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Hong Kong's increasing divide portends a tumultuous future

BEIJING – Protesters in Hong Kong got its government to withdraw extradition legislation last year, but now they’re getting a more dreaded national security law. And the message from Beijing is: Protest is futile.

One year ago Friday, protesters took over streets and blocked the legislature, preventing lawmakers from starting debate on the extradition bill. The youthful crowd clashed with police, who deployed tear gas and pepper spray in a portent of the months of protest that lay ahead.

Thousand of rounds of tear gas later, the movement has been quieted — in part by the coronavirus — but the anger has only grown. In its wake, the polarization has deepened between the city's disenchanted youth and its government. And the resolve of the central government in Beijing to crack down on dissent, as evidenced by the coming national security law for the territory, has hardened.

“Emotions are running high because these young protesters see no future,” said Willy Lam, a commentator and adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “There are no communication channels between the protesters and either the (Hong Kong) government or Beijing. And the protesters see no future for themselves, because they know they can’t change the mind of (Chinese President) Xi Jinping."

The divide signals an uneasy and possibly tumultuous future for the semi-autonomous territory, which is part of China yet has its own laws and greater freedoms than the mainland under a “one-country, two systems” framework that is supposed to guarantee it a high level of autonomy until 2047.

Protests may be smaller this year, analysts said, as police round up more protesters and the impending national security law scares others from coming out. As well, some energy will be diverted to campaigning for legislative elections in September in which the pro-democracy opposition is likely to make gains.

Organizers postponed a demonstration planned for Friday to mark the first anniversary of the blocking of the legislature, citing the coronavirus limit of public gatherings to eight people. It has been tentatively rescheduled for June 19, when the emergency rule is due to be lifted.

Fundamentally, the two sides are on divergent paths. As protester frustration mounts, the risk is they will become more radicalized, said Joseph Cheng, a political scientist and veteran pro-democracy activist. He notes new slogans at recent protests touting independence for Hong Kong. “These are slogans I won't use," he said.

A growing movement to leave China would play into the hands of Beijing, which has long broad-brushed the protesters as violent rioters bent on independence. Maintaining China's territorial integrity is one of the central tenets of the ruling Communist Party, and secessionist activities are one of the crimes to be covered by the security law.

“Maybe that is the key message of this new national security bill," said Regina Ip, a pro-Beijing lawmaker in Hong Kong. "Not to arrest large numbers of people, but really to send the message that you are part of China and if you want your two systems to continue, you’d better not do anything that could harm the overall well-being of the nation.”

The Hong Kong government is required by its mini constitution to enact a national security law, and Ip was secretary for security the only time it tried in 2003. The bill was dropped after major protests, and no administration has tried since because of public opposition.

The protests have given the central government, long frustrated by Hong Kong’s inability to adopt such a law, the pretext to bypass Hong Kong's legislature and the anti-government protesters in the city 2,000 kilometers (1,200 miles) south of Beijing.

China is expected to enact the new national security law, or laws, by the end of the summer and possibly later this month. The specifics remain under wraps, but one provision that has alarmed some would allow Chinese security agencies to set up in Hong Kong.

“I am quite upset at the Chinese Communist Party for what they have done and for what they are going to implement,” Anderson Tseng, a 22-year-old clerk, said after the decision to go forward was ratified by China's ceremonial legislature last month. “I guess most us are quite frustrated too.”

For China, the law is necessary to maintain the “one country” part of the framework that governs Hong Kong. For activists, the law and its imposition by the central government undermine the “two systems,” the semi-autonomy given to the city.

Lam, the commentator, said that unlike a few years ago, the central government has given up any pretense of not being directly involved in Hong Kong's affairs. “Beijing has become upfront,” he said. “It has become very open about the fact that it is interfering in Hong Kong affairs. It wants total control.”

He added that Hong Kong's leader, Carrie Lam, is widely seen as doing Beijing's bidding rather than advocating for the people of Hong Kong and conveying their views to national officials.

She withdrew the extradition bill only after three months of protest showed no signs of letting up and has refused to negotiate on the four other demands of the protesters. Beijing officials have publicly backed her hard-line position, which has undermined public support for her and is widely expected to work against pro-Beijing candidates in the September elections.

But analysts say it is unlikely the pro-democracy opposition will end up with a majority, because only half the legislature's seats are chosen by popular vote. Fully democratic elections for the legislature and the city's leader are one of the remaining protest demands.

That dream seems ever more distant as Beijing ratchets up its control over Hong Kong. Protests only induce the central government to tighten its grip further, which in turn sparks more protests in what has become a downward spiral.

“It is going to be one country, one system,” Cheng said, in what has become a popular refrain of activists. “Some people will leave Hong Kong, but the anger is there. The frustration is there and there will be maybe another outburst when opportunities come again.”