It has been around 12 weeks since hundreds of thousands of protesters started to flood into the streets in Hong Kong over a controversial extradition law. Even though Hong Kong's leader, Carrie Lam, announced that the bill was suspended, there is neither an end in sight nor does it seem that mainland China has a definite strategy to stop them. According to analysts, this points to other factors that keep the fire of the protests alive, such as possible foreign support and the changing nature of the demands for democracy.
"There are two options: one is a military intervention and the other is to limit the rights of protesters like free assembly with the help of laws. An ending like the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 is unlikely as every move today has a result in the international community and China's reputation would be harmed," said Erkin Ekrem, an international relations expert at the Institute of Strategic Thinking at Ankara.
After weeks of protests over a bill that would enable criminal suspects to be handed over to mainland China, the bill was suspended. Since then, protesters have sought for ways not to lose momentum and changed tactics and demands to keep the movement alive. While people in the streets began to demand democracy and independence, Chinese officials stated, referring to the protests, that "this is something no country would accept," leading to the question of how this unrest will end.
Under the principle of the "one country, two systems," Hong Kong has its own legal system, distinct from the Law of the People's Republic of China; thus, the people of the former British colony saw this act as a violation to their semi-autonomous state and were infuriated at the mainland's attempt to intervene in their system, which is most probably the reason why the unrest has not died down. "Mrs. Lam announced that the bill was dead, however the protests go on. They have other intentions," Chinese officials continued regarding the demands for democracy. The protests, which started as a peaceful march, entered a transition phase. The initially limited demands of the protesters grew beyond the suspension of the bill that sparked the unrest, resulting in a revolt against the local government or even the mainland itself.
After the First Opium War in 1842, China handed Hong Kong over to Britain. Three historically Chinese territories, Taiwan, Macau and Hong Kong, remained beyond the control of the Chinese Communist Party. Later in the mid-1980s, talks between China and Britain over the future of Hong Kong began, resulting in a Joint Declaration putting forth that the island will be returned to China in 1997 with the "one country, two systems" formula for 50 years. The island enjoys a high degree of autonomy, having a capitalist system while being part of a communist-led country.
"The territory is of high economic significance as it enjoys an open economy and a legal system based on British common law. An intervention would hazard the economy, investors and companies. Even though it is small, Hong Kong is Asia's financial hub, making it the concern of many countries," Ekrem added. Western markets also have easy access, and Hong Kong's stock market is the fourth largest in the world, thus putting a great deal at stake.
Yet, the economic influence of Hong Kong is not the same as it was when Britain handed the territory back to China. China is not dependent on the territory anymore. During the time of the handover, Hong Kong's economy constituted almost a fifth of the country, whereas now it has fallen to only 3%. Meanwhile giant tech firms have developed and China's "Silicon Valley" Zhongguancun has turned into a technology hub. However, the territory still is important, making it essential to calm the protests.
Foreign interference in protests under spotlight
It was also underscored that some foreign powers have a part in the events and give financial support to protesters. Leading members of the Hong Kong protests were increasingly received by Washington. Chinese officials and state-owned media claim that this is the evidence that the U.S. has a hand in the unrest. While a trade war going on, the protests that undermine Xi Jinping's power seem highly suspicious. Of course, there is also the fact that the U.S. and Britain see themselves as guarantors of the territory since they took part in the process when it was handed to the mainland, which makes the situation even more entangled. Yet, Chinese officials clearly stated that "it is an internal issue and no third party should intervene."
"I do not believe that China would fall into the trap of intervening with the use of force. Even though it seems as the ground for intervention is laid and announcements in this regard are made, it is highly likely that China bluffs. China will probably wait until the events have dimmed. Still, we are talking about China, it can do the most unforeseen move in the most unpredicted moment. As it did on the India-China border in 1962," said Nurettin Akçay, an expert on Sino-Turkish relations at Shanghai University.
For now, there have been no deaths; however, violent crashes between police and protesters have been ongoing. The protests escalated further when protesters demolished the national emblem of Beijing's representative office. The number of people attending the protests is not clear; yet it is estimated to be over a million. They have disrupted public transportation and schedules at the airport, causing more than 200 flights to be cancelled. Tourism has also fallen significantly. Maj. Gen. Chen Daoxiang delivered the message that the People's Liberation Army (PLA) would not hesitate to intervene if such a decision is approved. According to the Basic Law, Hong Kong's mini constitution, the PLA troops can only intervene at the request of the Hong Kong government to maintain public order unless China declares an all-out state of emergency or war in Hong Kong. The ongoing protests are the country's biggest challenge since the Tiananmen era, and the world is watching. Whatever the result, as the protests grow more complex by the day, it is clear that Hong Kong will not be the same even if the protests are suppressed.