March of discontent

Hong Kong protests dent Xi’s image

LAKHS of protesters on the streets of Hong Kong forced the Beijing-backed government to make a rare retreat. The crowd, estimated to be over 20 lakh at one time, of mostly young citizens was protesting against the introduction of a Bill that would have allowed Hong Kong authorities to extradite suspects to mainland China for trial. Chief Executive Carrie Lam had severely underestimated the resentment in ordinary people against what many in Hong Kong saw as creeping changes to the fundamental character of their city, at the behest of the mainland. The movement, said to be ‘leaderless’, deployed modern technology and common sense to counter expected surveillance measures. Unlike the 2014 ‘Umbrella Movement’, it had no identifiable leader, and yet the protesters succeeded in making the government take a step back. The Chief Executive apologised and said she was suspending the Bill indefinitely.

Hong Kong, which reverted to China in 1997, has a special status under the ‘one country, two systems’ formula that gives it a high degree of autonomy and allows it to retain its currency and politico-legal system till 2047. The city is a financial powerhouse, and it is to China’s benefit that it retains its essential character. However, the Communist Party and establishment would be picky; they want the benefits of the capitalist market system, but not elements that make it what it is — freedom of thought and expression as well as independent institutions, including the police and the judiciary.

Even as he has maintained his distance, President Xi Jinping’s invincibility has taken a knock following the protests and the climb-down. For now, Beijing has announced its firm support for Chief Executive Carrie Lam, whose resignation along with the withdrawal, not just suspension of the extradition Bill, are the main demands of the protesters. However, the situation is far from resolved, with more protests likely. Hong Kong is proving to be quite a headache for mainland China at a time when it can ill afford it.

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