What now for Hong Kong?

Is Hong Kong heading toward becoming ungovernable? The question may sound silly at best and unnecessarily alarmist at worst. But it is worth pondering what the worst-case scenario is for the Special Administrative Region since the astonishing events of the weekend, when two million people from all walks of life marched peacefully (and cleanly) from Causeway Bay to Central.

To say the march was an event worthy of the Nobel Peace Prize might not be an exaggeration. It is hard to think of a similar act of political courage taking place on this scale in recent years anywhere in the world. Moreover, the restraint – shown by both protesters and security forces – was deeply admirable. It has led to a situation today where Carrie Lam, the city’s Chief Executive, has been humbled to the point of calling a special press conference, at which she literally begged for her people’s forgiveness.

However, she did not go as far as the protesters would have liked. This much seems obvious from reactions. There remains a yawning gap between her administration’s willingness to meet their demands, and the clear majority of the public’s expectations.

While the unpopular legislation that sparked the protests has been suspended, it has not been withdrawn, and it would appear that other, unrelated legislation is in the works that could easily trigger the next round of street protests. The question, therefore, on the minds of many, must be: When will this standoff be resolved? And the answer, increasingly, is starting to look like: Not in the foreseeable future.

We are not easily alarmed, and we happen to believe that there are smart, level-headed people on both sides of this divide. But it is hard to see how Hong Kong can continue to operate in virtual limbo like this for a sustained period of time before its machinery starts to crack – or, worse, tempers start to flare to the point where attitudes harden and actions become more dramatic. The city’s institutions are strong, but not impervious to unrelenting pressure.

We do not yet see a scenario unfolding where capital starts to flee and businesses start to shut down on a large scale here. But we would caution our readers against complacency at this moment. Hong Kong is on a knife’s edge, and no amount of goodwill coming across the border in the form of the Greater Bay Area’s development plan is likely to help while this tension continues. The best that can be hoped for, as far as we can see, is for centrist-minded mediators to speak up more loudly, and for both sides to make greater effort to re-establish a common ground. Foreign investors, in particular, ought to have their political antennae tuned carefully to local media in the coming days, weeks, and, probably months. 

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