By Wing Sham and Becca Bashford.
Hong Kong and China have a very complicated political relationship. In the 1800s, China released Hong Kong to the United Kingdom for 99 years due to failure of war. In 1997, Hong Kong became part of China under “One Country, Two Systems” – this means that while Hong Kong is a part of China, it has its own distinct governmental system. Hong Kong has a high degree of autonomy, a comprehensive legal system and freedom of speech. In China, on the other hand, it is illegal to speak out against the government in any way.
According to the Sino-British joint declaration, signed by Margaret Thatcher and the Chinese Government in 1984, Hong Kong will be returned to China in 2047. Yet China has already infringed upon Hong Kong’s autonomy. Most recently and notably, British Consulate employee Simon Cheng was detained at the Chinese border. On the 8th of August, Cheng took the express train from Shenzhen to Hong Kong and texted his girlfriend that he was crossing the border. He was detained for fifteen days, but was not formally charged before being released.
Many ‘Hong Kongers’ have suggested that the Chinese police and immigration officers and police are interrogating people crossing the border, asking questions like “Did you go to the protest?”. It is claimed that police are conducting unlawful searches of phones and laptops, looking for pro-democracy content.
The protests began in retaliation to the now withdrawn extradition bill which would allow the Hong Kong government to allow Hong Kong citizens to be extradited, put to trial, and charged in mainland China. Many Hong Kong citizens say they are worried that China will exploit this law.
In Hong Kong, all legislative decisions are made in the Legislative Council (Legco). The council is divided primarily between two separate parties: Pro-democracy, and Pro-China. Only 40 seats are elected by the people. The remaining 40 seats are made-up mostly of business sectors, voted in by business corporations. Therefore, the vast majority of the council belong to pro-China allies.
The first march took place on the 31st of March, with over 130,000 participants. Organisers claim that participants grew rapidly in numbers as the protests unfolded over the following months – on June 12, the day the bill was supposed to be pushed forward by the legislative council, it is estimated that over 2 million Hong Kongers marched. To put this into context, Hong Kong’s population is estimated to be around 7.2 million. This makes the June 12th march the largest pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong’s history. By the 18th of August, the protests were less about the bill – as it was suspended on the 15th of June – but rather about the excessive use of force from the Hong Kong police. Over 1.7 million people joined the march against police brutality. What began as a peaceful protest to protect democracy has now become a fight for human rights.
On the 11th of June, protestors took over the streets in Admiralty and police used over 150 tear gas canisters and 10 rubber bullets to expel the protestors’ reporters. The police have defended their use of brute force by labelling the protest a “riot”. However, their actions added another layer to the protests – with many young people now marching against police brutality.
Shortly after this event, Carrie Lam announced that the bill was “dead”, but it was not withdrawn until several weeks later. On the same day as her announcement, a protestor jumped from the rooftop of the Taikoo Building. This triggered more people to take to the streets.
The Hong Kong government’s arrogant attitude and the police’s violent actions have changed the tone of the movement from peaceful and non-violent to slightly more radical. Hong Kong citizens set up ‘Lennon Walls’ in 18 districts which allow people to leave messages on the wall to encourage each other. It has become a social norm that there are protests every weekend in different districts.
At the same time, the mainstream opinions are separated with two colours – blue (pro-government) and yellow (pro-democracy). The tension between protestors and police has been more intense since the violent incident in Yuen Long, where a group of people attacked citizens with sticks at a train station – causing 45 injuries. It was later revealed that the attacked group were pro-democracy.
So far, the police have used over 1000 tear gas bombs, and even expired bombs, not to mention hundreds of rounds of rubber bullets. Two protesters have been blinded, and several have been beaten with batons. Four people have died, and over 700 protesters have been arrested.
The pro-democracy protesters have five simple demands. Thus far, only the first demand has been met. Carrie Lam did announce that there will be an investigation into the abuse of police powers, which is the fourth demand, but this investigation is currently set to be conducted by the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC). Many protestors, as well as the United Nations Commissioner for Human Rights, have demanded that the Hong Kong government conduct a truly independent and unbiased investigation, as it is claimed that the IPCC is heavily pro-establishment.
The pro-democracy demands are as follows:
- Completely withdraw the extradition bill
- Retract the proclamation that protests on 9 June and 12 June were riots
- Withdraw criminal charges against all protestors
- Thoroughly investigate abuse of powers by the police
- Dissolve the legislative council by administrative order and immediately implement Dual Universal Suffrage.
This story is developing. Stay tuned for more updates.