Since June 2019, Hong Kong has witnessed hundreds and thousands of people march onto streets to fight for their depleting autonomy, and for their chance at true democracy. The rallies have sustained for over twelve weeks, despite masked demonstrations veering into violence with the police using tear gas and water cannons to disperse the protesters. On July 1, the protesters stormed and vandalised the HK Legislative Council to commemorate HK’s handover to China. From 9 to 12 July, millions protested for the suspension of the extradition law amendments. On August 6, a city-wide transportation shut down took place. On August 12 and 13, the protesters took over the country’s airport.
These are only some of the protests that have stood out in the past few months, as Hong Kong has tried to reclaim its status of a ‘special administrative region’ to protect its own independence, and the humanitarian rights and liberties that its citizens enjoy.
The historical relationship between China and Hong Kong
With a GDP of over 34,000 crore USD, Hong Kong has fast grown into one of the largest financial hubs of the world. But for over 150 years, HK was a British colony. A part of it was ceded to the UK in 1842 and later, China decided to lease the rest of it, often termed as the ‘New Territories’, to the UK for 99 years.
The economy began flourishing in the 1950s with HK emerging as a major port and later, as a manufacturing powerhouse. With the deadline of the lease approaching fast, the communist Chinese government began arguing for a complete return of the HK territories to China. After significant deliberation, in 1997, the territory on China’s southern coast gained independence from British imperial rule and was “handed back” to China under a policy termed as ‘one country, two systems.’
Essentially, Hong Kong enjoyed a special federal status that allowed the region its own system of government, laws and police force. All these clauses were contained in a document called ‘Basic Rule’ which permitted for the existence and implementation of a mini-constitution for the governance of HK. The Basic Rule helped Hong Kong become a part of China while empowering HK citizens with many liberties denied to citizens on the mainland, including free speech, unrestricted internet access and the right to free assembly. It was agreed upon by all parties that the system shall stay in place until at least 2047.
Why are the “Hong Kongers” protesting?
The 2019 Hong Kong anti-extradition bill protests started with a move by China to propose amendments to HK’s extradition law that would allow case-by-case extraditions to countries that lack formal extradition treaties with Hong Kong.
Notably, one of the countries that lack formal extradition treaties with HK was the People’s Republic of China itself, known for stifling and imprisoning any dissenting citizens. Many critics have argued that the amendments were intended as a powerful tool to detain Hong Kongers who spoke against the Chinese regime or advocated pro-democracy sentiments. The amendments would have also applied retroactively, which means that the hundreds of people who had fallen under the scrutiny of China in the past for any crime would risk facing trial in the mainland. One HK lawmaker called the amended bill- “dragnet over all of Hong Kong.”
After smaller protests that started in April and May, HK witnessed its first gigantic protest on 9 June with over a million people peacefully taking to the streets. On 12 June, more than two million residents of Hong Kong swarmed HK’s legislature to delay the procedures that would’ve hastened the implementation of the amendments. These protests were met with violence, with police firing tear gas, rubber bullets and beanbags at the crowds. After these massive protests, chief executive Lam was forced to “indefinitely suspend” the amendments.
The underlying fractures in HK’s administration
“Retake Hong Kong, Revolution of Our Times”: This is the slogan that has defined this movement, which started from an extradition bill but has now expanded to five demands. Before deeper examination of these demands, we must look at the glaring loopholes in HK’s current system of governance.
Firstly, a large portion of HK’s executive powers rest with its chief executive, who, according to the Basic Rule, should be appointed on the basis of elections or local consultations. But this process has been entirely taken over by China. Currently the chief executive, Carrie Lam, who serves a five-year term, is appointed by a 1200-member election committee, that is replete with Beijing-loyalists. Thus, the representative of HK’s executive powers is often a loyalist of China. This constitutes for “Hong Kong’s sham democracy.”
Further, there is a great degree of alienation felt by young Hong Kongers from their Chinese regime. Surveys from the University of Hong Kong show that most people identify themselves as “Hong Kongers” - only 11% would call themselves “Chinese” - and 71% of people say they do not feel proud about being Chinese citizens. Cultural differences that stem from their colonial past further accentuate this alienation. And finally, China’s attempts to chip away their autonomy and bring them under direct Chinese rule, have led to recurrent protests.
Currently, the residents of HK have five major demands. They, firstly, want the extradition bill to be suspended. Secondly, they have demanded that the government retract the word “riot” to denote this movement. Next, they want the release of all those who have been arrested over the past few months in association with these protests. Demand number four calls on the government to convene a serious, independent inquiry into the Hong Kong police and their tactics. Lastly, they want universal adult franchise, so that they can reclaim their government and their rights.
What lies ahead?
The road ahead is neither safe for HK protesters nor easy for China. The months-long protests in Hong Kong could usually be expected to invite a severe crackdown from China, similar to the controversial 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre. But the situation is significantly different now.
Hong Kong is a large financial capital of the world. The HK stock market is bigger than that of London. Its citizens enjoy the freedom of expression on several global media platforms, unlike other Chinese citizens. Any crackdown on Hong Kong would cause heavy injury to the Chinese economy and the region’s investments and trade relations may be tarnished for years to come.
The ongoing trade war between the US and China further complicates the situation. Supporters from across the world have emerged in favour of the HK protests against an authoritarian regime. The US President Donald Trump has also hinted that no repeats of the 1989 Massacre will be tolerated, especially if China wants to contain the trade war. Thus, with such vested interests, its reputation as an emerging superpower is also at stake.
Although the Chinese government and police will continue to try to break and dissolve the movement, perhaps, it is time for China to move the battle from the streets to a round-table, where no one has to stifle their voices with a mask. A negotiation between the protesters and the current HK and Chinese government is clearly the best solution for all parties involved, so that the citizens’ freedoms can be safeguarded and HK’s status be regained, without tampering with the Chinese economy or global status.
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