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'People power victory' in Hong Kong looks more like a tactical retreat

Protesters occupy a street demanding Hong Kong leader to step down after a rally against the now-suspended extradition bill
Protesters occupy a street demanding Hong Kong leader to step down after a rally against the now-suspended extradition bill Credit: Anthony Kwan/Getty Images AsiaPac

Carrie Lam’s apology over the extradition bill would appear to be a victory of democracy and “people power”. People 1: Beijing 0. 

However, it’s worth looking a bit further into why the Hong Kong government apparently backed down in order to understand the wider implications of China’s impact on the city, and by extension the West’s relationship with Hong Kong and China.

There are a number of possible reasons for Lam’s climbdown, which broadly fall into three categories: the democratic victory, external pressure and tactical retreat. In the first instance, it does seem that the government of Hong Kong was completely unprepared for the huge outpouring of dissent. 

While it’s difficult to confirm that one million people did protest on June 9, as the organisers claim, the scenes of people marching to the Legislative Council are impressive and the shift to violence revealed a weak hand on the part of the Hong Kong government.

Furthermore, arguing the case for the rule of law with Beijing has become increasingly tenuous. One need only think of the booksellers – Gui Minhai, Lui Bo and Lam Wing-kee – all kidnapped or taken by Chinese forces in acts of extraordinary rendition.

 The second reason, that of external pressure, also bears scrutiny – and if true, should have an impact on UK thinking and policy in future. The US move to reintroduce the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act in the wake of the protests was notable, as it threatens to remove Hong Kong’s special treatment afforded by the US Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, putting it squarely in front of the Trump administration’s US-China trade war.

Combined with statements made by the UK, Germany and the EU, this indicated that the tide of international public opinion was firmly with the protesters. And there are those like Grant Newsham, a former US government official with a long stint in Asia, who claim that the backdown is in fact a strategic retreat.

He notes: “Chances are they will wait and then punish who they believe are the ringleaders, just as they did with the ‘umbrella movement’ in 2014; jail time for ridiculous reasons; constant and pervasive harassment.”

As the controversy dies down, we will discover exactly which of the three of these played the largest part. For the UK, knowing which was the most important – particularly if it was the second factor – should play a driving force in future policy.  

John Hemmings is director of the Asia Studies Centre and deputy director of Research at the Henry Jackson Society and an adjunct fellow at the Centre for Strategic and International Studies