HONG KONG (Reuters Breakingviews) - For the second time in less than five years, tear gas is wafting through the streets of Hong Kong. Violence flared in the financial centre on Wednesday as police used gas and rubber bullets to disperse protesters opposing an extradition bill. Pro-democracy demonstrations in 2014 fizzled out. This movement will prove harder to defuse.
The latest outbreak of discontent was triggered by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam. Her proposal to allow extradition of criminal suspects to courts in mainland China caught many by surprise. Lam and her supporters in Beijing failed to anticipate the depth of local resistance, which reflects profound distrust of the Chinese government’s intentions towards the special administrative region.
The latest standoff, which took place outside skyscrapers full of banks and brokerages, evokes the “Umbrella movement” which blocked a highway in central Hong Kong for more than two months in 2014. That protest focused on the democratic rights of citizens, allowing Beijing to treat it as a local matter.
By comparison, opposition to the extradition bill is much broader. It would expose anyone who is physically in Hong Kong – even if they are just passing through its airport – to the risk of being dragged off to the mainland, where courts are subject to political direction and have a near-100% conviction rate.
The latest clashes are also taking place against a more fragile economic backdrop. Hong Kong’s economy is slowing, and China is in the middle of delicate trade negotiations with the United States. The extradition bill has already prompted U.S. officials to warn they might reconsider Hong Kong’s policy privileges if its political autonomy is decisively compromised. Such a change could wreck the Fragrant Harbour’s export, trade and financial markets.
It’s unclear whether Chinese leaders, who have so far supported Lam, will find a way to back off. After hundreds of thousands of citizens marched peacefully on Sunday, Lam tried to ram through the bill more quickly, probably contributing to Wednesday’s protests.
For the demonstrators, defeat could be a permanently polarising moment. That applies not just to angry youth but also Hong Kong’s middle class, who have been less inclined to rally around demands for universal suffrage or independence. The Chinese Communist Party’s history shows it can win a street battle with unarmed civilians. But it could lose the war for Hong Kong’s hearts and minds for good.
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