Written by George R. Jackson
Hong Kong was under British rule from 1842 to 1997. After that, power was transferred to China, although the former colony maintains its own government and economic systems separate from those of the mainland. The idea was one of ‘one country, two systems’ and, hitherto, this appears to have been the case. Despite the fact that Hong Kong is technically part of China, many of its people regard themselves as Hong Kongers, as opposed to Chinese citizens. There has long been a desire for freedom and autonomy, which is ultimately being put in jeopardy by the overshadowing presence of Beijing.
Recently the Hong Kong administration proposed a bill that would enable the extradition of its residents to mainland China, which would subject those extradited to the law of mainland China. This has sparked mass demonstrations, causing the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, to temporarily suspend the bill. Despite this suspension, protests continued on Sunday 16thJune, with an estimated 2 million protesters demanding that the bill be completely withdrawn.
After reaching out to several people from Hong Kong and mainland China to gain an understanding of how some of the people of both the autonomous region and the People’s Republic of China feel about Hong Kong’s current state of affairs, none of those from the mainland contacted have had much to say about the issue, although members of the Chinese national government have claimed that the coverage of the demonstrations has been ‘distorted’. All in all, it appears that the people of Hong Kong want to maintain a sense of freedom and autonomy, rather than being in the hands of the Chinese central government. One source accused Lam of using the law as “a ‘gift’ to President Xi for the sake of political power and personal interest.” She added further that President Xi Jinping of China “is regarded as the toughest leader ever in the Chinese national government, so he tightens control over the whole of China, which is much more conservative than in previous leadership.”
Beyond these factors, the extradition bill would likely affect many businesspeople in Hong Kong, this perhaps being the main reason why the Hong Kong government failed to enforce it. Hong Kong is one of the world’s major financial centres and a tax haven for many Chinese businesspeople. It is likely that these factors are one of the driving forces for the bill being suspended, in addition to the mass protests.
As regards the ‘completely peaceful’ protests between 9thand 16thJune, the so-called Umbrella movement, which drove the protests for democracy in Hong Kong back in 2014, ‘affected’ the supposedly peaceful nature of the recent protests against the bill. It has been said that a lesson was learned from 2014 and carried through into this year’s demonstrations. The people of Hong Kong are ultimately ‘saddened’ by the response to the protests. A protest on 12thJune was labelled a ‘riot’ and led to 5 arrests and Lam has refused to retract the bill, leaving both the mainland Chinese and Hong Kongese people in the lurch. Naturally all of this is complicated for her politically, but it was her government that proposed the bill in the first place.
There is also the issue of police brutality in the recent protests, one witness claiming that “the police used aggression to break up the crowd” through methods such as “firing rubber bullets, tear gas and often using excessive violence against peaceful protesters”. Another Hong Konger argued that “there’s a lot of coverage on the select few cases of police brutality, ignoring the fact that a lot of policemen acted professionally, with integrity, while being called various names, including ‘traitors’”. He added further that whilst many of the protestors are well-intentioned, “it’s important for protestors to protest not for the sake of it or for hating the mainland, but for clear and educated reasons.”
According to some sources, not all of the protestors have been peaceful. On 12thJune, when reporting from Hong Kong for the BBC, Gabriel Gatehouse interviewed a masked demonstrator who stated plainly that peaceful protest was ‘no longer working’. This suggests that the use of passive resistance may not have been on the minds of some of the demonstrators, hence leading to the backlash from police. One source confirms that on the protest on 13thJune, there was “definitely a lot of anger and resentment directed towards the police.” Whether or not this was expressed with physical violence is hard to say.
Ultimately, there is a real fear that the extradition bill, if passed, will change the state of democracy in Hong Kong for the worse. The vast majority of those protesting were doing so, not only in the hope that the bill would be scrapped, but for “autonomy, the right to a fair trial, a better future for Hong Kong, for themselves and their families.” To what extent the bill would actually curtail the freedoms of Hong Kongers is up for debate, particularly seeing as the ‘one country, two systems’ ideal is believed to be successful by members of both the Chinese central government and some members of the Hong Kong government. Notwithstanding what people think, it is clear that Hong Kong is struggling to maintain the liberty it enjoys relative to the mainland.