One of the enduring symbols of the Tiananmen Square massacre was that of a momentary triumph of a sole, unarmed, protester who blocked a Chinese tank, forcing it to change its path. The image comes to mind as we see what lakhs of protesters in Hong Kong have achieved — forced the Chinese juggernaut to blink and withdraw the contentious extradition Bill that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be extradited to China for criminal offences. Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam’s formal withdrawal of the extradition Bill, which she had suspended in June, meets the original demand of the protesters. In the three months since unrest roiled Hong Kong, even as the protests, and protesters, increased, as did their demands, with new ones mainly arising out of the clashes and the conduct of the police in handling the protesters. Whether this withdrawal is sufficient or a case of ‘too little, too late’ to defuse the most significant political crisis in the territory for decades remains to be seen.
The 13 weeks of protests have changed the tone and tenor of the territory, and as protesters and the police clashed, new rules of engagement were drawn. The Chinese government sought to marginalise and discredit the protesters, but to no avail. Now Lam has also announced measures to address the cause of the protests; added two more members to the police watchdog; and promised more interaction with people. However, they fall short of the demands of the protesters. The world will watch and wait to see how Hong Kong reacts to the latest government move.
Even as it showed images of its military might and deployed diplomatic and economic tools to tackle the recalcitrant residents of Hong Kong, Beijing showed rare restraint in adopting overt coercive measures. Then it relented, somewhat. The Chinese step-back is unprecedented. The state has climbed down from a hard, unrelenting stance that has been its standard response to all dissent in the mainland, and even in Hong Kong before this. This decision will have an impact far beyond the territory. The withdrawal of the Bill has, however, started the process of defusing tensions that have scarred the financial hub and given it a chance to heal.