Press release
4 min read

Turbulent times in Hong Kong

"The CCP’s top priority is to secure its claim to power at almost any price"

Almost exactly 22 years ago, on 1 July 1997, the British crown colony of Hong Kong reverted to the sovereignty of China. Since then, the People's Republic of China has governed Hong Kong according to the principle "one country, two systems".  In recent weeks, more people have taken to the streets of Hong Kong than ever since their city’s return to China. Up to two million people protested against planned changes to Hong Kong’s extradition law. In mid-June, Hong Kong's head of government, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, bowed to pressure and shelved the bill for the time being. A short while later, she apologized for the use of force against demonstrators. But she has, so far, ruled out resigning. 

Dr. Kristin Shi-Kupfer, head of MERICS’ Politics, Society and Media Research Department, answers questions.  

Do you expect more big demonstrations on the 1 July handover anniversary?  

The people of Hong Kong will use the anniversary of the handover to the People's Republic to send Beijing another clear signal of their dissatisfaction and determination to resist. In my view, the only thing that could stop them would be Hong Kong’s government declaring a state of emergency if the situation escalated. 

What in your view would have to happen in order to avert further protests?  

The Hong Kong government – so, more properly, the People's Republic that is holding the reins – should respond substantively to the demands of the protesters. It should, for example, completely abandon the extradition bill, withdraw the legally onerous designation of the protests as “riots”, and release protesters under arrest. The alternative scenario would be similar to one we saw in 2014, when the authorities tried to identify leaders, infiltrate the movement, and provoke violence that then justified a tough response. The fact that Beijing is calling the protests a "foreign conspiracy" is dangerous and telling. The Chinese leadership wants to discredit the protests vis-à-vis the Chinese audience and abroad in order to be able to proceed more harshly.   

China’s Communist leadership wants to avoid giving in to protestors’ demands as much as possible. That is why it is not very likely to agree to the resignation of Hong Kong’s head of government, Carrie Lam. Lam herself is in a very difficult position. She is seen as Beijing’s puppet and can hardly do anything to change that. Perhaps a policy targeting more social housing and a better social security system would reduce some protestors’ frustration about social inequality. But to do that, Lam would have to encroach on the interests of the big investors and Hong Kong’s rich residents, two groups that have close links to the People's Republic.   

What do the protests mean for Xi Jinping and the Chinese leadership around him? 

The protests are an embarrassment for China’s leaders. Neither the Hong Kong nor the Beijing government seem to have expected such huge demonstrations. Now that they are happening, they are a challenge to the Communist Party's claim to power. The idea behind the formula "one country, two systems" has always been that the systems should converge - even though a more liberal People's Republic seemed more conceivable when the handover was agreed in 1984. Since the current party and state leader Xi Jinping came to power, the Chinese Communist Party (CPC) has steadily extended its influence over politics, media, and science in Hong Kong. For Xi, Hong Kong is a second front in times of conflict with the USA. He’s under pressure internationally and from the domestic political elite to deliver a good and timely solution. Xi has made enemies with his anti-corruption campaign and his increasing centralization of power. They cannot wait for him to make a mistake.  

How important is Hong Kong for China today?  

From an economic point of view, the city is still an important financial center. Among other things, it serves as a hub for foreign capital flows, gives domestic companies the chance to list on the local stock exchange, and provides an important offshore market for the Renminbi. But Hong Kong’s political significance has become even more important. The Special Administrative Zone is a thorn in the People's Republic side. In the name of autonomy, Beijing has had to grit its teeth and put up with critical publications and protests. If Beijing wants to avoid a further alienation of Taiwan – with which the People’s Republic wants to unite in the long term – and strong reactions from the international community, China’s leadership can’t exert its political influence too obviously. Ultimately, however, its top priority is to secure its own claim to power at almost any price.   

How should foreign governments respond to developments in Hong Kong? 

Foreign governments, especially the UK, should remind China of its binding promise under international law to maintain “one country, two systems". The draft extradition law must be seen as a clear threat to economic and political autonomy and must be dealt with in that light. 

Do you expect further Hong Kong's autonomy to erode further in the coming years?  

Yes, absolutely. After the Chinese government's failure to push through legislation to formalize its influence, I firmly expect Beijing to tighten its informal political grip. If China’s leadership around Xi wants to send domestic and international observers a clear signal of its claim to power, it will have to further increase its influence over Hong Kong. Beijing wants to avoid the reputational damage of images showing the violent suppression of a protest movement. But if pushed, the Chinese leadership would be prepared to put up with them.  

(Mario Büscher asked the questions) 

This interview or excerpts may be quoted with proper attribution. 

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