In Hong Kong, a new round in the long-standing clash over law, autonomy, and democracy

Political scientist Jacques deLisle explains what spurred the latest conflict, and whether the desire to end it could prompt mainland China to intervene with force.

A massive group of people.

Large-scale protests in Hong Kong started nearly three months ago, spurred by the introduction of a bill that would have allowed extradition of criminal suspects from Hong Kong to mainland China. Since then, protester objections have broadened in scope; they’re now focused on protecting the rule of law and Hong Kong’s autonomy, establishing an independent commission to examine police violence against demonstrators, and pressing for renewed progress toward democracy.  

Lawyer and political scientist Jacques deLisle, director of the Center for the Study of Contemporary China at the University of Pennsylvania, has been closely following the events of the past 10 weeks. Penn Today asked him about the latest news from Hong Kong, how it might end, and why this time it could be different from similar clashes. 

The most recent events began over this extradition legislation. Can you explain what that is and why it caused such a reaction? 

This all started when the Hong Kong government decided to introduce legislation that would permit the extradition of criminal suspects from Hong Kong to mainland China. That had not been allowed under previous law, largely because of what were seen as flaws in China’s criminal justice system and risks of political prosecution. That legislation drew criticism from members of the legislature, students, ordinary citizens, the business community, lawyers, civil servants, and more. This controversy is the latest in a long series of similar confrontations. 

You mentioned that at some point early on, the legislation was tabled, though not officially withdrawn. What happened next? 

Nearly two million people had taken to the streets. The early rounds of protests saw police violence toward demonstrators, some of whom were arrested and faced possible charges for ‘rioting,’ which can bring a long prison term. Protesters’ demands expanded to include formal withdrawal of the extradition bill; resignation of the chief executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam; establishment of an independent investigation into police violence; and reopening of the question of democratic elections in Hong Kong. Once the agenda expanded and methods grew more violent, both sides dug in their heels. Protests spread and eventually included occupying and shutting down Hong Kong’s airport, one of the world’s busiest.

At the same time, the Hong Kong government and the central government in Beijing started taking a much harder line toward the protesters, calling them revolutionaries, possible terrorists, and a threat to China’s sovereignty. Beginning in late July, China threatened that it might intervene with force.

For a time, it seemed like China was staying silent on this. But recently, that’s seemed to change. Has it actually changed?

Although what’s going on in Hong Kong is important to China’s leaders, their biggest concern is what’s going on in mainland China. Initially, the government tried to limit coverage and keep the story quiet. That became increasingly untenable and led to a shift in tactics. In Hong Kong, Beijing has strongly backed harsher measures and issued mounting threats to deter and suppress protesters. In mainland and pro-China Hong Kong media and social media, the Chinese regime has sought to build support for the view that the protests are not a pro-democracy, pro-autonomy movement but violent subversion fomented by the U.S. State Department and the CIA. 

What’s the official position of the United States on all of this? 

The official U.S. position—and the British position, too, for that matter—is general support for the goals and values of the protesters. The U.S., the U.K., and others have criticized the violence from both sides but especially from the police, as well as the prospect of China sending in the military or paramilitary forces. That has been the official position from the U.S. State Department and national security officials, and it aligns with human rights organizations as well. 

Trump, however, has undercut that position. Although Trump did, as promised, raise the situation in Hong Kong with Xi Jinping at the G20 meeting in June, he also reportedly promised to tone down U.S. criticism. Since then, he has said that the ‘riots’ are a matter for Hong Kong and China to ‘resolve among themselves.’ He has praised Xi for showing restraint and as a ‘great leader’ and a ‘good man’ who could ‘quickly and humanely solve the Hong Kong problem’ if he wanted to. He tweeted that everyone should remain calm as he reported that Chinese troops were massing on the border. One measure of just how much Trump has undercut U.S. support for Hong Kong’s autonomy, rule of law, and democratic values is the praise he received from the Global Times, the most ardently nationalistic newspaper in China, for telling ‘the truth’ about Hong Kong. 

Given all the history leading up to this situation and the increasing violence now, how does it end? 

This is the latest battle in a very long war about Hong Kong’s autonomy, rule of law, and political order. This type of conflict has happened several times since Hong Kong returned to Chinese rule in 1997. I expect this will not be the last time. What makes this round potentially different is a long-growing trend toward sharper confrontations between intractably opposed sides.

The scale of the protests and levels of violence in this latest round are higher. The protesters have learned that many of their victories, even small ones, are vulnerable to undoing. Their only hope of success is to be quite confrontational. Their most powerful weapons are their ability to draw international attention to their plight through dramatic actions and their ability to disrupt Hong Kong. At the same time, the U.S. and the U.K. governments are less able to influence what China does and in the case of the U.S. government less willing to try. And the current Chinese government is more pointedly nationalistic and unwilling to listen to foreign criticism.

That makes the situation sound pretty dire. How might it end in the short term?

There are a range of possible outcomes. At one end of the spectrum, the protest movement may fade, having defeated the extradition bill, perhaps winning some additional concessions, and recognizing that continued conflict will be unproductive or even counterproductive. We’re seeing some signs of this in the apologies protesters offered for their violent tactics during the airport occupation. 

The most worrisome possible near-term outcome is that the Chinese government doesn’t have confidence that the unrest will end and decides to use greater force. China has the capacity to do this, but I don’t think we’re there yet. I think Beijing realizes that would bring widespread international condemnation and would be devastating to Hong Kong and China’s interests there. 

Jacques deLisle is the Stephen A. Cozen Professor of Law at Penn Law and a professor in the Department of Political Science in the School of Arts and Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania. He is also director of Penn’s Center for the Study of Contemporary China and director of the Asia Program at the Foreign Policy Research Institute