As Hong Kong marked 22 years of Chinese rule Monday, the city’s leader Carrie Lam admitted that “the government has a lot to improve.”
“I will actively reach out to young people of different backgrounds through various channels to listen to their thoughts,” Lam promised, as she gave a speech inside the city’s exhibition center, which was protected by massive barricades and a large security presence.
Outside, hundreds of the city’s young people clashed with police, the latest in a series of protests in recent weeks over Lam’s now-shelved attempt to pass a law that would allow extradition to China.
Critics fear the bill could be used to seize government critics and send them across the border to face trial in a system with a 99% conviction rate and a history of political prosecutions.
Hundreds of thousands took to the streets Monday afternoon for the city’s annual July 1 pro-democracy march. Protesters called for the bill to be formally withdrawn rather than suspended, Lam to resign and an independent investigation to be held into police violence against protesters on June 12.
But there are limits to ordinary people’s willingness to continue to march for a cause which, in effect, they’ve already won. Lam has suspended the bill, which will end when the city’s legislature’s current term finished at the end of the month.
The pragmatism, or conservatism, of those people stands in stark contrast to the attitude of the mainly college-age protesters who have taken to the streets regularly throughout June.
These young protesters have been invigorated by the partial victories they have scored in the extradition bill clashes, and infuriated at the behavior of police and attitude of the government and pro-Beijing lawmakers.
Even full capitulation to the original demands of the anti-extradition marches is unlikely to send them home, especially given that schools and universities are on summer break.
On Monday, this became evident when hundreds of young activists stormed the city government headquarters resulting in a tense stand off with riot police.
The apparent splintering of the protest movement could be a sign of the divisions emerging within Hong Kong society.
More protests to come
Some of these protesters – who range in age from mid-to-late teens to early twenties – took part in the 2014 Umbrella Movement, which called for universal suffrage in Hong Kong and share many of its pro-democracy goals.
But the past month’s events also represent an escalation and evolution of that movement.
The protesters have learned not to establish fixed camps, which can be systematically cleared by police, and after more than four years of prosecutions they are careful about hiding their identities, wearing masks on the streets and communicating via encrypted messaging apps.
The 2014 protests were – after a night of tear gas and pepper spray – characterized by peacefulness and idealism, and marked perhaps the last time Hong Kongers thought their government might deliver on promises made years ago to further democratize.
Today’s protesters have no such hopes, they are fighting to force the government to act, on the grounds that if they don’t, the future is destined to be bleak.
For many, the future is already bleak. The divide between rich and poor continues to grow and house prices and cost of living is putting a middle class life out of reach for many of the city’s young.
“Die for Hong Kong,” some protesters could be heard shouting in the violent clashes on June 12.
And while others would not go so far, all were willing to risk arrest and injury.
Blue vs yellow
Hong Kong has never had full democracy. It was a British colony ruled first from afar and then by a semi-democratic system stacked in favor of the government, which was what Beijing inherited when it took control in 1997.
While democracy and greater accountability would undoubtedly help fix many of the problems that Hong Kong suffers from, not least a government which places the needs of property developers over those without housing, Beijing showed five years ago that this was not something it would consider.
For Hong Kong’s silent middle, this is something that may be unfortunate but ultimately has to be accepted. They may come out to protect existing rights, but there’s only so far they are willing to rock the boat when it comes to fighting for what many think of as a lost cause.
The more forceful edge of this conservatism was out in force on Sunday. Thousands of pro-government demonstrators turned out for a rally in support of the city’s police – who have had their headquarters repeatedly besieged by egg-throwing protesters since the clashes of June 12 – and calls for a clampdown on anti-government activity.
Ironically for a pro-law and order event, these protesters were filmed hurling abuse and missiles at counter demonstrators, harassing journalists, and attempting to break into the city’s legislature.
But the scenes were reminiscent of 2014, when so-called blue ribboners (the color of the police) clashed with the pro-democracy protesters in the streets and called for draconian laws to crack down on them.
Beijing’s hand was widely perceived to be involved in that anti-Umbrella Movement reaction, but even if it was, it was not without local support.
The divide between blue ribboners and pro-democracy yellow ribboners had not gone away after 2014, but it had receded into the background as Lam at least at first delivered on some of her promises to restore calm.
Lam may have been the one to force open that divide once again, but the risk for the yellow ribboners in the streets Monday is that, as Hong Kong’s summer of discontent becomes a summer of rage, it is them, not Lam who get blamed for prolonging the chaos.