Whither Hong Kong’s Summer of Discontent?
What may be needed now is a period of healing and for all to seek a consensus. (Photo: Reuters)
By Tai Wei Lim

Whither Hong Kong’s Summer of Discontent?

Sep. 12, 2019  |     |  0 comments

On September 4, 2019, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced that she will officially withdraw the extradition bill which caused much anguish and anxiety in Hong Kong. A day later, Lam said that she made the decision on her own with the support and understanding of the Beijing authorities.


Lam was grilled by the media with a host of questions. The questions included why it took her so long to reach this decision. Lam replied that she arrived at the decision after consulting with a cross section of Hong Kong society. Speaking about their own opinions, some former political elites reminded Lam of her commitment to the Hong Kong people while carrying out the policies of the central government. Responding to the mass media, Lam argued that the decision was consistent with her past announcement of stopping the extradition bill, regardless of whether the words “dead” or “withdrawn” was used. Lam said that she had to serve two masters — the Hong Kong people as well as the central government. 


Lam’s reiteration of her government’s decision came on the heels of a recent “leakage” — a footage of her talking to some groups of people in Hong Kong. The footage obtained by Reuters revealed that she would have withdrawn the extradition bill if she could and she would quit if she could. At one point, Lam appeared to be choking with emotions. Lam later clarified that it was her decision to not resign and to withhold withdrawing the bill. The leaked footage made international news and was widely analyzed by international commentators and analysts with regards to the contents, the timing of its leakage and the Lam’s rebuttal/responses to the contents of the leakage.


Perhaps it was because of this footage that Lam continuously emphasized that the decision to withdraw the bill was also her own government’s decision. She urged commentators, mass media and analysts not to speculate and read too much into the origins of her decision. Whatever the explanation, it was clear that the decision to withdraw the extradition bill had the support of Beijing. Beijing later reiterated, through its state-owned media, that it was understanding and supportive of Lam’s decision. 


Lam had previously announced that the extradition bill was “dead”. This did not satisfy the protestors in the past as “dead” was not legal language and the extradition bill technically remained in abeyance on the legislative agenda till mid-2020. Thus, the protestors demanded that Lam use the phrase “withdraw” instead. In the September proclamation, Lam finally used this phrase of “withdraw”. She also announced the setting up of committees to reach out to different sections of Hong Kong society to seek consensus and to discuss the healing process in the aftermath of the “summer of discontent”.


Beijing’s state media reiterated that this is a genuine olive branch on the part of Lam and said that the protestors no longer have excuses to carry on with the protests. Beijing on its part is keen to concentrate its energies on the Sino-US trade war and the upcoming trade talks between the two superpowers. Beijing is also concerning itself with the upcoming anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China in October. Given an opportunity, most political elites in China would prefer to have the anniversary celebrations run smoothly and with little controversies. Beijing has been very consistent in supporting the actions and decisions of Lam. The leakage appears to confirm that the central government wants her to stay on and not resign at the critical moment.

As Hong Kong’s summer of discontent comes to an end and as early fall begins, the society is in deep need of cooling political temperatures, reconciliation, consensus building and healing.

However, the protestors did not accept Lam’s withdrawal of the bill as they argued it came too little, too late. They argued that almost 1,000 protestors had been incarcerated since the protests started. They also cited the seven suicides associated with protest events. They were indignant about police actions in the subway stations against protestors. Thus, the protestors were keen to sustain the protests. Their five demands for Lam included the release of all protestors, an independent investigation into police brutality, and the lifting of the label of “riots” to describe the protests. Some wanted the resignation of Lam and/or installation of a fair election for a new Chief Executive. The five conditions were paraded through the streets and on social media. This may complicate the situation further, especially when Lam wants to seek consensus and Beijing is keen on having the Hong Kong government extend an olive branch.


What may be needed now is a period of healing in Hong Kong society and for all stakeholders to seek a broad consensus. It will be challenging for Lam as there is a high level of distrust between the protestors and the government. In Hong Kong’s “summer of discontent”, there is a record number of tear gas canisters being fired, black shirts and white shirts actions, subway clashes, incidents like the blinding of a female protestor’s eye and the injured finger of a police. Both sides suffered casualties and indignation. Both sides were also fatigued by an entire summer of clashes. Most of the protests were peaceful, but some were running battles and cat and mouse games between the two sides.


From the protests, there are several visible groups in Hong Kong society. There are the black shirts who advocate a stronger position against the Hong Kong government in order to strive for their ideological version of Hong Kong. The white shirts in Yuen Long appears to be pro-police in orientation. Some elderly Hong Kongers appear to show disapproval of youngsters’ actions while other adults encourage their children to participate in the protests. The arrests made have ranged from youngsters and individuals as young as 12 (apparently and allegedly carrying explosives) to the elderlies. There are also supporters of the Hong Kong government and Beijing government who sailed through Victoria Harbor in fishing trawlers as a show of strength for the two governments.


As the new school term started in September, students were organizing class embargoes. Many school authorities did not prevent the class embargoes from taking place, although the school authorities warned participants that such actions may affect their grades and results. Some students felt that there was little use in studying when they had a bleak view of the future. Protestors had also engaged in peaceful civic actions like forming human chains throughout Hong Kong. All these actions drew international attention to their causes.


As Hong Kong’s summer of discontent comes to an end and as early fall begins, the society is in deep need of cooling political temperatures, reconciliation, consensus building and healing. Fall’s cooling temperature may bring about cooler heads or it may prolong tensions. Hong Kong society may need to find some kind of consensus to work on.



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