet mainstream in 2014. By rejecting the power of the Central Government in China’s own backyard, Hong Kong protesters present a liability for China’s legitimacy as a regional and global power. Furthermore, Beijing will consider the Hong Kong issue with an eye towards Taiwan, wary of setting a precedent for tolerating separatism. 

Especially given the international attention the Hong Kong protests have garnered, Xi is wary of deploying military forces to the territory for fear of the geopolitical consequences that would accompany such action. In 2014, China opted not to intervene, instead allowing the Umbrella Movement to fizzle out independently as people left the streets to return to work and school. Although regular demonstrations have continued throughout 2019 and 2020, the size of protest crowds has dwindled, signaling that the mainline movement may already be dying out without direct Chinese action.

Barring minor infractions such as property damage or defying bans on face masks, protesters in Hong Kong have generally adhered to the law, relying on a peaceful movement to enact change in the territory. If this status quo continues, Beijing is unlikely to intervene militarily in the short- to medium-term. Instead, Xi will continue to rely on indirect means of controlling the movement, as through the national security law passed in China in May requiring Hong Kong authorities to enforce policy decisions made by the National People’s Congress.

It is important to consider, however, that the Hong Kong protests are one of many threats to Xi’s efforts to create a unified Chinese identity. Other populations that departed from Xi’s unifying agenda, including Tibetan monks and Uighur Muslims, were met with force. Should the Hong Kong movement shift outside the legal sphere of protest activity – attempting to depose the territory’s Chief Executive, use of militia tactics, or employing light weapons against security forces — Xi would have credible justification to act on his “red line” claiming that China is simply responding to threats against its sovereignty and security. This is the uneasy calculus the international community faces: To allow China’s steamrolling of human rights in the Asia-Pacific region, or to prepare a military check on the world’s second superpower?

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Kathryn Urban

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