Hong Kong CNN  — 

After a months-long break due to the coronavirus pandemic, tear gas returned to the streets of central Hong Kong Sunday, as police clashed with protesters over a proposed national security law.

Sunday’s march was the first opportunity many Hong Kongers had to respond to the revelation last week that China’s National People’s Congress (NPC) – the country’s rubber-stamp parliament – will bypass Hong Kong’s legislature to impose sweeping anti-sedition laws that could drastically undermine civil liberties in the semi-autonomous city.

From the get go, however, it was clear the authorities had no intention of tolerating the protest, which had not received police permission. As crowds gathered in the Causeway Bay shopping district, they were met by an exceptionally large police presence and warnings that any protest would be in violation of both the city’s public order laws and coronavirus social distancing measures.

Hong Kong police were roundly criticized over their heavy-handed tactics last year, including most recently by a former member of a government-sponsored panel looking into the protests. On Sunday it was not just the force police used – tear gas, baton charges, and water cannon against unarmed, mostly peaceful protesters – but also the speed at which they deployed it. The first round of tear gas was fired within 25 minutes of the proposed start time for the march.

By comparison, several unauthorized marches last year – in which hundreds of thousands of people protested a proposed extradition bill with China, eventually succeeding in forcing the government to shelve it – were only broken-up after clashes between protesters and police, often many hours after first getting underway.

Millions of people took part in the protests last year, which changed the city’s character forever and created a yawning political divide that has only grown larger since. Hong Kong now seems set for another summer of unrest, with the key anniversaries of the Tiananmen Massacre and the city’s handover to Chinese rule on the horizon.

The coronavirus caused a pause in the unrest at the beginning of this year, but as the danger passes in Hong Kong, people are more willing to come out. At the same time, however, the police are better equipped and more prepared, and the local authorities seem determined to wipe out any dissent before it gets off the ground.

Police tell pro-democracy protesters gathered in Causeway Bay district of Hong Kong to leave on May 24, 2020, ahead of planned protests against a proposal to enact new security legislation in Hong Kong.

Looking for hope

Writing in response to the proposed anti-sedition bill, Nathan Law, a former pro-democracy lawmaker, urged Hong Kongers not to be disheartened, pointing out that they had achieved “miracles” in the past.

But short of divine intervention, it’s hard to see how anyone in the city can block the bill. On Wednesday, legislators will resume debate on another law demanded by China, making it a crime punishable by imprisonment to insult the country’s national anthem. That bill has taken over three years to pass, thanks to repeated filibustering and delaying tactics, and protesters plan to encircle the legislature in an attempt to delay it even further.

Neither tactic can be used against the anti-sedition bill, which will be debated and imposed by Beijing’s parliament, not Hong Kong’s, and will come into force regardless of what happens in the city in the coming weeks. Pro-Beijing lawmakers and bodies in the city have already lined up to support the bill, while Hong Kong’s police commissioner said Monday the new law will “help combat the force of ‘Hong Kong independence’ and restore social order.”

With its options limited, the city’s opposition is looking to the international community to pressure Beijing into changing course.

Reaction to the proposed law has been damning. More than 200 parliamentarians and and policymakers from two dozen countries signed an open letter last week slamming the anti-sedition bill as a “comprehensive assault on the city’s autonomy, rule of law, and fundamental freedoms.”

Signatories included Chris Patten, the last British colonial governor of Hong Kong, six US senators including Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, and numerous UK, European Union, Australian and New Zealand members of parliament.

Later this month, the US Congress is due to decide whether Hong Kong remains sufficiently autonomous from mainland China to justify continuing its special trading privileges. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said the proposed anti-sedition bill would “inevitably impact our assessment,” and other lawmakers have suggested imposing sanctions against Beijing and Hong Kong officials responsible for the move.

HONG KONG, CHINA - MAY 24: A pro-democracy supporter is detained by riot police during an anti-government rally on May 24, 2020 in Hong Kong, China. (Photo by Billy H.C. Kwok/Getty Images)
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Pressure campaign

Historically, China does not respond well to international pressure. Indeed, part of the stated-motivation for the anti-sedition bill is Beijing’s paranoia that Hong Kong has become a base for anti-regime activity fostered by malicious foreign powers.

By this logic, the denouncement of its moves by those same governments may only strengthen China’s resolve and play into the narrative that overseas actors are behind the unrest.

Nor does the threat of sanctions or international condemnation have a strong track record in recent history. Sanctions can cause misery and death for ordinary people – cut off from vital supplies and hurt by the economy – but they often do not shake those they are designed to punish.

North Korea has defied decades of being a global pariah and crippling economic punishment to pursue its nuclear program, while sanctions imposed on Vladimir Putin’s Russia did not stop him from seizing Crimea from Ukraine in 2014. China is far, far more secure economically and militarily than either country, and can draw on strong alliances elsewhere in the world to balance any aggression from the US.

“The US does have tangible options in its toolkit to exert pressure on China. But after the two-year long trade war, China has encountered all possible US punitive tools and has built its resilience,” the nationalistic state-backed tabloid Global Times said in an editorial Friday. “China’s latest announcement showed its strategic contempt for Washington’s tactics of pressuring Beijing. As long as the US dares to play its cards, China will play the game without hesitation.”

Riot police stand guard during an anti-government rally on May 24, 2020 in Hong Kong.

No way out?

Protests against the anti-sedition bill will continue in Hong Kong, at least for now. Multiple demonstrations have already been planned or called for – though it remains to be seen how many will be willing to come out when police have shown a willingness to crack down hard and early.

Commemoration of the Tiananmen Square massacre is also due to go ahead on June 4, despite continued coronavirus restrictions preventing a mass rally being held for the first time in over two-decades.

Once the law comes into force, and any criticism of the government potential “subversion” charge – as many dissidents in China have learned only too well – a major chilling effect can be expected. There may also be a further radicalizing of those already prepared to use violence, particularly among separatists who might face arrest for past promotion of Hong Kong independence. The increased risk of injury, arrest and prison time as the protests escalated last year turned some away, but it did not stop the unrest, and there is no reason to think the new law will do so immediately either.

But the ability provided under the new law for Chinese state security agencies to operate in the city for the first time, could see many protesters swept up before they have a chance to take to the streets.

Already, some are talking about heading for the exits, a task made more difficult by the coronavirus pandemic, but not impossible. Last year, two protesters sought on riot charges were granted asylum in Germany, and pressure is already growing in the UK for Westminster to do something to protect its former colonial citizens.

Taiwan, where sympathy protests were held in support of Hong Kong over the weekend, has long been a destination for those fleeing Communist rule in China. While the island does not currently have legal protections for refugees, on Sunday its president, Tsai Ing-wen, vowed to “proactively improve and forge ahead with relevant support work, and provide Hong Kong’s people with necessary assistance.”

A similar exodus was seen in the run up to 1997, when China first assumed control over Hong Kong. Ultimately, Beijing’s hands-off approach and honoring of the city’s existing freedoms helped convince many of those who had left to return. Now, as China’s mood over its truculent special administrative region seems to have soured for good, they may be questioning that decision.