Illustration by: Colleen Chang
2 million protesters, nearly 25 weeks of protest; over 4500 arrests, 4000 canisters of tear gas; more 2600 injuries, and multiple suicides . These are just a few of the staggering numbers coming from Hong Kong’s recent protests against China’s extradition bill; however, this tension between the two regions dates far further.
Hong Kong, originally part of China, was ceded to Great Britain as part of the “unequal treaties”, but returned 150 years later. During this period of time, Hong Kong culture grew radically different from that of the mainland . Over time, this built resentment on both sides, as Mainland China viewed Hong Kong as rebellious and unwilling to assimilate, while Hong Kong kept its autonomy and legislative council from its time under the British regime. The set of conditions that Hong Kong was returned to China under included the “one country, two systems” principle . Hong Kong’s “constitution” states that China has ultimate power over all of Hong Kong’s external affairs, such as defence and trade, but has no influence over its internal affairs, such as government. Hong Kong’s freedom of speech and democratic institutions are protected by this system, and the Communist Party of China has no official presence in the city .
In past years, China has increasingly strained the “one country, two systems” principle, attempting to gain a firmer grasp on internal processes in Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, Legco, consists of half elected, and half appointed individuals who represent professionals from various sectors. Following the 2016 Hong Kong elections, six elected members have been disqualified, skewing the balance to favour the appointed members, who support Beijing, and represent upper-class interests which often align with the Communist Party’s. In addition to this, Hong Kong’s electoral ridings were recently altered, adding 21 seats to the Legco, and merging other ridings . Some pro-democracy parties have up to one third of their ridings being affected in an obvious act of gerrymandering . Many experts believe that the redistribution of ridings mostly impacts the pro-democracy groups, lessening their chances of being re-elected, and forcing them to develop new campaign strategies.
Moreover, in 2014, Beijing declared that only candidates who ‘love their country’ are able to run for the territory’s head of government. These candidates would be selected by a committee, constructed by mainland China. Essentially, Hong Kong citizens were presented with an illusion of democratic rights, in which they have a ‘right to vote’, but only for candidates approved by the Communist Party. The citizens of the territory were furious, and organized the umbrella protests, a series of organized revolts intended to shut down Hong Kong’s economy. Since the economies of Hong Kong and mainland China are linked, and Hong Kong is a large trade asset to the mainland, the goal was to cause enough disruption for China to back down. However, the efforts were unsuccessful, and market levels only dropped around 6%, far inferior to the 20% predicted . Due to the slight economic tremor, tourism increased during this time, causing the movement to stray further from its goals. Hong Kong heavily relies on import and export business, but these processes increased by 5% during the protest period. Eventually, protestors were forced to return to their jobs and accept defeat.
Hong Kong’s explicit opposition against China began during mid-February following the proposal allowing suspects of criminal activity to be transferred out of Hong Kong to be prosecuted elsewhere. Citizens of Hong Kong strongly opposed the bill, worried that the changes would threaten the autonomy of Hong Kong . Much of this concern was due to Mainland China’s questionable legal system, which not only has a high conviction rate but also has no rule of law protected in their constitution, making defensive cases extremely difficult . There was widespread fear that Beijing would utilize the bill in order to unfairly persecute its political opponents .
Due to public outcry, the proposed alterations were reduced to exclude various financial crimes while still allowing suspects of more major crimes such as murder and robbery to be extradited . However, this did little to settle the discontentment of Hong Kong’s citizens, and in late April, as many as 130,000 people marched through Hong Kong in protest, the largest Hong Kong-based protest since 2014 . On June 8, as many as 1.03 million (roughly one seventh of the population), as reported by organizers, protested from various occupations including teachers, students, and businesspeople . Despite this, on June 12, it was announced that the bill would advance to a second hearing to consider potential amendments in order to pacify the public .
Unsatisfied, thousands of citizens blocked off Hong Kong’s Legislative Council building in black shirts to prevent lawmakers from entering and debating the bill. At this point protests escalated to the point of authorities utilizing tear gas, rubber bullets, and bean bag rounds to quell protesters, who in turn further escalated the situation throwing bricks and poles in retaliation . The bill was later suspended indefinitely.
