Hong Kong’s government showed its first signs of cracking on Tuesday when Chief Executive Carrie Lam withdrew the controversial extradition bill. Yet even though she removed the legislation which sparked several months of protests, the action is unlikely to quell the opposition which had previously adopted a list of five demands.
Now in its fourteenth week, protests have grown increasingly violent. Aside from a widely-reported incident at the Hong Kong airport where a group of protestors attacked a man whom they accused of being an undercover policeman, activists have been mostly peaceful. Hong Kong law enforcement, however, has gradually increased the severity of methods designed to suppress the protests.
Even so, neither side has blinked until Tuesday when Lam made the announced the recension of the bill in television broadcast.
“The government will formally withdraw the bill to fully allay public concerns,” Lam declared. “Lingering violence is damaging the very foundations of our society, especially the rule of law.”
Furthermore, Lam said she would add two more representatives to a council tasked with investigating complaints against law enforcement personnel. The oversight group is not new: it was created 20 years ago, which raises questions about why calls for investigations of police brutality have gone unanswered until Tuesday. Hong Kong police have on several occasions been recorded on video preventing emergency medical responders from reaching injured protestors, attempted to gouge an activist’s eyes, and raided a subway car, bludgeoning its occupants without mercy.
While her willingness to have the council look into these acts in addition to the tear-gassing, paint-marking, and arresting of peaceful demonstrators may seem like another concession to the five demands, it is not being viewed as such. Critically, the governing council has long been accused of bias because it is not an independent body and as seen during Lam’s televised statement, her administration has the power to choose its members. She continues to deny the right to a third-party investigation.
Lam also vowed to reach out to “people from all walks of life” while engaging the citizens of Hong Kong in civil discourse, but it is unknown how much she could gain from such talks given the firm stance of the protestors. While many international observers predicted a Beijing-led military suppression on the horizon, few believed Lam would be the first to relent.
The ancient unstoppable force paradox originated in the ancient philosophical book Han Feizi written by Chinese author Han Fei. Fei was the first to pose the question, “What happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object?” He termed the paradox ‘矛盾,’ pronounced as ‘máodùn’ which translates to “contradiction” or ‘spear-shield.’
It is fitting that such an enigma came from China as it perfectly encapsulates the present ordeal. For the entire summer, the protestors have essentially been spears, unstoppable forces against the government shield or immovable object. Even though Lam conceded the primary demand to remove the extradition bill in its entirety, it will not stop the immovable force nor will her government agree to the full list of requirements.
In addition to the removal of the bill, protestors call for a government order to prohibit the labelling of protests as ‘riots,’ an independent inquiry into police actions, the complete release and amnesty for arrested protestors, and democratic elections. Hong Kong citizens are unlikely to ever gain more electoral rights, especially with the city destined to return to Beijing-rule in a few decades.
“The damage has been done. The scars and wounds are still bleeding,” said Claudia Mo a pro-democracy legislator. “She thinks she can use a garden hose to put out a hill fire. That’s not going to be acceptable.”
Another Hong Kong legislator, Eddie Chu, also supported the continuation of protests declaring, “We will change our slogan to ‘Four key demands, we will accept nothing less.’”
There are concerns among some activists that if they accept Lam’s offer, her government will fiercely roll-back civil liberties as soon as protestors return to their homes.
“Whenever there are signs of sending a palm branch, they always come with a far tighter grip on exercising civil rights,” said Joshua Wong, a student protestor. “They have conceded nothing in fact, and a full-scale clampdown is on the way.”
Lam surprised many when she agreed to the principle demand of removing the extradition bill in its entirety, pledging to never to revive it. Unfortunately for the Hong Kong and Beijing governments, the time for this concession passed long ago. Protestors now feel part of something larger than themselves, and possibly larger than the government itself. They have not grown weary, only more steadfast in their resolve.