Hong Kong protesters face off with police after they fired tear gas during a rally against the controversial extradition bill outside the government head office. Photo: AFP / Anthony Wallace

Peaceful protests on the streets of Hong Kong turned violent this week, raising the question of whether Hong Kong law enforcement, with the public support of Beijing which claims ultimate authority over the autonomous region, will continue to escalate its use of force to quell the unrest.

The confrontation between police and demonstrators – spurred on by extradition legislation that many fear poses a threat to civil liberties of Hong Kong residents – has proved more volatile than similarly high-profile events five years ago.

Amid speculation that the standoff risks complicating Hong Kong’s relationship with countries including the United States, there are signs that authorities may be looking to lower the temperature and avoid further inflaming hostilities.

Pro-Beijing legislators signal delay

Some US lawmakers, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, have questioned whether Washington should “reassess” Hong Kong’s status, but the Trump administration has signaled it will be patient, barring a “precipitating event.”

Meanwhile, some pro-Beijing figures in Hong Kong have called for a further delay in proceeding with the controversial extradition bill. Meetings of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, or LegCo, to debate the bill were postponed amid the demonstrations surrounding the chamber.

Michael Tien, one pro-Beijing member of LegCo, told reporters Friday he does not support Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s insistence on pushing through the measure.

“I don’t understand why [Carrie Lam] is still so adamant about it,” he said, as quoted by Hong Kong Free Press.

The backlash to the legislation, he warned, could weigh on the pro-Beijing coalition’s prospects in an election in 2020.

“How do we govern if the pro-establishment camp loses our majority?” he said.

Bernard Chan, a top aide to Lam, said in an interview Friday morning that it is “impossible” to discuss the bill while the unrest continues.

“I think it is impossible to discuss [the bill] under such confrontation. It would be very difficult … At the very least we should not escalate the antagonism,” Chan said during an interview on Radio Television Hong Kong.

What’s at stake?

The controversial bill amends Hong Kong’s existing extradition law, which currently prohibits the Hong Kong government from responding to extradition requests from mainland China.

The legislation has undergone some changes since its original form as introduced in April, with some crimes being removed from the scope of the amendment. But despite the fact that the law does not cover political crimes, it has provoked widespread fears that it represents a further erosion of civil liberties in the region that has long enjoyed judicial independence from the mainland.

Thanks to Hong Kong’s administrative independence, the region in some respects enjoys a special commercial and immigration relationship with the United States. But in light of the recent events that has been called into question by some in Washington.

Pressure from Washington?

There has been bipartisan condemnation in the United States of both the extradition amendment and the police response to the demonstrations, which included the use of tear gas and rubber bullets.

One senior US official said, however, that the Trump administration was unlikely to use its authority to revoke the special relationship with Hong Kong, barring a dramatic escalation.

“It’s going to depend on what the Chinese do,” the official said, according to Reuters, adding that the US might resort to sanctions if mainland forces were called in. The official also said that it appeared that Beijing was eager to avoid an escalation.

Some China experts in Washington also concluded that leaders in Beijing were eager to cool tensions.

“Beijing is likely willing to accept a tactical retreat for the moment because it is in a difficult spot,” Scott Kennedy, Senior Advisor and China specialist at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, told Asia Times.

“[Beijing] wants to reduce Hong Kong’s autonomy and gradually extend its influence, but it does not want to alienate Hong Kong’s population and drive global business out of the city,” he added.

US President Donald Trump signaled in remarks on Thursday that he was optimistic about that the conflict could be resolved.

“That was a million people. That was as big a demonstration as I’ve ever seen,” Trump told reporters.

“So, I hope it all works out for China and for Hong Kong … I understand the reason for the demonstration but I’m sure they will be able to work it out. I hope they’re going to be able to work it out with China,” he said.

The top Democratic lawmaker in the US, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, released a statement through her office condemning the bill, adding that it threatened US-Hong Kong ties.

“The extradition bill imperils the strong U.S.-Hong Kong relationship that has flourished for two decades. If it passes, Congress has no choice but to reassess whether Hong Kong is ‘sufficiently autonomous’ under the ‘one country, two systems’ framework.”

US ‘instigating chaos’

In response to Pelosi’s statement, Chinese Foreign Ministry Spokesman Geng Shuang suggested that the US was working to instigate the unrest in Hong Kong and that it was against Washington’s interest.

“As a major trading partner of Hong Kong, the US has a stake in Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability. A chaotic Hong Kong runs counter to US interests,” Geng said at a press briefing Friday.

“We urge certain people in the US to respect basic facts, discard arrogance and prejudice, stop playing dirty tricks that meddle in Hong Kong affairs, give up delusions to instigate chaos in the [Special Administrative Region], he added.

Protests planned for Sunday

Whether or not Hong Kong authorities – or Beijing – escalate tensions within Hong Kong and with other countries by resorting to force to subdue unrest may well be revealed this weekend.

Protests subsided on Friday after LegCo postponed hearings on the extradition bill. But more demonstrations are planned for Sunday, with a vote on the proposed legislation still planned for June 20.

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