Hong Kong has seen several waves of mass protests in the 22 years since its British rulers relinquished control to the Chinese government, yet most of those outbursts have been marked by a healthy dose of restraint.
The most recent protests coalesced over a bill that would allow residents to be extradited to mainland China, a proposal widely seen as an effort to intimidate and silence Beijing’s critics. Protesters demanded that the bill be retracted, and they partially achieved that goal when Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam suspended the proposal late last month.
But this time there was no standing down. Protesters demanded that the bill be permanently scrapped, that Lam resign and that there be an independent investigation of police conduct. Then on Monday, the anniversary of the 1997 British handover, a faction of demonstrators escalated their challenge to Lam—and seemed to step back from their customary restraint—by sacking the Legislative Council building and spraying anti-government graffiti on the walls and portraits of various Hong Kong leaders.
If they were trying to catch the attention of Lam’s backers in Beijing, they succeeded. The Chinese government branded the action “intolerable” and the protesters “criminals.”
Hong Kong unrest serves as an inconvenient reminder of ethnic, language and cultural differences between northern and southern China, of the historic tension between Chinese unity and dismemberment, and of the continuing separation between Beijing and the “renegade province” of Taiwan.
Protesters express a range of competing desires—continued autonomy, or expanded but geographically contained democracy, or Hong Kong independence. Or a unified, but democratic, China.