HONG KONG/TOKYO -- Massive protests in Hong Kong are now in their third month, and the near-daily demonstrations appear to have no end in sight. The rallies have been largely peaceful, but increasingly some have turned violent. The stalemate is rooted in a government attempt to amend an extradition law that would permit the transfer of people to mainland China, which lacks a transparent judicial system, but have expanded to include calls for greater democracy.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam in June suspended the proposed legislation after several large demonstrations -- including one that organizers said drew 2 million people -- but protesters are demanding the bill's full retraction. Protests have spread from government offices and business districts to the airport, rail stations and residential neighborhoods, with police using tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets against crowds. Beijing officials, showing growing impatience, have likened the protesters to "terrorists."
Another rally planned for Sunday will call for ending what protesters say is excessive police force, in addition to five demands: complete withdrawal of the bill; rescinding the characterization of protesters as rioters; unconditional release of arrested demonstrators; an independent commission to investigate the police; and universal suffrage.
The article that follows is based on interviews with: William Cheng, chairman of Hong Kong-listed Magnificent Hotel Investments; Agnes Chow Ting, activist and founding member of the pro-democracy political group Demosisto; Ip Kwok-him, member of Hong Kong's Executive Council and Hong Kong deputy to the National People's Congress; and Ma Ngok, associate professor in government and public administration, Chinese University of Hong Kong.
How do you think Hong Kong officials and the police are handling the demonstrations and addressing protesters' demands?
Ip Kwok-him The government has not been doing a good job in public relations, which led to many one-sided stories in media reports at the beginning of the protests. Of course, there is room for improvement. There has been insufficient law enforcement in cracking down on radical protesters, and the hidden organizers behind them have somewhat encouraged the escalation of protesters' actions. But the government and police are moving in the right direction to stop the violence.
Agnes Chow Ting The Hong Kong police are using more and more violent ways to suppress the democratic movement. Just a few days ago, they fired [at protesters] from a close distance at an MTR station and used tear gas in the station. That's why we went to the airport for assembly. The government keeps ignoring the opinions of Hong Kong people and is using a hard line policy to suppress our voices.
Ma Ngok Every time Carrie Lam came out [to speak], she provoked more people to protest. She showed a bad attitude and did not respond to protesters' demands. Since July, the focus of the movement has been on police brutality, more than the extradition bill. The level of force used by the police might be starting to deter people [from protesting], but a lot of people remain very angry.
William Cheng The police are trained to follow orders from the top to try to maintain law and order of the community. In the course of following instructions from the top, if there are ugly scenes, the responsibilities should be traced to the top instead of burdening the front-line police that already have a too difficult task in preserving civil order.
Will Hong Kong ever be the same, or have this summer's events permanently changed the political and social landscape?
Ma Ngok Hong Kong is changed. The government and police have lost the trust of the people and it cannot be recovered. [The events] also are a blow to the international image of Hong Kong. I don't think it can be easily recovered.
Ip Kwok-him I am concerned that the pro-establishment camp might suffer in upcoming district council elections in November. Rising social grievances against the Hong Kong government historically have benefited the opposition.
Agnes Chow Ting I think this movement has changed Hong Kong society a lot. It's a very large-scale political awakening.
William Cheng I think Hong Kong will be a better place after this crisis. Both the pro-Hong Kong and the pro-Beijing sides will have witnessed enough damages and will try to avoid tabling sensitive issues.
How do you see the situation ending, and what does Beijing want?
Agnes Chow Ting I think it's a question for the Hong Kong government and Carrie Lam. We have five demands, but the Hong Kong government refuses to listen to the demands, and it's the responsibility of the government to listen to and respect the voices of Hong Kong people.
The Beijing government, as usual, wants to take more control over Hong Kong and the ruling of Hong Kong society. The one holding the final power is the Chinese Communist Party. This is the root of Hong Kong's problem -- we have no democracy and no autonomy.
Ip Kwok-him It's difficult at this point to estimate when the confrontation will end. The number of protesters are declining, and their radical behavior will eventually cost them the support of people who sympathize with them on their cause. The central government does not want Hong Kong to be used as a chess piece by the so-called superpower, especially against the backdrop of the U.S. and China trade friction.
Ma Ngok It is very difficult to predict. Things change every week. [China] wants to put the house in order and put an end to all these demonstrations and violence. I think they can live with low-level demonstrations. It is up to the protesters to actually change course. Even the more militant protesters are realizing they can't beat the police.
William Cheng The protesters are students and youngsters; they are not terrorists. Their effort will diminish after their quests are clearly heard and enough sacrifices made. I only guess another month. There is no advantage for Beijing to step in and share the consequences of this crisis.
Officials in Beijing are increasingly using harsh rhetoric to describe the protesters and their movement. Is this just talk or do you see China using more forceful measures?
Agnes Chow Ting I will say till now I don't think the Chinese government will send in the army to Hong Kong yet, because they have to consider a lot. Hong Kong is the place in China that has the most economic freedom. It's also a benefit for the Chinese government. I think they are just trying to scare Hong Kong people -- to make less people join the movement and protests -- but we can see over the past few months that they are not threatened.
Ip Kwok-him Beijing, as well as Hong Kong people, want the violence to stop immediately. Beijing will not allow chaos beyond the control of Hong Kong's government to happen, but the current assessment of the central government is that Carrie Lam's administration and the police are still capable of handling the situation.
Ma Ngok I think it is unlikely that the [People's Liberation Army] will actually step in. It would spell the end of "one country, two systems." It is also unnecessary. The level of force used by the protesters is actually pretty low. The local police can handle it. Beijing doesn't want a Tiananmen-type situation.
What will be the impact of the demonstrations on Hong Kong's economy?
Ma Ngok I think the impact from the protests has been minimal. A lot of things are going on that affect Hong Kong's economy, including the trade war. Should the events lead to any kind of sanctions from the U.S., that would be another matter.
Ip Kwok-him It depends on how soon Hong Kong society can return to normal. The damage to the economy will only grow bigger if the confrontation lasts longer.