The Hong Kong Protests, Explained

Gari De Ramos, Scarlet Staff

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Two weeks ago, I saw a video of police charging at protestors just several feet away from the Pizza Hut where I celebrated my 12th birthday. Today, I see footage of the University of Hong Kong, a school many of my former classmates now attend, barricaded and acting as a battleground.

Over the past five months, up to two million protestors have taken the streets. Hong Kong, my home for 14 years, is in the middle of a long, violent struggle for democracy and freedom from China’s grasp. But what exactly is going on? 

WHY ARE PEOPLE PROTESTING?

It all started in June when the HK Legislative Council – similar to US Congress – introduced a controversial extradition bill. The extradition bill was introduced because a man from Hong Kong murdered his girlfriend in Taiwan, but since there was no extradition treaty between Hong Kong and Taiwan, the man could not be extradited and tried in Taiwan. The extradition bill would not only formalize extradition procedures for Taiwan but for China as well.

The extent of this extradition bill is what initially sparked protests over the summer. There was a growing concern among all members of the public that the bill would give China a legal pathway to take Hong Kong residents into China without any justification – something China has already been doing with cases of disappearing booksellers who sold books critiquing the Chinese government.

Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, officially withdrew the bill from the Legislative Council in early September. Protests, however, are still ongoing and are now increasingly characterized by the clashes between protestors and the Hong Kong police force. 

Protestors now have a list of five demands, with the first already achieved: (1) withdraw the extradition bill, (2) the government no longer characterize the protests as a “riot”, (3) amnesty for arrested protestors, (4) an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality, and (5) complete universal suffrage. 

WAIT, ISN’T HONG KONG PART OF CHINA?

Yes and no. There are different passports for Hong Kong residents and Chinese citizens. Hong Kong has its own Olympics team. Travelers must pass through border control when going to and from Hong Kong and China. While ethnically similar, Hong Kongers speak Cantonese and Mainland Chinese speak Mandarin. 

Legally, Hong Kong is considered a Special Administrative Region of China. Hong Kong is not a country nor a city, but a part of China. Up until 1997, Hong Kong was a British colony. In 1997, it was handed over to China as a Special Administrative Region with a 50-year period in which Hong Kong could remain autonomous. 

Now, Hong Kong’s relationship with China is built by a “one country, two systems” framework, meaning Hong Kong can maintain its economic and administrative systems up to a certain extent. This framework, however, will expire in 2047. Nothing has been officially stated about what might happen after 2047. 

Over the past decade, there have been increasing fears that China will overstep Hong Kong’s 50-year autonomy. The first wide-scale case of this was the 2014 umbrella movement, which called for electoral reform in the wake of China attempting to control who was eligible to run for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive position. The protests of 2019 come just 5 years later and reflect growing unease and concern about China’s influence in the region and the lack of representation Hong Kong residents have in government. For example, Hong Kong’s 70-person Legislative Council has 35 seats for elected representatives and 35 seats for indirectly elected through interest-group-based functional constituencies (read: businesses and corporations). 

HOW VIOLENT ARE THE PROTESTS? 

Violent. Police have deployed tear gas, shot bullets, and drove vehicles to run over protestors. At least one protestor has been hospitalized due to critical condition because they were shot at by the police. Many other claims of police brutality and misconduct, such as sexual abuse, have also been made towards the Hong Kong police.

Protestors, who began 2019 events largely peacefully, have now sought refuge in college campuses which have turned into battlegrounds. Protestors have used bows and arrows on police, various subway lines, and even burnt a Hong Kong resident who expressed disagreement over the violence to the point that he was hospitalized for major burns. 

HOW IS IT AFFECTING HONG KONG? 

It’s complicated. At face value, classes at major universities have been postponed until next term (read: semester), subway lines have been disrupted, and many businesses – both locally and transnationally owned – are increasingly concerned about their operations.

Earlier in the summer, there was widespread opposition to the extradition bill from everyone ranging from Hong Kong locals, expatriate mothers, and businessmen. In mid-June, there was so much support for the protests that nearly 2 million people – almost one-third of Hong Kong’s population – took to the streets in one day of protest. With the increasing violence, however, there seems to be more internal fracturing. 

Some locals do not think the violence is necessary, and those that do continue to protest. Clashes between these residents has, at its worst, resulted in the aforementioned burning of one man. Another divide is between locals and expatriates (read: immigrants). Many ex-pats from Western countries have been keeping quiet and staying at home during recent protests. The other day, a video went viral of a white woman and Hong Kong woman arguing loudly in the middle of the street over the violence and how it is disrupting day-to-day activity in Hong Kong.

Only time can tell how long the protests will last and what the future of Hong Kong holds, but what is happening in the interim is clearly not pretty.