The Guardian view on Hong Kong’s crisis: the people have spoken

Photograph: Getty

When hundreds of thousands of people have marched in what appeared to be the biggest protest in Hong Kong’s history, their chants of anger ringing from the streets, it sounds perverse to draw attention to what has not been said. But there are notable gaps and silences.

The Hong Kong government has not said that it is shelving the controversial bill allowing extradition to the mainland – only suspending it, following the protests. As remarkable as Saturday’s U-turn was, that uncertainty brought still more people out the next day: 2 million, or more than one in four residents, claimed the organisers. Beijing is unlikely to want to risk another standoff in the immediate future. But previously apolitical sections of Hong Kong society have been radicalised by the threat and are making sure they are heard. They see the separation of the legal systems as the last line of defence for rights that they once took for granted.

Yet protesters have not – with some striking exceptions – targeted Beijing. Though the fight is to protect the region as the Communist party dismantles its freedoms, signs have demanded the resignation of Carrie Lam, the chief executive trying to ram it through, instead of complaining about her boss, Xi Jinping. The retreat is a striking setback for China’s most powerful leader in decades. But, as opponents of the bill are aware, he might not have felt it possible had demonstrations focused on Beijing.

Ms Lam has not acknowledged a single problem with the bill or heavy-handed policing, including the use of teargas and rubber bullets. She has shown spectacular political ineptitude and proved so tone-deaf that her apology angered protesters further. But Beijing would probably regard her departure now as a loss of face for itself.

With all eyes upon the city’s streets, one key factor in this dispute has been little mentioned: money. The bill would allow mainland-initiated asset freezes, sending a chill through Hong Kong’s powerful and generally pro-Beijing business community. Tycoons have reportedly begun to move assets offshore. The large foreign business community is equally appalled. If their staff and assets become subject to Beijing’s rules, why not headquarter in Singapore instead?

Beijing has not, until now, shown much concern for the potential economic impact of Hong Kong’s political struggle. But the region’s economy is intertwined with that of the southern Chinese mainland, and – with the trade war starting to hit home – leaders may well feel the need to tread more cautiously. The bipartisan support in the US Congress for a bill threatening Hong Kong’s status as a special trading partner will have underscored the risks.

How events play out will depend upon Mr Xi’s rigidity or pragmatism as well as the determination and astuteness of those in Hong Kong. The extradition bill is a clear and open threat to the region’s way of life. But other issues are covert and gradual, such as the unlawful abductions which have already taken place, the cowing of the press, and the pursuit of punitive sentences for protesters as a warning. Some have already been arrested while in hospital, and though the protests were overwhelmingly peaceful, the labelling of a small amount of violence as “an organised riot” opens the way to far heavier sentences.

Creeping changes have rarely proved as conducive to mass protest as the announcement of new laws. But Hong Kong residents will be wise to take greater heed of such gradual developments.