The potential for an easy, cooperative relationship between Hong Kong and mainland China was restricted from the moment that colonial Britain stepped foot in the region around the time of the First Opium War (1839). After more than one and a half centuries of British rule, Hong Kong was returned to mainland China in 1997, under the concept of “one country, two systems”. This ensured that Hong Kong would be governed under their own constitution – basic law – and their own judicial system. This further allowed the people of Hong Kong to enjoy a broader range of human rights than those living in mainland China, such as the freedom of assembly and freedom of speech – two rights that have been put under the microscope this summer, as unrest grew around a controversial bill.
In February of this year, Hong Kong’s Security Bureau proposed changes to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance and the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matter Ordinance – essentially expanding the scope of extradition permissions, crucially including extradition to mainland China. This was met with resistance from Hong Kong citizens, as thousands took to the streets in protest throughout March and April. Fears arose around the safety of anyone extradited to mainland China, with concerns about the mistreatment of those accused of crime in China, including the use of torture. Amendments to the proposed bill in April and a statement from Lam detailing her government’s determination to push the bill through the legislature only heightened tensions. Small progress was made in late May, when minor concessions were proposed for the bill, which was temporarily suspended soon after, however, this was not enough for the protestors and they continued to march in hopes that the bill would be scrapped altogether.
On June 6th the protests reached new heights, with more than half a million taking to the streets. This was met with controversial action from the police; rubber bullets were fired into the crowds in an attempt to maintain control, along with the use of tear gas. Instead of deterring protestors, the actions of the police only highlighted the issue of police brutality – something that has since become a key theme of the protests.
Another of the demands that has arisen from the movement is for Lam to step down, this is largely due to the belief that she is not acting on behalf of Hong Kong but that she is being controlled by Beijing. One of the reasons this is such an important issue to the people of Hong Kong is because of the distance that they feel between their own identities and mainland China; whilst technically Chinese citizens, very few of those living in Hong Kong identify as Chinese. Despite this, China has continued to involve itself in resisting the protests, and has even threatened military action in order to stop the movement. In recent weeks, videos surfaced of military personnel stationed in Shenzhen, a city only four miles outside of Hong Kong. Protestors have warned Beijing that should the military be deployed, they will do everything in their power to collapse the economy, severely impacting the mainland.
When I first started following this story I did not see how it could possibly develop in a peaceful way. Certain events from China’s past signalled serious cause for concern. Primarily the comparison that Beijing has made between the behaviour of the protestors and terrorism; this was alarming as the terrorism rhetoric has been central to China’s attempted justificaiton for the mis-treatment of Uighur Muslims in the Xinjiang province.
Furthermore, I couldn’t help but draw parallels between these protests and those that preceded the Tiananmen Square massacre; the pro-democracy focus, the high concentration of students within the demography of the protestors, and the hardline taken by the police. Whilst I hoped that China had learned their lesson from the tragedy that unfolded in Tiananmen Square, I was not optimistic that this memory would be enough to deter such a reaction thirty years later.
Just yesterday (September 4th) Lam announced the formal withdrawal of the temporarily suspended, catalytic extradition bill and amendments. Whilst this was one of the main demands of the protestors, and is undoubtedly a positive development for the people of Hong Kong, it looks unlikely that this move alone will be sufficient to defuse the protests. Even though it was the bill that sparked the movement, the longer the fire has been burning the more the focus of the protests have expanded. There is now a list of five demands that the protestors are calling for, including an independent inquiry into police brutality, an amnesty awarded to all those who have been arrested during the movement – an estimated 850 protestors – and a move towards a full democracy.
It is still unclear how the situation in Hong Kong will develop in the days and weeks to come, but one thing is for sure, the people of Hong Kong are hungry for pro-democratic change and the whole world will be watching as it unfolds.