On June 16 Hong Kong’s largest protest in history took place, involving up to as many as 2 million citizens. Despite the massive scale, the protests thankfully remained mostly non violent, despite the occurrences during the protest only a few days before. The protesters surrounded the Legislative Council building and blocked major roads, aiming to support the complete withdrawal of the bill and in support of the protesters on June 12, which had been classified as a riot by authorities . Unfortunately, this relative peace did not last, as alleged members of the triads brutally attacked protesters on the train using sticks and umbrellas . This incited further violence a week later when thousands protested against the attack, the protest itself ending in tear gas and water cannons. The violence continued the day after ending in more gas arrests .
After several more violent rallies, protesters attacked and detained two men suspected of being from mainland China, leading to a reset in the movement where leaders of the protests apologized for their mistakes. Two days later, citizens formed the “Hong Kong Way” in imitation of the Baltic Way where people of Latvia, Estonia and Lithuania similarly formed a human chain in opposition of the Soviet regime . The violence once again returned on August 24 and 25 when 36 people were arrested and 21 officers injured in clashes with police, in which the first live bullet was fired as a warning shot . Future protests would become increasingly violent with more arrests and the beginning of protesters’ usage of petrol bombs, leading police to use blue dye to identify protesters.
Many students boycotted the first day of school, their numbers totaling at a reported 10,000 from 200 schools . The bill was finally announced to be withdrawn, but was at this point only one of five demands of protesters associated with the larger dissatisfaction of China’s administration of Hong Kong. The protests would continue violently to the point where police continued to use tear gas, dye, water cannons, and pepper spray .
On the first day of October, the conflict finally escalated to a point to which 1,407 rounds of tear gas, 192 rounds of bean bags and 923 rubber bullets were fired. Even more prominent was the first casualty in which a protester was shot with a live bullet and was taken to undergo surgery. On October 4 Hong Kong enabled emergency powers last used in 1967, under British colonial rule, to ban face masks, raising heavy concerns regarding civil liberty .
This mid-November, Hong Kong authorities stormed the Hong Kong’s prestigious Polytechnic University in order to arrest what were mainly student protesters occupying the institution. The operation, over the course of three days resulted in the detainment of 1000 protesters leaving a mere 50 behind to defend the university from heavily armed police. Utilizing impromptu weapons such as bows, arrows, and firebombs, the occupants resisted police takeover for days . The campus was only recently returned to the control of university officials, subsequent to a police sweep that found Polytechnic to finally be devoid of any protesters. The Battle of Polytechnic is considered to be one of the conflict’s most violent confrontations as of yet .
Moreover, the elections held on November 25th, Hong Kong’s executive member Carrie Lam and her democratic party won nearly 90% of the 452 district seats, in an election with a record turnout . Lam is explicitly supported by Mainland China, and many people are dissatisfied with Lam’s statement saying she will not offer concession to anti-government protesters . Furthermore, she released a statement declaring that protests need to halt before change can be made to the government system. The election results proved large dissatisfaction with the current government, advocating for strong change .
The year 2047 draws nearer, the expiration date for the ‘one country, two parties’ system. The two most likely outcomes of this are an extension on the system, or a conditional joining of the two states. Chinese president Xi Jinping has expressed interest in extending the system, allowing it to continue operating under the thumb of its own elites as it has for the past 22 years . The alternative is Hong Kong formally rejoining China in 2047, merging their two systems, under special circumstances. In this case, Hong Kong is likely to have more autonomy than other portions of China, similar to territories like the Shenzhen economic zone. Moreover, there is speculation regarding integrating Hong Kong into Shenzhen itself, as part of a Pearl-Delta megacity, including Guangzhou, Shenzhen, and Macau . However, these areas are unlikely to have their own legislative autonomy, and the autonomy provided will likely be in the form of economic freedom, of which Hong Kong already ranks #1 in the entire world. If this occurs, Hong Kong’s Legco will dissolve, and China will implement its system into Hong Kong. No matter the outcome, there will be many changes made in the next few decades.