Time for compromise in Hong Kong


Hong Kong has now been roiled in increasingly ugly protests for over 100 days. It is surely time for this to end. It should not be forgotten that it was thanks to massive peaceful demonstrations of some two million people that the territory’s leader Carrie Lam withdrew a controversial extradition bill from the Legislative Council.

This proposal would have allowed suspects arrested in Hong Kong to be sent to mainland China for trial, where legal standards are different from those in this former UK colony which are based on British common law. However, the demonstrations continued because the extradition bill had only been withdrawn, not scrapped entirely. It took weeks of more protests, which were becoming increasingly violent, before Lam announced that the extradition plan had been completely abandoned.

But by then the protests had acquired extra momentum. The demands of the street activists had expanded to call for the resignation of Lam herself, the release of people arrested during the demonstrations and an independent investigation into the behavior of the police in trying to contain what had often become outright rioting. One such outbreak of disorder had seen the storming of the Legislative Assembly and the extensive trashing of the building. More recently protestors have been lobbing petrol bombs at law officers who in reply have begun to deploy water cannons.

Lam has not quit but she has promised an inquiry into police conduct. She has insisted that anyone arrested must be held answerable if found guilty of committing a crime, under courts which will, of course, be working to British-based law.

Another demand has been that the Legislative Assembly and Hong Kong’s leader should be elected by a popular vote. In fact half of the 70 legislators are elected directly and the other half chosen by trade-based constituencies. The Assembly, in which there are now 29 opposition members, then chooses the territory’s leader. In actual fact in 1990, seven years before the UK ceded control to Beijing, the China’ National People’s Congress in accepting Hong Kong’s Basic Law also agreed that in due time, its people would be able to elect their leader.

On the face of it, the street activists are pushing at an open door. But with the memory of the brutal suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen Square democracy protests, the demonstrators have been looking for explicit assurances. Though Beijing has made oblique threats that soldiers of the Peoples Liberation Army might intervene to quell the public disorder, so far the Chinese government has held its hand.

Now is surely the moment for moderate opinion to assert itself and bring this unrest to an end by promoting compromise. Beijing could implement its long-standing plan for universal suffrage in Hong Kong. Lam could stay until the next scheduled elections in 2020 in which all citizens would vote. Police behavior could be investigated but any accused law officers could be pardoned, just as convicted demonstrators would also be forgiven. This confrontation cannot be allowed to continue. Some two million of the territory’s 7.3 million people have demonstrated their discontent and cannot be ignored. But it must also be certain that the majority of them did not mean their protest to descend into anarchy. Hong Kong has always been a hive of commerce and most people living there want to get back to this.