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Opinion

2020 look ahead: The political stakes go up in Hong Kong

With legislative election in focus, Beijing may finally replace Carrie Lam

Carrie Lam sided with the police too early.   © Reuters

Hong Kong was enveloped in conflict in a way the city had not seen in half a century during 2019. Despite outward signs of a cooling off in the political temperature since late November, the coming year is set to bring more confrontation, with even more at stake as the city elects a new legislature and perhaps replaces its chief executive too.

While antigovernment protests have subsided in number and severity in recent weeks, they are bound to continue. Sporadic protests, with occasional violence, have become a new normal. Their focus has become the Chinese authorities and alleged abuses by Hong Kong police rather than the original target of a government proposal, since withdrawn, to allow criminal suspects to be extradited to the mainland.

Sadly, the issue of the handling of protests by the police has itself become highly politicized and polarized. It has been politicized by public comments from the police leadership rejecting any questioning of the force's conduct. It has been polarized by a split on the one hand between the government and its key supporters, who favor reviewing police actions through existing mechanisms, and the opposition and protesters who insist on a dedicated independent investigative commission.

The Independent Police Complaints Council, the body the government is relying on to review police conduct, will issue its report on the handling of key protest incidents early in the new year. With the council seen by protesters as insufficiently independent of the police, its report is unlikely to placate demonstrators who portray officers as the key instigators of the violence that has wracked the city.

Neither Chief Executive Carrie Lam nor Police Commissioner Chris Tang are showing any willingness to consider an independent commission of inquiry. After taking office in November, Tang maintained his predecessor's opposition to such an inquest, saying it would be "unfair" to police. For her part, Lam recently announced she would instead set up a committee to analyze social, economic and political causes of the unrest, a move that would not salve anger at alleged police abuses.

Regarding the Chinese authorities, the opposition's core demand is that Hong Kong be allowed to proceed with fundamental democratic reforms.

Beijing's insistence on maintaining control of the city's electoral process during reform discussions in 2014 prompted the Occupy Central protests that saw demonstrators occupy key roads for several months.

The central government will clearly not be inclined to relax its stance after the protests of 2019, the opposition's landslide victory in recent neighborhood council elections, and the U.S. adoption of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which could result in the sanctioning of officials seen to have undermined the city's autonomy.

While the U.S. and China may have just reached a cease-fire in their trade war, Hong Kong's new status as a battleground between the two powers, each seeking political and economic advantage, will remain. Beijing is concerned that democratic change in Hong Kong would be a Trojan horse for the U.S. and other foreign powers to subvert authority both locally and in the mainland.

Beijing is concerned that democratic change in Hong Kong would be a Trojan horse for the U.S.   © Reuters

In its eyes, the District Council election results show Hong Kong's opposition is following a playbook adopted from the Democratic Progressive Party of Taiwan, the detested pro-independence party of President Tsai Ing-wen, in building up to challenge for control of upper levels of government by first taking over lower levels.

So despite calls for reopening discussions on revising the election method for the chief executive and the full Legislative Council, Beijing will stick to a hard line. That said, while the central government has insisted until now that Lam stay on as chief executive, it is possible she could be replaced in the new year if Beijing concludes that could help the electoral prospects of pro-establishment forces in September's legislative elections.

Beyond the vote, Beijing's priority in the new year will be ending violent protests in the city, as President Xi Jinping affirmed to Lam during her annual duty visit to the capital in early December. She still has to accomplish this without significant bloodshed or the use of the mainland's People's Armed Police or People's Liberation Army as those steps would tarnish the "one country, two systems" principle undergirding Beijing's rule.

Although the directive is clear, Lam will still struggle. Due to her background as a career civil servant, Lam sided with the police too early in the protests, closing off the possibility of an independent inquiry. Her bureaucratic approach to what remains a political crisis forecloses any chance of a rebound in her popularity.

The central government will meanwhile keep up the pressure on Hong Kong by restricting the flow of tourists from the mainland, by far the city's top visitor market. These controls also serve the purpose of minimizing mainland citizens' exposure to the reality of the Hong Kong protests and resistance to authority.

At the same time, Beijing will offer the carrot of benefits for Hong Kong people through its Greater Bay Area strategy of promoting integration with neighboring mainland cities.

Yet the notion that tying together the area more closely could reduce political confrontation in Hong Kong remains wishful thinking. With protesters seeing the city's government and police as tools of the Chinese Communist Party and mainlandization as the worst possible outcome, the integration approach stands little chance. It is going to be a tough year.

Sonny Lo Shiu-hing is the author of "Hong Kong's Indigenous Democracy" and "The Dynamics of Beijing-Hong Kong Relations."

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