By: Philip Bowring

The focus of Hong Kong’s continuing protest has shifted away from the now-abandoned extradition legislation and even from calls for the resignation of Chief Executive Carrie Lam towards the behavior of the police and, more distantly, the need for true democracy.

That means the protests run directly into collision with the policy of Chinese paramount leader Xi Jinping, which has always been to speed up Hong Kong’s integration into the mainland and to promote One Country and patriotism at the expense of Two Systems. Successive chief executives, C.Y. Leung and now Lam, have faithfully pushed this and the concept of the Greater Bay Area in which Hong Kong would play a particular part in a region of 70 million people.

Reaction against this undermining of Hong Kong’s identity and constant intervention by the central government’s liaison office has been one of the two underlying causes of unrest. The other has been lack of democratic progress, reflected not merely in the arithmetic of suffrage but in the political ineptitude of both Lam and Leung. Lam, in particular, is known for talking down to the public as though she was the school headmistress.

Xi must now decide whether to force change on Hong Kong and its leadership, which would allay or divert discontent, or encourage the use of yet more force to protect a government seemingly incapable of new ideas or offering solutions to the problems it has itself created.

In the meantime, complicating Xi’s plans, radical elements among the demonstrators appear to have become more radicalized, setting off chaos over the weekend by torching facilities in the MTR station in Central District. Nonetheless, the mass of peaceful protesters remains very large despite more than 1,000 arrests and many injuries suffered as a result of indiscriminate police attacks with truncheons and tear gas.

Lam is regarded as an irrelevance and seen as incompetent even within government circles. In a much-quoted “secret” comment, she claimed to have wanted to resign but could not. Either she was lying, merely trying to make her seen as a victim, or lacked the courage to quit in the face of Beijing’s opposition. Either way, her reputation is in ruins and popularity at rock-bottom among the public.

Policy, such as it is, has been in the hands of a police force widely regarded as facing natural stress as a result of weeks of demonstrations but frequently resorting to excessive use of force. No one knows the number of injured demonstrators because many who were hurt fear arrest regardless. Police injuries have been few – unsurprising given the heavy armor worn by the Tactical Unit, the anti-riot squad. Some incidents seem to have been the result of individuals losing their cool, others deliberate attempts ordered by senior officers to deter peaceful demonstrators with clouds of tear gas.

Some assemblies and marches have been declared illegal so that anyone taking part or encouraging participation can be arrested. Yet, as happened on August 31, several hundred thousand assembled and marched in the central part of the city and there was little that the police could do. The mass rally was the public’s immediate response to the belated withdrawal of this bill. Other demands had to be met, including an independent inquiry into police violence.

Incidents have continued almost daily including vandalism by radicals, including trashing of MTR stations and setting fires in streets over the weekend of September 7-8. These may have increased concern among the broader population about the direction of protest. However, the number and wide dispersal of incidents has shown how deep animosity now goes among many of the young who form the vast majority of radical activists.

Police behavior has aliened many others who have viewed the several filmed incidents of indiscriminate police actions in malls and MTR stations. Further complicating the situation is the amount of rumor, false news and alarmism spread through social media including about PLA infiltration, police disguised as demonstrators tempting them into vandalism and vandals dressing as police.

The government clearly hopes the demonstrators will tire, and popular support for them ebb. That is a possibility though sporadic outbursts seem very likely to continue given that the many trials of those charged with offenses ranging from illegal assembly to resisting arrest, assault on police or rioting come before the courts.

The rioting charge is especially critical as it carries a sentence of up to 10 years though the line between damaging property and minor arson on the one hand and rioting on the other is a thin one.

The offer of a judicial inquiry into all aspects of recent events, including violence of all kinds, would go a long way to calm things, particularly if accompanied by amnesties. But this is vigorously opposed by the police, whose own conduct would be scrutinized. A weak government appears more frightened of an out-of-control police force than of ongoing sporadic turmoil.

Retirement of Lam would also help. There is no obvious name to replace her but she has become so unpopular and blamed by all sides that a new name promising new thinking might buy time for calm. So too might an offer to restart consideration of constitutional changes which would provide greater democratic accountability. However, Hong Kong’s governance system is frozen in time, the same tired names and vested interests represented at all levels from the Executive Council – the supposed policy-making body appointed by the Chief Executive or ex-officio on account of their ministerial positions.

Beijing is equally averse to change. Its leaders were clearly poorly advised about sentiment in the territory by the Hong Kong and Macao Affairs Office, which comes under the State Council, and by Beijing ‘s Liaison Office there which has been increasingly interfering directly in Hong Kong domestic issues and acting as de facto coordinator of pro-Beijing politicians.

As a result of believing its own propaganda, Beijing has become locked into refusal to budge on most issues. Xi himself may even face criticism at home for allowing Lam belatedly to retreat from the Extradition bill. With Beijing already having to tread a difficult path dealing with Trump and his trade war, Hong Kong is an additional complication and one which raises the broader issue of how far China should care about foreign opinion and trade matters when sovereignty seems at stake as far as the nationalists are concerned.

Some want an open China and a return to the pre-Xi “peaceful rise” mentality which would allow Hong Kong more latitude. Others focus on issues which strike nationalist chords – Taiwan, Hong Kong, the South China Sea and “foreign interference” in these and other “splittist” issues, Xinjiang and Tibet. Xi has leaned towards the latter camp but the economy is probably too vulnerable both to domestic debt and to a sharp decline in foreign trade to push too far.

Hong Kong has joined the list of spots attracting focus by NGOs active in civil rights and an Asian region which has grown more wary of China is looking on with interest, and many quiet nods of satisfaction, to Hong Kong’s resistance.

Hence the situation in Hong Kong will have to get significantly worse before there is direct intervention. But some damage has already been done, not directly by the demonstrators but by Beijing leaning on Cathay Pacific Airways to sack its chairman and chief executive because of the political activities of some of its employees.