What began in early 2019 as peaceful marches against a bill to allow extraditions to mainland China has exploded into a direct challenge to Beijing’s grip on Hong Kong. The local government eventually withdrew the legislation, but the protests continued and calls for greater democracy gained impetus. Violence and vandalism erupted in the streets, subways and airport, while roving clashes between riot police and black-clad protesters hurling Molotov cocktails resulted in clouds of tear gas and more than 6,000 arrests. Some protesters were shot by police. Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has long warned that challenges to China’s rule won’t be tolerated, said “restoring order is Hong Kong’s most important task.”
1. Isn’t Hong Kong part of China?
Yes, but it’s a semi-autonomous region. The city of 7.5 million people was an outpost of the British Empire for 156 years, during which time it developed into a global business hub. In a 1984 joint declaration, the British agreed to give it back in 1997 and China promised to allow a “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years -- until 2047 -- including guarantees of free speech and a free press, capitalist markets and English common law under a “one country, two systems” arrangement.
2. Why are people still protesting?
The extradition bill, introduced in February, was suspended in June, but it took Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam another two months to formally withdraw it. During that time, the list of grievances grew along with charges of excessive use of force and tear gas by police. Many protesters have adopted the motto: “Five demands, not one less!” Those are:
• Withdrawal of the extradition bill
• An independent inquiry into police conduct
• Amnesty for arrested protesters, dozens of whom are facing as many as 10 years in prison on a colonial-era rioting charge
• A halt to characterizing the protests as “riots”
• Restart stalled electoral reforms, including direct elections for the city’s leader.
3. Is the situation getting better or worse?
Hard to say. Hundreds of thousands of people turned out in June for peaceful marches which then devolved into months of running battles. Hong Kong’s international airport imposed an unprecedented shutdown in early August, then the rail operator shut the entire network for a day in October for the first time since 2007. The sense of chaos intensified in mid-November when the Central business district and university campuses became flashpoints. Two deaths stoked emotions: one a college student who fell in a parking garage, the other an elderly cleaner hit on the head with an object thrown by protesters. Gruesome smart phone videos of police shootings or protesters attacking mainlanders went viral.
A government decision to ban masks -- using a colonial-era law -- was widely ignored, overturned in court and is now going through an appeals process. Politicians in both camps were physically attacked ahead of Nov. 24 district council elections, but the voting unfolded without violence; in a record turnout, pro-democracy candidates won in a landslide. Three weeks later, hundreds of thousands of people turned out for another march, demonstrating the movement’s staying power.
4. What does China say?
Xi has consistently backed Lam’s leadership. In November, he referred to “radical violent crimes” that “have seriously trampled on the rule of law and social order, seriously undermined Hong Kong’s prosperity and stability, and seriously challenged the bottom line” of one country, two systems. Chinese officials and media have called protesters terrorists and compared them to Islamic State. They also have made charges of foreign interference, describing the U.S. as a “black hand” behind the protests -- a claim the State Department has dismissed as “ridiculous.” The ruling Communist Party has signaled even more intervention in everything from education to the chief executive’s appointment, but hasn’t detailed specific measures.
5. What does Hong Kong’s government say?
“Violence is destroying Hong Kong,” Lam said in October when she invoked the emergency law -- while insisting there was no state of emergency. She has accepted blame for the unrest, but rejected calls to resign. Lam also has ruled out a blanket amnesty -- “you have to take the consequences after breaking the law” -- and says complaints about police conduct should be handled by an existing commission (United Nations reports have questioned its investigative powers and independence, and a panel of international advisers withdrew in December, citing similar concerns). Lam has said “different constraints and circumstances” prevented her from addressing “all the grievances of people in society.”
6. How bad might this get?
That depends on China. Troops from its People’s Liberation Army have been in the city since the 1997 handover, but have played a minimal role. Concern has grown that soldiers might be called on to restore order, especially after the garrison posted a video in August showing Chinese troops practicing riot control. Neither the Ministry of National Defense nor the Hong Kong and Macau Affairs Office in Beijing have ruled it out. For some people, the greatest fear is of a crackdown mirroring the deadly one three decades ago on mostly student protesters in Tiananmen Square. That concern is followed by worries of a withdrawal by the U.S. of the special status under which it agreed to treat Hong Kong as distinct from China for trade and economic matters. To the dismay of China’s leaders, President Donald Trump signed a bill into law expressing U.S. support for the protesters in November.
7. Have the protests affected business?
Yes. The economy was already under pressure from the U.S.-China trade war, and the government is forecasting the first annual recession in a decade. Tourists are staying away in droves -- mainland arrivals were down 35% in September compared with the same month in 2018, and the hotel occupancy rate was 63%, down 23 percentage points. Sales for the city’s vital retail sector declined a record 24% year on year in October, after an 18% tumble in September. Sentiment among small businesses and purchasing managers are close to their record lows, while the real estate and financial services sectors have remained fairly resilient. Canceled events include a major airline conference, the WTA Hong Kong Tennis Open, music festivals, fireworks, parades, a motor race and a one-month run of “Matilda The Musical.” Hong Kong Disneyland has also suffered.
8. Have protests worked before?
Yes, but less so lately. In 2003 demonstrations blocked a proposed national security law and contributed to the resignation of then-Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa. Nine years later, high school students and parents’ and teachers’ groups thwarted the Hong Kong government’s attempt to introduce a course lauding the Communist Party and criticizing democracy. But the pro-democracy movement fractured after the government successfully faced down student-led demonstrators who occupied city streets for 79 days in 2014 to demand more democracy. Since then, China has barred some activists from seeking elected office, prosecuted protest leaders and banned a pro-independence political party.
9. What was wrong with the extradition bill?
Lam cited the case of a Hong Kong man suspected of murder in Taiwan in proposing it. Opponents said it could open the door for anyone who runs afoul of the Chinese government -- including political dissidents, civil rights activists, or even foreigners passing through -- to be arrested on trumped-up charges in Hong Kong and sent to the mainland. There they would face what the U.S. State Department called China’s “capricious legal system.” Critics noted the draft bill assigned to the city’s chief executive -- chosen by a committee stacked with Chinese government supporters -- the leading role in handling extradition requests; currently the legislature can block extraditions.
10. Are there other potential flash points?
Hong Kong still has to enact national security legislation. Lam has said she wants to create a “favorable social environment” before reintroducing it. Hong Kong is also considering making disrespecting the Chinese national anthem a crime, with prison sentences of as long as three years. And there were protests in 2018 after Lam outlined a project to build artificial islands between Hong Kong island and Lantau to the west. Detractors object to the huge cost and environmental impact. The islands would help accommodate a continuing influx of mainland Chinese, whom many Hong Kong residents blame for sky-high property prices and overcrowded public hospitals -- exacerbating anti-Beijing sentiment.
The Washington Post
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