Conflict Alerts # 98, 27 May 2020
In the news
On 22 May, at the National People's Congress, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi announced a security law "intended to prevent, stop and punish acts in Hong Kong that threaten national security, and encompass secessionist and subversive activity as well as foreign interference and terrorism." To this, the student activist Joshua Wong stated that he would continue lobbying to gain support from the other countries and said, "When Beijing announced the law, it was time to fight back." Prominent Democrat legislator Claudia Mo said the current political climate has driven opposition saying, "we have reached a point of no return in not trusting the government."
By 24 May, the call for 'Hong Kong independence' as 'the only way out' echoed through the streets filled with protesters at the Causeway Bay shopping area. The riot police were seen firing tear gas and water cannons at the crowd whose protests were planned between Causeway Bay and Wan Chai neighbourhoods, leading to more than seven hours of scattershot confrontations. The police have revealed that they have arrested at least 180 people for unlawful assembly and four officers were injured. Major protests are expected from 27 May, when the bill will be tabled for second hearing at the legislative council.
Issues at large
This is the first major demonstration in Hong Kong after mainland China announced its plans to tighten controls over the territory with new security legislation and two issues can be seen:
First, the protests in Hong Kong have sustained strongly in the past 12 months in the absence of government action, with "five demands, not one less," as their goal. These months' long protests helped elect pro-democracy candidates in the legislative elections. The leadership in Hong Kong or from mainland China did not take strong measures to put a stop to the protests. Though the extradition bill was shelved, only a handful of efforts were made by the Hong Kong administration to engage in negotiations with the protesters. The year-long protests have made a very strong impact on the status, economy, and security of Hong Kong and has drawn a lot of attention.
Second, the introduction of the Security Bill have created an opportune space for the revival of protest. Carrie Lam in her statement on 26 May said that Beijing's proposed bill is not intended to trample the rights and freedoms and, "the best thing is to see the legislation in front of us and to understand why at this point in time Hong Kong needs this piece of legislation." The sense of urgency from China to table the bill in all likelihood seems that Beijing wants to ensure that the other regions do not follow the Hong Kong model. This is especially true for the case of Taiwan where the US is seen showing keen interest in its affairs.
First, while, the government is seen well prepared to take stronger measures this time, the crowds seem underprepared with the announcement of the anthem bill or the security bill. The focus of the protesters has moved towards the shopping centres because it is easy to gather despite restrictions on movement. Though the number of protesters is less and the public response seems weak, many of the supporters have stated that they prefer to express their discontent by boycotting businesses that are pro-Beijing.
Second, the leadership understands that it is difficult for the protesters to retain the aggressiveness that was seen in 2019 and might be using the instability in the world to their advantage. The international response, on the other hand, has been minimal. Trump stated that he would take strong measures against China if the bill is passed, and the UK, Canada, and Australia have issued a joint statement saying they are "deeply concerned" about the proposed legislation.
Harini Madhusudan is a PhD Scholar at the School of Conflict and Security Studies in the National Institute of Advanced Studies