Hong Kong Protests: How They Started And Where We Go From Here

Protests at the airport. Clashes with police. What is going on in Hong Kong?
Protesters brave heavy rain as they march against the 2019 Hong Kong extradition bill on Sunday, August 18, 2019. (Source: Studio Incendo)

Protesters brave heavy rain as they march against the 2019 Hong Kong extradition bill on Sunday, August 18, 2019. (Source: Studio Incendo)

Even if you spent most of your summer on vacation, unplugged and blissfully unaware of world affairs, it would be hard to miss the ruckus out of Hong Kong over the last few months. If you’re just tuning in and need to catch up on why one of the most densely populated places in the world looks like a city under siege, we’ve got you.

Why is Hong Kong protesting?

While tensions between the semi-autonomous region and mainland China have been simmering for years, the seeds of the current protests in Hong Kong are related to proposed amendments to an extradition bill. The current Hong Kong government, led by the city’s chief executive Carrie Lam, had proposed allowing case-by-case extraditions to countries that don’t have formal extradition treaties with Hong Kong.

The extradition bill, which would have applied retroactively, immediately raised fears that China would use the opportunity to legally do what it has been quietly doing for years. Kidnapping and detaining citizens who speak out against the Chinese government. The proposed bill has since been indefinitely suspended and withdrawn. Protestors say the move to appease them is largely symbolic and they want concrete reassurances of Hong Kong’s independence.

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How did the Hong Kong protests begin?

The first protests regarding the extradition occurred back in March and April. By May, the battle had reached a fever pitch with fistfights in Hong Kong’s legislature. It wasn’t until June that a formal protest movement got off the ground with marches that brought millions into Hong Kong’s streets. Some estimates place involvement in the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong at one in four residents of the city. Hong Kong police responded with unprecedented aggression, firing 150 canisters of tear gas and rubber bullets at the largely peaceful crowds.

In late June, after three weeks of clashes in the streets, Lam suspended the bill but protests continued, fueled by police brutality. In early August, a young woman’s eye was badly injured by a projectile reportedly fired by police and a video of the incident went viral. Her bloody eye patch became a symbol of the democratic movement as protesters continued to assemble peacefully at the airport, parliament, and other government buildings.

What do the Hong Kong protestors want?

The pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong is remarkably organized, led by activists like Joshua Wong. Hong Kong activists have five demands.

1: Withdrawal of the extradition bill (achieved)
2: Chief executive Carrie Lam to step down
3: An inquiry into police brutality against protestors
4: The arrested to be released
5: Greater democratic freedoms

Contrary to disinformation campaigns from China, Hong Kong protestors are not wreaking havoc for the sake of attention or to cause terror. And they aren’t asking for independence from China. Just the right to determine their own representation in government through a democratic process.

Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong speaks to protesters near the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, Monday, June 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong speaks to protesters near the Legislative Council in Hong Kong, Monday, June 17, 2019. (AP Photo/Kin Cheung)

Where are Hong Kong protestors turning their attention to next?

The Hong Kong government’s attempts to make it unlawful to assemble in the streets haven’t deterred activists. And the increased police brutality seems to be galvanizing the pro-democracy movement instead of discouraging it. September plans include school walkouts and continued pressure on Lam to resign. A large event is being planned on October 1st, the symbolic date when China celebrates 70 years of communist rule.

If recent rumors are correct, the sustainable protest movement appears to be working. Leaked audio has Lam, who is considered loyal to Beijing, confessing she’d resign if she had a choice.

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Who controls the future of Hong Kong?

This is a tricky question because technically, Hong Kong is supposed to belong to its people. As part of the “one country, two systems” agreement made when the British ceded control of the city in 1997, Hong Kong was intended to retain autonomy for fifty years or until 2047. While that’s what the law says in theory, in practice Hong Kong citizens have seen their rights slowly eroded by China over the past two decades.

China currently maintains it allows Hong Kong to vote for their chief executive, who serves a five-year term. What really happens is an election committee of about 1200 people packed with Beijing loyalists picks the candidate Beijing tells them to. Hong Kong’s protestors want a truly democratic process that provides suffrage for citizens of the region. Mainland China, as you might guess, is more than a little resistant to this idea. They are, however, reluctant to disturb one of the country’s most stable and prosperous economic centers.

When will the Hong Kong protests end?

There are a few scenarios that could unfold in Hong Kong. Continued protests and international pressure could force China to back off and Lam to step down. Negotiations between activists and Hong Kong’s government might ensure a more democratic process moving forward and bring about widespread and systematic change.

The response out of Beijing doesn’t provide much hope for that scenario. China’s disinformation campaign continues to try to discredit protestors as terrorists, promising ten-year prison sentences for those convicted of rioting. And to sweeten the pot, the Chinese government has been massing troops near the border of Hong Kong as a not so subtle warning.

What’s most likely to happen is that the protests will lose intensity once Lam resigns and the new chief executive will make some attempts to mollify the pro-democracy movement with Beijing’s blessing. With the eyes of the world now on them, China’s best bet is to make some concessions to avoid providing any more fodder to their image as a regime who routinely violates human rights.

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Global Outlook // Carrie Lam / China / Democracy / Hong Kong / Joshua Wong