Why the protests in Hong Kong may have no end in sight

Hong Kong lawmakers hold protest signs in the Legislative Council. Beijing's local allies in Hong Kong don't agree on much, and their differences are even deeper on the protesters' biggest demand: greater democracy.
Hong Kong lawmakers hold protest signs in the Legislative Council. Beijing's local allies in Hong Kong don't agree on much, and their differences are even deeper on the protesters' biggest demand: greater democracy.PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG • Resolving the increasingly violent protests in Hong Kong will most likely fall to an influential group of Beijing's local allies. The trouble: They do not agree on much.

The fissures raise the likelihood that unrest could fester for months or even years. That could further hurt the city's economy, create a constant headache for Beijing and aggravate an already sore point between the United States and China.

Some of Beijing's local allies are populists who want to break up local monopolies, seize private land and build public housing. Some are tycoons who are happy to support the local government and Beijing as long as no one touches their businesses.

The differences within the camp are even deeper on the protesters' biggest demand - greater democracy.

A moderate camp led by city Chief Executive Carrie Lam would like to see gradual progress towards freer elections, at least within Beijing's predefined limits.

The city's hardliners loathe the idea, and are frustrated by what they perceive as Mrs Lam's desire to negotiate with democracy advocates and her wariness of ordering a harsher police crackdown.

The divisions were visible on Wednesday when Mrs Lam gave her annual policy address which delivered a fairly narrow set of initiatives on issues like housing and did not even try to address broad political tensions.

For the pro-Beijing camp, the disagreements add to the growing weakness among the various political parties. The pro-Beijing coalition has slumped to record-low support in independent opinion surveys in recent weeks, and such parties face the potential for heavy losses in neighbourhood district elections in November and again in legislative elections next September.

Politicians in the pro-Beijing coalition in Hong Kong are "like birds in a forest - when things are good, they stay together but, when things are bad, they fly in all directions", said Mr Jasper Tsang Yok Sing, the main founder of the biggest pro-Beijing political party in Hong Kong.

 
 
 

Mrs Lam has tried repeatedly to reach what she sees as compromises with the pro-democracy opposition, most notably by agreeing to withdraw the extradition Bill that sparked the protests.

She has tried to set up public and private dialogues with her opponents, only to have an unflattering audio recording leak from one event and democracy advocates picket at another.

To the pro-democracy side, she is a figurehead for a government increasingly beholden to Beijing.

Any effort by Mrs Lam to begin a dialogue with democracy activists, though, has just intensified criticism among Beijing's most outspoken allies.

"The Carrie Lam government is still trying to curry favour with the opposition, thinking that she has the support of the pro-Beijing people," said Professor Lau Siu Kai, one of Beijing's top advisers on Hong Kong policy. Beijing sees the opposition "as hardline opponents and as a die-hard, anti-Communist element willing to collude with foreign forces, above all the United States".

About all that Beijing's allies agree on these days is their strong support for the Hong Kong police taking tougher action against protesters.

Yet such an approach could trigger further protests. Demonstrators have already complained of police brutality, calling for an amnesty for those accused of rioting and for the creation of a commission of inquiry into the actions of the police force.

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on October 19, 2019, with the headline 'Why the protests may have no end in sight'. Print Edition | Subscribe