Analysis: Costs counted, the fight between Hong Kong and China will begin in earnest

11:15 pm on 3 July 2019

Analysis - As Hong Kong ponders the way ahead after protests that rocked the territory this week, Beijing has made it clear those protests will change nothing, and may well lead to the kind of crackdown not seen in the former British Colony since it was handed back to China 22 years ago.

Protesters storm the Legislative Council building in Hong Kong.

Protesters storm the Legislative Council building in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP

Protests have rumbled across Hong Kong in the past weeks, throwing the city's leadership into a political crisis.

Two of the demonstrations have involved more than a million people, demanding the withdrawal of a bill that would allow extraditions from the city to mainland China.

Protesters defied baton-swinging police and tear-gas as they denounced the Hong Kong government and chief executive Carrie Lam for attempting to make them part of a Chinese justice system they regard as corrupt and politically motivated.

Police fire tear gas at protesters near the government headquarters in Hong Kong on 2 July 2019.

Police fire tear gas at protesters near the government headquarters in Hong Kong on 2 July. Photo: AFP

But this week, a single incendiary event marked what could result in a major intervention from the mainland.

After a protracted standoff, protesters broke into the main legislature - dubbed LegCo - and proceeded to ransack the building.

Police withdrew from the building, allowing significant damage to occur, in what's now being seen as a direct attempt to make the protesters look like mindless vandals.

Fernando Cheung, vice chair of the Labour Party and a member of the Legislative Council, is one of many who believe police deliberately let protesters storm the parliament to make them look bad.

"They let them in, they wanted to be able to show the media the damage, so the people would see," he said.

The protesters were portrayed as hooligans motivated by mob violence, with state-run outlets ignoring details of their broader political demands.

"Out of blind arrogance and rage, protesters showed a complete disregard for law and order," said an editorial in the Global Times, one of the most widely-read publications.

Protesters and police face-off at Harcourt Road.

Protesters and police face-off at Harcourt Road in Hong Kong. Photo: AFP

"It's promoting a 'zero tolerance' policy," RNZ correspondent Patrick Fok said.

"Beijing is once again suggesting there were foreign forces at play in the protest movement, and that's concerning," he said.

"The Chinese foreign ministry has also rebuked both Donald Trump for comments at the G20 over Hong Kong's desire for democracy, and the UK Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, saying that basically the UK has no responsibility in the territory."

Britain earlier warned China that there would be serious consequences if the Sino-British declaration on Hong Kong was not honoured.

Mr Hunt said the UK signed an internationally binding legal agreement in 1984 that "enshrines the basic freedoms of the people of Hong Kong, and the UK stands four-square behind that agreement".

When Hong Kong was returned to China, Beijing promised that the way of life in the former colony would be protected until 2047.

At the time, the UK hoped mainland China might become more like Hong Kong, but instead it's becoming obvious Beijing is determined to do exactly the opposite - while at the same time attempting to protect the hugely valuable Hong Kong economy.

Over recent years Hong Kong has seen the introduction of new anti-sedition laws, muzzling of critical media, and changes to the education system designed to give a more pro-Communist Party view of the world.

Protesters hold up their mobile phones as they gather outside the police headquarters in Hong Kong on June 21, 2019.

Protesters hold up their mobile phones as they gather outside the police headquarters in Hong Kong on 21 June. Photo: AFP

It's highly likely the Hong Kong government will now widen the prosecution of people active in the protests.

Police say dozens of people were arrested over the recent demonstrations and a number charged with rioting, which carries a maximum sentence of 10 years' imprisonment.

The government may also continue weakening the pro-democracy movement by disqualifying more of its election candidates.

Six members of the legislature have already been removed and candidates seen as pro-independent have been prevented from running for office.

After previous mass protests in Hong Kong, the mainland government staged tactical retreats.

It allowed the territory to drop laws that were controversial, and bided its time.

The party increased funding for loyalists to run for local office, and called for help from its friends in the business community, and the pro-Beijing media.

For many in Hong Kong, mainland China is an aid to getting and keeping wealth - the proviso has always been "Don't rock the boat".

As Hong Kong's beleaguered chief executive Carrie Lam fights for stability, she will be forced to lean even more heavily on Beijing for support, a strategy more likely to provoke further street protests, than provide a lasting solution to the democracy issue.

In his 5th Century BC writing The Art of War, the Chinese military strategist Sun Tzu made the point: "Those who wish to fight, must first count the cost".

The costs have well and truly been counted in Beijing, and now the fight is likely to begin in earnest.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs