Hong Kong's increasing divide portends a tumultuous future

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FILE - In this Nov. 26, 2019, file photo, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam listens to a reporter's question during a press conference in Hong Kong. Protesters in Hong Kong got its government to withdraw extradition legislation last year, but now theyre getting a more dreaded national security law. And the message from Beijing is: Protest is futile. (AP Photo/Vincent Yu, File)

BEIJING – Protesters in Hong Kong got its government to withdraw extradition legislation last year, but now they’re getting a more dreaded national security law. And the message from Beijing is: Protest is futile.

One year ago Friday, protesters took over streets and blocked the legislature, preventing lawmakers from starting debate on the extradition bill. The youthful crowd clashed with police, who deployed tear gas and pepper spray in a portent of the months of protest that lay ahead.

Thousand of rounds of tear gas later, the movement has been quieted — in part by the coronavirus — but the anger has only grown. In its wake, the polarization has deepened between the city's disenchanted youth and its government. And the resolve of the central government in Beijing to crack down on dissent, as evidenced by the coming national security law for the territory, has hardened.

“Emotions are running high because these young protesters see no future,” said Willy Lam, a commentator and adjunct professor at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. “There are no communication channels between the protesters and either the (Hong Kong) government or Beijing. And the protesters see no future for themselves, because they know they can’t change the mind of (Chinese President) Xi Jinping."

The divide signals an uneasy and possibly tumultuous future for the semi-autonomous territory, which is part of China yet has its own laws and greater freedoms than the mainland under a “one-country, two systems” framework that is supposed to guarantee it a high level of autonomy until 2047.

Protests may be smaller this year, analysts said, as police round up more protesters and the impending national security law scares others from coming out. As well, some energy will be diverted to campaigning for legislative elections in September in which the pro-democracy opposition is likely to make gains.

Organizers postponed a demonstration planned for Friday to mark the first anniversary of the blocking of the legislature, citing the coronavirus limit of public gatherings to eight people. It has been tentatively rescheduled for June 19, when the emergency rule is due to be lifted.

Fundamentally, the two sides are on divergent paths. As protester frustration mounts, the risk is they will become more radicalized, said Joseph Cheng, a political scientist and veteran pro-democracy activist. He notes new slogans at recent protests touting independence for Hong Kong. “These are slogans I won't use," he said.