These past seventeen weeks, Hong Kong has been rocked by almost uninterrupted protests. Starting as a popular outcry against a government-proposed extradition bill, the movement evolved to encompass frustrations regarding the lack of democracy in the region and interferences of the Beijing government in the territory’s affairs. Demonstrations have sparked clashes between civilians and police, and widespread damage property damage.
The inciting incident for this unrest occurred in February 2018. Poon Hiu-wing and her boyfriend, Chan Tong-kai were holidaying in Taiwan when he killed her. By the time Taiwanese officials had realised his crime, Chan had returned to Hong Kong. Lack of an extradition agreement meant he could not be brought back to Taiwan to stand trial for murder, despite a confession of guilt. Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam used this high-profile case as part of her justification for a bill that would allow for case-by-case appraisals on the extradition of Hong Kong citizens to jurisdictions without existing agreements in place. This would cover scenarios like Chan’s, but also allow the extradition of Hong Kong citizens to face trial in China. This caused alarm throughout the city when the bill was proposed this February. By June, millions were estimated to be partaking in protest marches.
Hong Kong has a complex relationship with the mainland. The island was ceded to British rule during the Opium Wars and became a colony, by the end of the 19th century the territory had grown, and a 99-year lease was obtained for extra land known as the New Territories. The question of what to be done when the New Territories lease ran out was addressed in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, where it was decided that Hong Kong would be transferred to China in 1997 with the stipulation that the region’s legal system (which allowed for freedom of assembly and speech among other things) would be upheld for 50 years afterwards. Since the transfer, Hong Kong has operated as a semi-autonomous region, with its own Legislative Council and regional constitution. However, in recent years, and particularly since Xi Jinping’s rise to the presidency, there have been fears of Beijing undermining the freedoms of Hong Kong citizens. In 2015 five Hong Kong booksellers went missing only to re-emerge in Chinese custody for selling material banned on the mainland. Many Hong Kongers fear that the extradition bill would allow for any citizen to be taken across the border and similarly tried in Chinese courts. Political activists were particularly concerned that they would be targets for suppression.
The earliest protests against the bill began in March, but in June the movement started to gain huge numbers. On June 16th organisers of one march claimed that 2 million people had attended, although police placed the figure much lower at 338,000. By this point, tear-gas and rubber bullets had already been deployed during what officials described as a ‘riot’ on the 12th of June, strengthening feelings of anger. On July 1st the Legislative Council building was stormed and vandalised. Just over a week later Lam declared the bill ‘dead’. However, the concerns of the protesters had expanded. A list of five demands emerged: complete withdrawal of the bill, retraction of the description of the June 12th protest as a ‘riot’, the release of arrested protestors, universal suffrage for Legislative Council and Chief Executive elections, and an independent inquiry into the conduct of the police. Increasingly severe measurements have been taken by the city police as the unrest continued into Autumn, including the first use of live bullets on October 1st and arrests of people as young as twelve years old.
Coverage of the protests by mainland media has portrayed the situation as being the work of violent separatists, while officials slammed the protestors as verging ‘near terrorism’. So far neither the Chinese police nor military have intervened, however, Lam warned military involvement is still an option. Anti-mainland sentiment has run high during the protests, with businesses suspected of being pro-China set alight.
Although it has been roughly four months since the protests started in earnest there is no evidence that they are diminishing. On October 4th emergency powers were invoked to ban the wearing of masks, but rather than quell the protests this led to further demonstrations and further use of tear gas by police. On October 6th the first encounter between civilians and Chinese forces occurred when a garrison was surrounded. Although no soldiers ventured outside, a yellow flag emblazoned with an arrest warning flew from the building. It may be that Lam’s warning of intervention could become a reality and that what has been described as ‘the worst crisis’ the city has seen in years will soon enter a new, more deadly, stage.
Caoilfhinn Hegarty – Politics Writer