The World

How Do the Hong Kong Protests End?

The city’s unique politics have made compromise impossible.

Protesters set barricade on fire at a demonstration in Hong Kong.
Pro-democracy protesters set barricade on fire at a demonstration in the Causeway Bay district on Oct. 6 in Hong Kong.
Anthony Kwan/Getty Images

When Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam finally withdrew the controversial extradition bill on Sept. 4, after three months of regular mass protests, few thought that it would quell opposition to the government, and indeed, it has not.

Withdrawal of the bill might have been enough to stop the protests in June, but the three-month interim of repeated police abuse and government obfuscation has laid bare the Hong Kong government’s lack of legitimacy, accountability, and authority, which is why many protesters have continued to rally for “five demands, not one less.” (The remaining four demands are an independent inquiry into police conduct, amnesty for protesters, rescinding the official description of the protests as “riots,” and universal suffrage. The last request had been the chief executive’s resignation, but it was expanded partway through the summer.)

In response to continued dissent, including violent protests that marred the People’s Republic of China’s 70th-anniversary celebrations on Oct. 1, the Hong Kong government invoked a British colonial-era emergency law on Oct. 4 to impose a ban on wearing face masks at public gatherings. This provoked backlash in a society that is so densely urbanized that almost any step outdoors puts one into a de facto public gathering. People routinely wear masks for many reasons, including air pollution and containing the spread of colds. The mask ban combined with now-frequent closures of subway stations—a de facto curfew—are measures of martial law, even if it is not the military itself enforcing it.

Unsurprisingly, Hong Kong protesters greeted the mask ban with robust demonstrations involving many a mask, the High Court rejected an appeal for temporary suspension of the ban, the government betrays no signs of conceding, and both peaceful and violent protests show no signs of abating.

So, what will happen in Hong Kong? Even if the city’s government wanted to concede, it cannot make major decisions without Beijing’s approval. Hong Kong’s own form of quasi-authoritarian rule constrains it as well: If it were more authoritarian like the mainland, it could simply squash the protesters with overwhelming force; if it were more democratic and therefore more accountable, it would respond in some way to the people’s demands. Because it is neither, the Hong Kong government is largely paralyzed in the face of vehement and sustained opposition, and it uses the police ever more aggressively, while protesters are driven toward greater radicalism because Hong Kong’s political institutions are structured to prevent pan-democratic political parties’ meaningful input and there are no other venues for genuine political participation.

This institutional situation limits possible realistic outcomes. Neither extreme scenario—government capitulation or a hard-line crackdown—seems likely, although if the government had to choose between them, the latter is more probable. While it is always a danger to attribute too much foresight to authoritarian regimes, the mask ban seemed calculated to provoke everyone, not just radicals, in ways that may eventually justify a harsh crackdown. (There is already compelling evidence that agent provocateurs are among those at work in the protests.)

In this environment, is there any possible resolution? The government is not going to agree to “five demands, not one less,” but it could signal that it is worthy of trust and exercise some measure of legitimate authority by rescinding the mask ban and conducting an investigation into the police, whose training and rules of engagement need to be clarified and reformed.

But the protests are unlikely to succeed in motivating even these limited government concessions. Venezuela may offer a useful comparison: Opposition there is similarly concentrated in urban areas, which means that protesters can put more pressure on the urban-centered government. Yet despite forming an organized alternative government, the Venezuelan opposition has been unable to topple a regime, led by Nicolás Maduro, that by all rights should be quite weak—Venezuela’s massive inflation and poverty level of over 90 percent have driven more than 3 million people (about one-tenth of its population) to flee the country’s pervasive hunger, destitution, violence, and political persecution in the past few years, in part because the military has stayed onside. Governments are difficult to overthrow under any conditions, and Hong Kong’s relationship to Beijing is much more intimate and direct than Caracas’ to Moscow, not to mention that Hong Kong is still a largely wealthy, stable, and well-functioning society.

Because protests are the only political avenue available for the ordinary dissenter, the government must be the first mover on crafting a compromise. Compromise, however, is not possible when one side will only agree to its own solution—that requires, rather, capitulation on the opposition’s part.

To induce capitulation, the Hong Kong government is taking a two-pronged approach: public consultations and economic sweeteners, such as a proposed $2.4 billion relief measure targeting small businesses, primary and secondary school students, and low-income households. Rather than operate as genuine public forums, however, both press conferences and “community dialogue” meetings where members of the public can make statements and ask questions have mostly been used by the chief executive to promote the government’s paternalistic rationales. And while economic inequality, lack of domestic competitiveness, and social immobility contribute to Hong Kong’s social problems and should all be addressed, they are not the root cause of the problem, which is an illiberal government that lacks accountability to the people and ultimately serves Beijing’s interests. Focusing on economic issues to the exclusion of the political problems is a shell game in line with the Beijing model; it will certainly buy off some of the marginal protesters, but the majority of dissenters have stuck firmly to their political demands.

