Students stood studying, textbooks and umbrellas in hand, as fellow protestors lifted signs beside them in the streets of Hong Kong. Men and women donned clear goggles as police in riot gear fired tear gas into the crowd. What had been peaceful tension escalated into violence as bricks, plastic bottles, and traffic cones faced off against rubber bullets, pepper spray, and batons.
For 11 consecutive weekends, civilians have held mass demonstrations in the autonomous Chinese territory, sparked by an extradition bill’s potential to undermine their independence. This proposed amendment to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance lit the fuse to a united retaliation against what millions of Hong Kongers see as China’s nascent endeavor to revoke the region’s autonomy too soon.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam asserted on Aug. 4 that she will not withdraw the bill, at the same time calling for more empathy toward law enforcement. A little more than a week later, travelers in and out of the city found themselves at the mercy of protesters who had swarmed Hong Kong’s busiest airport, grounding flights while clashing with police.
Since the United Kingdom returned colonial Hong Kong to China in 1997, the state has operated under a “one country, two systems” principle. The terms of British concession spelled out 50 years of semi-autonomy for Hong Kong, during which China would not enforce its authoritarian policies on the administrative region. Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, called Basic Law, ensures its citizens would retain their rights to free speech, press and assembly, among other democratic liberties.
Though this series of protests first attracted global attention on June 9, the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation Bill was introduced in February and drew continual criticism from the white-collar professional class as it moved through the legislature. If passed, the law would permit Hong Kong to extradite fugitives to Taiwan—the bill’s original intent—but also to China. This would offer Beijing an avenue to crack down on the hub of anti-China activism in Hong Kong by legally calling dissidents to trial on the mainland, effectively inhibiting the means to exercise those freedoms professedly secured until 2047.
The bill would bring justice to the family of Poon Hui-wing, 21, who was murdered by boyfriend Chan Tong-kai, 20, while the two were vacationing in Taiwan, which Hong Kong does not yet have an extradition agreement with. Lam, while pressing the urgency of such a law, has also insisted that safeguards will be in place to ensure the people’s freedoms are not threatened. She herself would approve each extradition request before it is executed, and the independent Hong Kong judiciary must confirm that there is a valid case against the fugitive.
However, Hong Kong’s chief executives are all already Beijing-approved, and hence are more likely to fall in line with the mainland’s wishes. Each election cycle, citizens choose from a handful of candidates pre-selected by a committee whose members are prone to hold pro-China interests. In support of the protesters, Taiwan has stated it would not seek Chan’s extradition under this law if it meant China could do the same.
After Hong Kong’s government revised the bill in an unsuccessful attempt to pacify the public, Lam announced on June 15 that the legislature would suspend voting indefinitely. It was not enough for the 2 million who inundated roads again the next day. Wary marchers believed the vague forfeiture was a scheme to dampen momentum in the movement—now the largest Hong Kong has ever seen—and that Lam would revive her push for passage once current outcry died down. Protesters continued to call for the bill’s full withdrawal, as well as for Lam’s resignation.
The demonstrations no longer center on the extradition bill itself, which served as a catalyst for the eruption of latent agitation at China’s recent infringements on its 1997 agreement.
Despite Hong Kong enforcing strict visa requirements for those entering from the mainland, China has begun to erase this border by connecting the two regions in 2018 with the longest sea-crossing bridge in the world. Meanwhile, Beijing injects its influence through China-centric television programming: news opens each evening with the Chinese national anthem, and is broadcast in Mandarin even though Hong Kong traditionally uses Cantonese. Schools also follow curricula that instruct pupils to view mainland China’s political model as superior to other forms of government.
Although Hong Kong holds regular elections to staff its Legislative Council (LegCo), China tips the scale of influence in its favor through the way seats are delegated. While citizens tend to elect more pro-democracy legislators than pro-China, only 57 percent of spots are allotted to those winners. The remainder are filled via votes from Hong Kong’s private business sector, which stands to gain much from maintaining friendly relations with Beijing. This system ensures that vital contributors to Hong Kong’s economy are satisfied with their voice in government. Thus the lawmaking body regularly consists of a pro-China majority regardless of true public sentiment.
Citizens of Hong Kong are not new to taking to the streets once they deem their government has overreached. Its first notable protest (since the British handover) broke out in 2003, when the LegCo introduced a bill proposing life sentences for national security offenses ranging from treason to sedition. It also aimed to grant the government tools to restrict free assemblage as well as permission to search homes without warrants. 500,000 civilians descended on the streets in solidarity, prompting Hong Kong’s Liberal Party to retract support for the legislation, thereby ensuring it would not garner enough votes to pass.
The next monumental fight came in 2012, when the city announced plans to implement a patriotic public school curriculum that would praise the “China model” while dismissing Beijing’s sorest memories, such as the Cultural Revolution and Tiananmen Square Massacre.
History is understandably taught from the winner’s perspective, and although the U.S. doesn’t like to dive deep into its own mistakes either, American education at the least guarantees students are made aware of slavery (which is covered extensively as the country’s greatest stain), Jim Crow, Japanese internment and more. China instead makes every attempt to erase its blunders from domestic knowledge.
At the forefront of opposition to the “national education” program was 15-year-old student Joshua Wong, who led and organized protests against the change. Hong Kong backed down more than a month later, leaving the decision to adopt this proposed curriculum up to schools themselves. This victory demonstrates that the LegCo can indeed respond favorably to popular demand, as ultimately its purpose is to represent its constituents. Today, a much more massive wave of protesters rides on the hope of persuading lawmakers once again.
Wong returned to the spotlight in 2014 as the leading dissident of the Umbrella (or Occupy) Movement, named for the sea of umbrellas protestors wielded as makeshift barricades against police pepper spray. China, claiming to bring universal suffrage to Hong Kong, ventured to reform the Chief Executive election process. A Nominating Committee of 1,200—chosen from an Election Committee composed heavily of business sector representatives—was to select which candidates would be on the ballot.
Tens of thousands of students occupied public spaces, clogging channels of transportation for more than two months. Although the civil disobedience once again drew international attention and disrupted day-to-day practices, it did not extract government concessions this time around. Protestors trickled back into daily life with one message scattered throughout the streets: “we will be back.”
The Occupy Movement failed at least partially because protestors could not settle on a single solution to strive for. While common consensus determined that democratic elections were the goal, relentless discourse over what best constituted true universal suffrage meant they never solidified a specific goal. Previous protests having prominent leaders also made it easy for China to track down and sideline these faces of the revolution by imprisoning them and imposing sanctions on their future political careers.
This year’s movement, however, seems to have evolved tactics. Protestors stand behind a clear purpose: kill the extradition bill fully and accept no less. (Other goals have emerged over the course of the unrest, including an independent inquiry into police behavior and the release of arrested protestors.) The protests aren’t following any official schedule, either, and no one group or individual is conducting the show. Instead, the masses have been mobilizing through spontaneous social media planning. They have also learned to “be water,” meaning to move quickly from place to place before police backup can arrive.
In 2019, a significant portion of protestors are now struggling to preserve a lifestyle they’ve grown up with. Those storming the streets born after 1997 have never known a world in which Hong Kong was under external jurisdiction. These citizens have evidenced a readiness to stand their ground, and it’s this generation that China will confront come 2047.