Sunday, June 16, 2019

Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Caves in on a Proposed Extradition Law: Yielded to the Street, Business, or Beijing?

Facing huge violent protests, Carrie Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong, a semi-autonomous region of China, decided on June 15, to indefinitely suspend her proposal to open extradition to mainland China and Taiwan. As the Chinese government demonstrated during the protests at Tiananmen Square decades earlier, holding a mass protest in China was not among the ways to impeded proposed legislation. Why, then, did Lam seem to cave into the popular protests in Hong Kong?
Perhaps it is naïve to claim that even in China, when popular protests are so large government officials cannot but conclude that enough of the people are advocating that Rousseau’s general will has spoken. Of course, a highly visible protest need not be from a majority of citizens. Often the political extremes show up to protest while the centrist majority stays home. In fact, the regularization or ubiquity of political protests in the E.U. and U.S. may dilute the ability to stand out in such a way that the intended change will happen. The Arab Spring’s mass protests in the Middle East demonstrate that even huge protests can be “regularized” within the control of a government. So I think the efficacy of protests has diminished as they have become increasingly hackneyed. It follows that the large, violent protests in Hong Kong in 2019 against the extradition bill were not decisive in the legislation’s untimely demise.
Alternatively, that local business leaders turned away from Lam on the issue could be said to be the decisive change that led to Lam’s decision to indefinitely shelve the bill. In the U.S. especially, the loss of support of corporate leaders could indeed stop legislation from progressing. The power by which corporations can use campaign contributions and lobbying in Washington, D.C. had indeed become formidable by 2019. In contrast, however, the Chinese government was relatively strong against the power of amassed private capital (i.e., large companies). With the support of the Chinese government, Lam could have handled the errant business elite, but did she have the central government’s support?
Government officials in Beijing “were starting to question her judgment in picking a fight on an issue that they [regarded] as a distraction from their real priority: the passage of stringent national security legislation in Hong Kong.”[1] So rather than yielding to the streets or the business sector, Lam yielded to the central government. The implication is that Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status within a dictatorship could be questioned. In fact, semi-autonomous is an oxymoron in a dictatorship—that is to say, a façade.

1. Keith Bradsher, “In Hong Kong, Leader Yields to the Streets,” The New York Times, June 16, 2019.