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Protesters in Hong Kong have been clashing with police for several months, but a violent series of events in recent days has brought one of the world’s most important financial centers to the “brink of total collapse," police said.
On Monday morning, a protester was shot at close range by a traffic officer during a scuffle at a blocked intersection. Later that day, a 57-year-old man was set on fire after getting into an argument with demonstrators. The campus of China University Hong Kong turned into a battleground, as police fired tear gas and rubber bullets at students who lobbed Molotov cocktails from behind makeshift barricades.
At the core of the conflict is how much control the Chinese government can impose upon residents of Hong Kong. The small territory, home to more than 7 million people, was transferred from British to Chinese control in 1997. As part of the handover, Beijing agreed to allow Hong Kong a certain level of independence for 50 years as part of an arrangement called “one country, two systems."
The protests started in June in response to a bill that would have allowed Hong Kong residents to be extradited to the mainland, which was seen by locals as a violation of the two-systems arrangement. That bill was withdrawn in September, but the unrest has continued. Protesters are now demanding more independence for Hong Kong, including the right to elect their own representatives. Beijing currently wields heavy influence in the selection of Hong Kong’s leadership.
Why there’s debate
Conflict in the streets has in some ways become a new normal for residents of Hong Kong, raising questions about how the unrest could possibly come to an end. Protesters appear determined to carry on indefinitely unless their demands are met. The Chinese government recently expressed an intention to ramp up enforcement, rather than de-escalate.
The prolonged friction and increasingly violent clashes have raised fears that Beijing might send mainland troops into Hong Kong in a deadly crackdown reminiscent of the 1989 massacre in Tiananmen Square, when the military killed hundreds — or possibly thousands — of student protesters.
Despite these fears, some observers see potential for a more peaceful resolution, or at minimum, steps that could calm the bubbling tension. Beijing could dampen the intensity of the protests, some argue, by addressing some of the demonstrators’ more modest demands, such as launching an independent investigation into police conduct. Others see political and financial pressure as possible ways for the international community to push China toward compromise.
Local elections scheduled for later this month in Hong Kong could be a flashpoint for further clashes. Chinese state media suggests the elections might be postponed or canceled if violence doesn’t end, a move could further inflame the anger of local residents.
Tensions in Hong Kong could last decades
“As the weeks pass, the issues become ever more intractable, the conflict more entrenched and society ever more divided. If the government does not budge and the violence continues to escalate, Hong Kong’s own Troubles may last for decades.” — Louisa Lim and Ilaria Maria Sala, Guardian
China may struggle to impose its will if it ramps up enforcement
“Throughout the protests, the Chinese government has struggled to match its hard-line rhetoric with effective policies. That problem could deter or frustrate the push to drive through national security measures covering the territory.” — Chris Buckley, New York Times
Beijing must realize how dedicated Hong Kong citizens are to the cause
“This movement is the endgame for many in Hong Kong. People would rather sacrifice their own future than submit to authoritarian rule. … Beijing and the government must come to terms with the inconvenient truth that autocracy and repression have radicalized a single-issue movement into a people’s uprising for freedom and democracy.” — Ching Kwan Lee, Los Angeles Times
De-escalating rhetoric on both sides would calm things down
“Here in Hong Kong, where sides were taken long ago, there are no longer any shades of grey. No matter how egregious the affront perpetrated by the members of one’s own side, it is blindly supported. With both sides so entrenched, clearly we need to return to the campfire and consider more shades of grey.” — Paul Stapleton, Hong Kong Free Press
Protesters need to refrain from violence to avoid a crackdown
“In holding off on more marches, the demonstrators would raise their political profile in Hong Kong. … This is and remains a long-term political struggle, and the marchers in Hong Kong need to stay safe and alive — and continue to appeal to majority opinion in Hong Kong — to fight another day.” — John Pomfret, Washington Post
International pressure could force China to relent
“As China’s central government tramples on Hong Kong’s rights, more Western democracies … are likely to support comprehensive economic sanctions. It should be obvious that this would be a devastating development for [Xi Jinping] and the Communist Party, whose legitimacy depends on continued economic growth and improvements in living standards.”
— Minxin Pei, South China Morning Post
A massacre is possible if China feels it has no other option
“For the time being it cannot be ruled out that Beijing will choose to invade Hong Kong and extinguish the special rights that the island was meant to be granted until 2047, despite the economic damage China would suffer as a result. This would be ‘Tiananmen reloaded’ — the return of the tanks that the world had to witness in June 1989.” — Alexander Görlach, Deutsche Welle
The Hong Kong government has proven to be incapable of managing the crisis
“If the government has failed over the past five months to come up with any effective way to bring the situation under control, can Hongkongers expect a magical solution any time soon?
The writing is on the wall and the answer, like it or not, is pretty much ‘no.’” — Tammy Tam, South China Morning Post
An independent investigation into police actions could be a starting point for peace talks
“[Pro-China leadership] should acknowledge that public confidence in the police and the government are plummeting, and agree to an independent investigation into the force’s handling of the protests.” — Maya Wang, Globe and Mail
Fears of a Chinese military massacre in Hong Kong are unfounded
“As a witness of the Tiananmen incident in 1989, I do spot similarities in the government's tactics now, especially in terms of rhetoric. … But I believe the similarities to Tiananmen will stop at that level, and a military intervention is highly unlikely. The reason is very simple: No city in mainland China could replace Hong Kong in terms of international trade.” — Anna Wang, Newsweek
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Cover thumbnail photo illustration: Yahoo News; photo: Vincent Yu/AP