Breakingviews - Hong Kong protesters score Pyrrhic victory

Protesters break the windows of the Legislative Council building on the anniversary of Hong Kong's handover to China in Hong Kong, China July 1, 2019. Picture taken July 1, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY

HONG KONG (Reuters Breakingviews) - Hong Kong protesters triumphantly took over the city’s legislature, but there is little to celebrate. Amid another march against a controversial extradition plan, a furious faction broke into the empty building on Monday night and trashed it, deepening a crisis for Chief Executive Carrie Lam. The violence will weaken some of the movement’s support, spook big business and could give Beijing a pretext to dig in.

On the 22nd anniversary of Britain handing Hong Kong back to China, graffiti covered the central chamber of the Legislative Council and a colonial-era flag was draped across the podium. Crowds stormed the site before police used tear gas to force them to disperse. The shocking images broadcast around the world were a stark contrast to earlier more peaceful demonstrations, where massive crowds parted politely to allow buses and ambulances to pass.

The leaderless group made its demands loud and clear. In a 4 a.m. response, Lam condemned the vandalism after an earlier government statement stressed that her proposal is effectively on ice. The fracas will nevertheless make it tougher for her to see out her term. At best, she is a lame duck.

Radical protesters, however, risk alienating both local and foreign supporters. Some 1,500 multinational companies that make Hong Kong their Asian home, and who prize stability and security along with the rule of law, are also bound to consider whether Singapore or some other city might be a better hub.

Meanwhile, protesters hoping to embolden Hong Kong’s special status may have just diluted it. Mainland authorities, who have been preoccupied with U.S. trade talks and other pressing issues, could soon become more hands-on. They now have a ready excuse to justify tightening their grip – perhaps by expanding its main representative in the city, the Central Liaison Office, as they did following protests in 2003 and 2014.

Lam’s botched bill and her handling of the backlash have divided pro-Beijing legislators and infuriated their opponents, some of whom could become more radical. That will leave the city’s next leader in an even tighter spot. None of it adds up to a clear win.


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