On Sunday, another massive protest in Hong Kong rallied against chief executive Carrie Lam, demanding her to withdraw a controversial extradition bill and step down.
Neither of those demands were met on Tuesday, when Lam faced journalists. She said she would not resign, even though she offered a “very sincere apology” for causing “anxiety” over the proposed law to allow extraditions to mainland China. Lam said the bill is unlikely to go ahead in the near future, but it has not been fully withdrawn.
“I have heard you loud and clear and have reflected deeply on all that has transpired,” she said.
But what exactly did transpire over the last few weeks -- and what’s next for Hong Kong now?
How much autonomy has Lam had in all of this?
Lam has said the extradition bill was her idea, and not directed by Beijing. Authorities in Beijing, she said at a news conference Saturday announcing the suspension of the bill, have been “understanding” and “supportive,” but have not insisted on an outcome one way or another.
Still, analysts say it is hard to really know. The position of the chief executive of Hong Kong is an almost impossible one. The job fundamentally reports to Beijing authorities, who pre-select a pool of candidates. And yet the chief executive has to serve the Hong Kong people. Often, the views of two are diametrically opposed. The last major Hong Kong protests, in 2014, sought to have voters pick Hong Kong’s leaders instead of Beijing.
“Without Beijing’s backing she would not have pushed for the bill in this aggressive way,” said Ho-Fung Hung, a professor in Political Economy at Johns Hopkins University, who called Lam’s more recent remarks merely “face-saving" for Beijing.
Did Beijing blink?
Even though protesters did not appear to be satisfied with Lam’s concessions, the backtracking indicated a change in strategy. If Beijing initially supported or even initiated the bill, why did officials there later blink?
Analysts said Tuesday that the backtracking by Lam and likely also by leaders in Beijing -- unusual for the increasingly assertive China -- may be due to a number of factors.
First, Beijing and Lam may have miscalculated. Johns Hopkins professor Hung said that Beijing likely believed it had succeeded in dismantling the “most active core of Hong Kong civil society" in a crackdown following the so-called 2014 Umbrella Revolution. The scale of recent protests likely “caught Beijing by surprise," said Hung.
Beijing -- which was handed control over Hong Kong from Britain in 1997 -- might be playing the long game. Since the handover, Hong Kong has maintained a semi-autonomous status, which has allowed it to have its own, independent justice apparatus. That status is set to expire in 2047, exactly 50 years after the handover from the British.
Human rights advocates fear that Beijing will push for less autonomy far sooner, and in fact already has. The controversial law proposal to facilitate extraditions from Hong Kong to mainland China proves that, they argue.
But the timing was not right -- at least not yet, said Hung.
China remains in a trade war with the United States, which has threatened to withdraw Hong Kong’s special economic status over the recently proposed bill. That status has also benefited mainland China. The issue would have likely come up at the G-20 summit next week, during which President Trump and Chinese leader Xi Jinping are expected to discuss, among other issues, the Hong Kong protests. Ongoing unrest in Hong Kong would have handed Trump a strategic advantage.
But many Hong Kong observers worry that Beijing will eventually try again to draw Hong Kong closer into its sphere of influence. Beijing’s idea "is to retreat only temporarily,” said Hung.
What’s next for Hong Kong chief executive Lam?
While there appear to be few reasons for Beijing to doubt Lam’s loyalty, the last weeks may have triggered doubts among Chinese officials whether she can still be of use to them as much as they would hope for.
Lam “would be a lame duck, as she may not dare to implement controversial policies anymore to avoid provoking the opposition,” said Ivan Choy, a political scientist at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. Yet, he said, “Beijing may not be ready to find a replacement for her immediately.”
Other analysts agreed with Choy. Johns Hopkins professor Hung said not delivering on the extradition bill may have curbed her chances of a second term, but it’s unclear if Beijing can find any successor considered loyal enough in the short-run.
What’s ahead for the protest movement?
After the 2014 protests, Hong Kong authorities acted swiftly to arrest the leaders of that movement. One of them, pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong, was released on Monday.
But the movement he helped build five years ago has since morphed into a leaderless and more anonymous version of itself. “It’s more guerrilla this time,” said professor Hung. Protesters have gone to great lengths to hide their identities: Relying on secure messaging apps instead of more common mainstream alternatives and purchasing single-ride subway tickets to protest sites, for instance.
One question going forward will be if the movement will remain leaderless, which could raise questions over how it will sustain itself, or if high-profile individuals like pro-democracy activist Wong will take the lead. The latter approach may be able to direct the protests more effectively, but it also increases the risk of a crackdown on leading figures in the future. It may also risk conflict between the different pro-democracy factions in Hong Kong, similar to what happened in the 2014 Umbrella Movement.