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Hong Kong protests

Hong Kong protests spread, possibly affecting next election

Rallies move beyond extradition law, posing challenge for pro-Beijing politicians

HONG KONG -- After weeks of mass demonstrations against a controversial extradition bill, protesters in Hong Kong have widened their agenda beyond the scrapping of the legislation, with rallies spreading out to more areas and taking on a greater number of public grievances.

After Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam last month suspended the legislation, which would allow people to be extradited to mainland China to face trial, protesters have continued to stage rallies -- sometimes more than one a week -- demanding, among other things, a formal retraction of the bill and an independent probe into use of police force against protesters.

Recent demonstrations have shifted away from the traditional march route through Hong Kong island, home to key commercial and business districts and where the government's headquarters are located, to tourist spots across the harbor in bustling Kowloon and in border towns.

Analysts say the fact that the government was forced to suspend the bill after massive street protests has empowered citizens to take action on other social issues that have long been ignored by authorities, and some believe the rising momentum for civil participation will shake up the dominance of the pro-Beijing establishment in upcoming elections in November.

"There has been an apparent increase of the spirit of resistance among Hong Kong people," Ivan Choy Chi-keung, a lecturer in political science at the Chinese University of Hong Kong, told the Nikkei Asian Review. Choy said many people felt frustrated after the 2014 Occupy Central protests, also called the Umbrella Movement, but now they believe that protests can deliver a desired outcome, having been encouraged by the extradition bill's suspension.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam speaks to the media on the extradition bill in Hong Kong earlier this month. It remains to be seen if recent protests will lead to systematic change and affect Beijing's overall policies toward Hong Kong.   © Reuters

The large-scale pro-democracy movement five years ago failed to pressure the government into granting universal suffrage despite thousands of people camping out on major roads and closing off traffic in key commercial districts for 79 days. "The momentum of civic participation has entered an ascending trajectory," Choy said. "It's not going away anytime soon."

That civic engagement has been played out in a series of smaller protests -- with more planned -- in various districts that have been plagued by concerns over people's lives and living conditions, including the activities of mainland citizens in Hong Kong.

Thousands of people recently took to the streets in Tuen Mun, in the largely rural New Territories, to protest against, among other things, women from China for creating excessive noise while taking part in a type of dance-exercise at a public park. That prompted officials to close the performing zone.

At another protest, residents in Sheung Shui, a town bordering the mainland city of Shenzhen, staged a rally against Chinese parallel traders -- people who purchase products in Hong Kong and sell the goods across the border for a profit -- accusing them of littering the neighborhood and distorting the local economy.

And a group of residents are planning a march later this month in Kowloon, targeting the influx of mainland tourists and the illegal parking of tour buses in crowded residential and shopping areas.

"After seeing what happened in Sheung Shui and Tuen Mun, they feel that they should also take action," said Timothy Lee, president of Synergy Kowloon, whose community organization was asked by the residents for help in obtaining police permission to allow them to march.

Prospects for addressing the tour bus and other problems have emerged. Shortly after the march was announced, the pro-government political party Democratic Alliance for the Betterment and Progress of Hong Kong, or DAB, proposed more aggressive policies to tackle the issues.

Staging rallies in different districts is a "strategic choice" among protesters to spread the message more broadly across the city's communities, said Antony Dapiran, author of "City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong."

"The protests are going to districts where people will be voting," Dapiran said, adding that he expects the latest wave of regional protests will give the opposition camp a lead in the elections.

In the past two months, over 350,000 new voters have registered, according to the Registration and Electoral Office, the highest number since 2003, after a half million people took to the streets to protest against a national security bill. Statistics from previous years show people between the ages of 18 to 25 -- the main force of this summer's protests -- made up about half of the new registrations.

"What we have seen in the past five years is a failing of Hong Kong's political system, and the government's indifference of people's desire for fairness and justice," said Eric Tang, a social worker who attended another march in the New Territories town of Shatin, citing the disqualification of opposition lawmakers and candidates over their political views. "It's the kind of institutional violence that angers people," he said. "The public discontent was piling up, and the extradition bill was just a trigger."

Voters will have a chance to express their discontent -- or approval -- of the government's policies in local district council elections this fall.

Elizabeth Quat, a lawmaker with the DAB who has accused protesters of creating disturbances in the outlying districts and has condemned some protesters for clashing with police, acknowledged that the pro-establishment camp will face a tough race in the upcoming elections. "We might lose many seats," she told Nikkei.

Meanwhile, there are concerns that the escalating violence between police and the more-aggressive demonstrators could dent public support for the protesters.

"I believe the public support currently is still strongly behind the protesters, but this may be beginning to change" if the situation escalates to the point where there are clear signs that police and protesters start deliberately provoking each other, Dapiran said.

Ray Yep, a professor at the Department of Public Policy at City University of Hong Kong, says that the majority of the community blames government inaction as the root cause for the clashes. "While some segment of the society feel angry about the naked challenge to law and order... there remains solid support for protesters' cause," Yep wrote in a paper published this month.

It also remains to be seen if the protests will lead to systematic change and affect Beijing's overall policies toward Hong Kong.

China sees the protests as incited by a "foreign force" to destabilize Hong Kong. "With tensions growing between China and the United States on various fronts, Beijing does not want this controversy to become another thorny issue," said Peter Cheung, associate professor at the University of Hong Kong.

However, Simon Pritchard, global research director at Gavekal, said in a research note that "it is hard to see a happy ending to this impasse" in the longer term.

"On the Hong Kong side, the student holidays will end and the pragmatism that characterizes most of the population may persuade all but a hard core of protesters to back away," he said. "If something like this does play out, it will be a fragile truce until the next big challenge to Hong Kong's way of life comes around."

 

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