The Irish Times view on the Hong Kong protests: the risk of escalation

The city is in uncharted waters after weeks of turmoil over a controversial draft law

Protesters gesture as they gather outside the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, on Monday. Photograph: Vincent Yu/AP

Protesters gesture as they gather outside the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, on Monday. Photograph: Vincent Yu/AP

 

If the Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam thought she had taken the heat out of protests against her regime by deferring consideration of a controversial extradition Bill last month, she clearly underestimated the scale of public anger. On Monday, as the territory marked the 22nd anniversary of the handover from Britain to China, up to half a million people turned out for demonstrations. Their focus was the Hong Kong-China extradition Bill, which critics believe could be abused by Beijing to seize dissidents and other activists. But in the background are wider fears of growing Chinese assertiveness in the territory and a steady erosion of democratic norms.

In unprecedented scenes, riot police fired tear gas after hundreds of protesters stormed the legislature – the heart of political power in the city – and occupied the building for three hours. They smashed portraits of pro-Beijing officials and daubed the walls with graffiti. Some displayed British and colonial-era flags. In an indication that the protest movement now encompasses a broad set of grievances about Hong Kong’s cherished autonomy, some of the protesters signed a declaration that called for the overthrow of the “puppet legislative council and the government”.

Protesters said hundreds of police were inside the building when the siege began but abandoned their posts as soon as the protesters broke through reinforced glass – implying a tactical retreat that some believe was designed to turn public opinion against them. While Lam will no doubt hope that Monday’s violence will stall the movement’s momentum, it could actually lead to further escalation. Lam is already a lame duck – the longer she stays in office the more her authority ebbs away. If Beijing detects a power vacuum or a risk of further destabilisation, might it go for broke and send in the troops to restore calm? Hong Kong is in uncharted waters. In the current febrile atmosphere, the risks for both demonstrators and the authorities are extremely high. The international community must urge restraint on both sides, and Lam must accept that her own resignation is essential if calm is to be restored.

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