Hong Kong stands at a perilous turning point

The huge protests in Hong Kong have splintered, and one part has turned to violence. The storming of the city’s Legislative Council on Monday marks a perilous moment. It risks throwing away the victory that the impressive demonstrations had already achieved in persuading city authorities to suspend an extradition bill that would erode its judicial independence. For Beijing, it represents the gravest challenge to Chinese rule since the handover of the former British colony 22 years ago. Both sides must now seek, above all, to maintain calm.

The split in the protesters was encapsulated by pictures of a white-haired demonstrator being knocked aside as he remonstrated with masked youngsters smashing their way into the legislative building. The group that turned to force was still tiny compared with the hundreds of thousands who marched peacefully elsewhere. They may have been lured into a trap as riot police guarding the building withdrew. Either way, the storming was an error.

It achieved no concrete gain, but sapped the moral advantage that previously lay with the rallies that had amassed as many as one in four of the city’s population. It gives the Hong Kong authorities ammunition to denounce all demonstrators, wrongly, as hot-headed lawbreakers. It provides a potential pretext not just for city police to conduct mass arrests, but for Beijing to order an ugly clampdown.

Yet blame for the escalation lies, too, with city leaders’ mishandling of the situation. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong chief executive, did not suspend the extradition bill — which would allow criminal suspects to be handed over to the mainland for the first time — after 1m Hong Kongers marched against it. She waited until after protesters clashed with police a few days later, though on a far smaller scale than this week. The lesson some youngsters drew was that only force brings results.

It is vital that all demonstrators return to purely peaceful methods. Only then can they regain their moral force, avoid alienating the more conservative parts of Hong Kong’s society, and deprive the authorities of legal pretexts to pursue them.

For her part, Ms Lam should scrap the extradition bill entirely. While she risks appearing again to cave in to violence, she has already all but admitted the proposed law is dead. Demonstrators have demanded she also stands down, but should be careful what they wish for. Her exit could allow Beijing to appoint someone more hardline.

The city authorities, and China’s central government, should refrain from a heavy-handed legal clampdown, or worse. President Xi Jinping will be wary of leaving such a bold affront to Beijing’s authority unpunished. China’s leaders should, however, pay heed to the anger and determination young Hong Kongers have shown. With no memory of British rule, they see the extradition bill as part of a broader erosion of “one country, two systems”, the principle supposedly allowing Hong Kong to maintain its own economic and administrative arrangements for 50 years after 1997.

Beijing should note, too, that the extradition bill has also been criticised by foreign businesses, whose presence enables Hong Kong to remain a global financial centre and a bridge to the mainland economy. China’s dizzying growth in the past two decades makes Hong Kong less important to it economically than two decades ago. But what happens to the city and its system is watched closely, for example, in Taiwan. A brutal crackdown in Hong Kong would destroy whatever hope remains in Beijing of one day “peacefully reuniting” Taiwan with the mainland.

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