Beijing is also in an untenable situation: For internal reasons (especially its own domestic unrest and the permeability of its firewall between the mainland and Hong Kong), the Chinese Communist Party does not think it can make any concessions to Hong Kong, for fear that dissent will spread across the mainland. (Could the CCP simply strengthen the firewall, such that Hong Kong’s liberties pose no contagion to the mainland? Even if that were technologically possible, President Xi Jinping also seems committed to a project of grand Chinese revival that includes a certain measure of ethnic nationalism and ethnic solidarity.) At the same time, the CCP values its international reputation just enough that it will refrain from cracking down in Hong Kong as long as it thinks the rest of the world cares about Hong Kong’s fate. (Last week’s unexpected confrontation between the Chinese government and the National Basketball Association has only raised awareness of the crisis in the West.)

Sometimes there is no way for any party in a conflict to win. The fundamental issues at stake (greater accountability of an illegitimate but not murderous government) do not as yet warrant a full-fledged guerrilla resistance movement. As long as the majority of the protesters remain peaceful and the rest of the protesters and the police keep the violence short of killing, then Beijing will likely continue to tolerate low-level unrest and conflict.

This does not mean that the protesters should simply keep protesting. Unlike in 2014, the 2019 protesters employ tactical fluidity—“be water”—to stay physically ahead of the police for the most part, and they have displayed (perhaps unintentional) operational complexity with the mix of mostly peaceful and some violent protest, but the efficacy of protest is also limited. And since international assistance will also be circumscribed, dissidents must now exercise strategic fluidity and develop other methods of pressuring the government, such as instituting oversight from legitimate, non-government bodies for themselves. They can do this in far-fetched yet strangely plausible ways, such as capitalizing on their moral legitimacy to set up their own independent international investigation into police abuse.

Even if long-term, low-level physical conflict does not lead to regular killings à la the Northern Ireland “Troubles,” it will have a profound effect on Hong Kong’s economy and society. In the short run, not much will change, as there are enormous fixed costs for companies to relocate headquarters or reroute trade. But Hong Kongers are already responding to the unrest by staying home more; people no longer bring their young children to even the peaceful demonstrations for fear of police violence. If protests continue to generate subway shutdowns and effective curfews, and companies come to believe that Hong Kong is no longer a stable place to conduct their business, then they will shift away from the city over time.

This may appear to only redound to China’s benefit, as the CCP would like Hong Kong to become just another Chinese city, and an international pivot away from Hong Kong will give the CCP more leeway to do what it likes there. But that would be shortsighted of the party, as Hong Kong is still quite important for China: It is the only place in China where the rule of law and clean government are the norm, which is why, despite Hong Kong’s share of China’s GDP falling from 16 percent in 1997 to a mere 3 percent now, two-thirds of equity financing raised and two-thirds of foreign direct investment in China are conducted through the city’s financial institutions. The Chinese financial sector does not have any comparable short- or medium-term alternatives to Hong Kong, and expectations that Shanghai will soon replace Hong Kong are still premature. Furthermore, while China’s economic power and the seduction of its market can seem overwhelming, it is not infinite, as recent backlash to Chinese pressure on multinational companies has shown. Weakening Hong Kong would only add to China’s existing economic vulnerabilities and threaten CCP rule in the long run.

That being said, it is too optimistic to start looking toward the end of China’s empire—it might be the beginning of the end, but unless there is an external shock that has internal reverberations (e.g., severe global economic downturn, humiliating military loss), the disintegration will be slow and the end perhaps not in our lifetimes. Far too many people support the Beijing model’s trade-off of civil liberties for economic growth, and in any case, Chinese state control is too entrenched. There were hopes in 1997 that China would become more like Hong Kong over time, but it has been increasingly clear for a while that this will not happen of the CCP’s own accord.

This raises the question of whether the tension-filled “one country, two systems,” in place since the handover of Hong Kong to Chinese rule, and also envisioned for Taiwan, is still viable. It did not look especially sustainable in the beginning and now is decidedly unappealing to anyone but those in charge of the “one country.” Its problems are built into the design: Whether it is a more liberal country governing a more oppressive subterritory, or a more oppressive country governing a more liberal subterritory, the model is unsustainable in the long run if there are information flows from one to the other.

An impermeable firewall would have to be maintained between them, and that is not possible in this technological day and age. Not all barriers are porous, of course, but even where water cannot seep, it will eventually erode.