Smelling blood, the protesters thronged in greater numbers. Demonstrations against an extradition bill in Hong Kong swelled on June 16 even after the city’s political leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, suspended the controversial legislation. March organizers say nearly 2 million people, young and old, packed the city center demanding the bill’s complete withdrawal and Lam’s resignation. Given that the former British colony’s population is 7 million, it’s hard to imagine a more stinging indictment of Hong Kong’s leadership.
Lam is hanging on, for now. She issued a “most sincere apology,” though it was quickly rejected by demonstrators. They accuse her of jeopardizing Hong Kong’s judicial independence by attempting to fast-track changes to the Basic Law, which introduced effective self-rule for 50 years from the moment in 1997 the British handed over the colony to China under a model dubbed “one country, two systems.” The amendment would have allowed criminals to be extradited to territories including the Chinese mainland, where chances of a fair trial are best summed up by its conviction rate of 99%.
The chief executive is widely seen in Hong Kong as a loyalist to Beijing, and her humbling backpedal will reverberate on the mainland. The sight of millions of Chinese citizens standing tall to reproach the political system that governs the rest of the country will be chastening to President Xi Jinping and his much hyped Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation. Xi is paying the price for overreaching, says Jude Blanchette, an analyst at Crumpton Group and author of a new book on China’s resurgent revolutionary ideology. “He’s managed to alienate China and frustrate its forward progress.”
The popular revolution in Hong Kong comes as Xi is facing international pushback on a variety of fronts. His signature Belt and Road Initiative is running into red tape and political opposition in Europe. State repression of Uighur Muslims in Xinjiang is being held up as an international emergency by human-rights groups and multilateral institutions. And his Made in China 2025 technology drive is being derailed by the trade war with the U.S. It’s possible demonstrators will still be on the streets of Hong Kong when Xi sits down with his U.S. counterpart Donald Trump at the G-20 in Osaka, Japan, in late June to negotiate a truce. The U.S. President noted to TIME on June 17 that the Hong Kong protests were “having a big impact.”
The likely failure of the bill is an embarrassment to Xi, but not much of an obstacle. Demonstrators note that China has already eroded Hong Kong’s autonomy through the extrajudicial rendition in 2015 of five booksellers who published salacious tomes about Beijing elites. And “one country, two systems” has an expiry date, meaning the protesters’ victory may prove hollow in the long term. In 2047 the topic of extradition will be “top of the agenda,” says Simon Young of the University of Hong Kong’s law school. “When it’s addressed at that time, I fear that none of the safeguards discussed now will exist.”
There will be a more immediate cost to the Chinese economy, though. Hong Kong’s slippery legal jurisdiction has long made it attractive to criminals; its port has historically been safe harbor for smugglers, its skyscrapers provide semi-legal gloss for North Korean shell companies, and its archaic banking system has proven fruitful to money launderers. This freewheeling status was once a boon to the impoverished mainland. In the mid-1990s, Hong Kong’s economy comprised almost a third of China’s GDP. Now that figure is less than 3%, and the same laissez-faire capitalism has become a hitch on the Chinese economy’s growth through capital flight. The extradition bill was arguably less about cracking down on Hong Kongers than about preventing Chinese businesspeople and officials from using Hong Kong to expatriate ill-gotten gains as growth slows.
Perhaps the bigger cost will be to Xi’s territorial ambitions. Since its inception, “one country, two systems” has been floated as a means of reuniting the mainland with the island of Taiwan, which has ruled itself since the defeated Nationalists fled across the strait in 1949 after China’s civil war. Reunification is key to Xi’s “China Dream” of returning the Asian superpower to “center stage in the world.”
But the Hong Kong protests have galvanized support for Taiwan’s China-skeptic President Tsai Ing-wen, whose policy is to keep Beijing at arm’s length. Even her most pro-China opponent in the 2020 general election, prospective Nationalist candidate Han Kuo-yu, said recently on the hustings that “one country, two systems” would be introduced in Taiwan only “over my dead body.”
This provocation to Xi’s authority and ambition is not likely to go unmet in Hong Kong. Protest instigators might expect to be accused of acting on behalf of hostile foreign forces. Party propaganda and patriotic education may also be ramped up. Few believe the strongman in Beijing will take this affront lying down. “Xi Jinping will increase party control wherever he can,” says professor Steve Tsang, director of the SOAS China Institute at the University of London. “He will not tolerate Hong Kong challenging him.” Blood may be in the water, but Hong Kongers shouldn’t forget the largest predator in these parts.
This appears in the July 01, 2019 issue of TIME.