Updated: Sep 4, 2019
By Angela Gao and Chelsea Macasaet
In the summer of 2019, conflict brewed within China’s semi-autonomous territory, Hong Kong. Massive amounts of violence have emerged from joint cooperation between Hong Kong’s administrative government and Beijing to impose a formal extradition bill. But even as Beijing has put the bill on hold, why are protests and violence still taking the streets by storm?
History of Hong Kong
In 1997, Hong Kong was returned to China after 156 years of British rule. After a formal handover ceremony on July 1, the colony became the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) of the People's Republic of China. Under negotiations with Britain, Hong Kong was to be admitted back into China under certain circumstances. “One country, two systems,” is shorthand for Beijing’s pledge to maintain the city’s political character for 50 years after the 1997 British turnover. However, as the year 2047 is looming in the distance, people in Hong Kong are beginning to fear that their rights will be entirely eroded.
What makes Hong Kong different?
Despite having its own judicial system, Hong Kong remains a part of mainland China. This may explain why Carrie Lam, Chief Executive of Hong Kong, is elected by such a small fraction of her government; a 1,200 member committee (most members are pro-Beijing) chosen by only 6% of eligible voters creates an atmosphere that strays from democratic principles. As a former British colony, Hong Kong has the luxury of being able to operate with a high level of autonomy.
The gap between Lam’s political affiliation and the interests of Hong Kongers remains a remnant of “one country, two systems”. This term implies the eventual reunion between China and its more independent territories; Taiwan is resistant to the policy, while Macau and Hong Kong increasingly question its validity.
Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam and President Xi Jinping
A Revolution in the Rain
In September of 2014, thousands of Hong Kong citizens took to the streets to pressure Beijing leaders into fulfilling a promise. The mainland government had pledged to eradicate the city’s 1,200 member election committee, thus allowing the people to choose their leader through universal suffrage (the idea that anyone can vote regardless of their wealth, income, ethnicity, race, etc.). However, Beijing had planned to manipulate this ideology, instead, allowing only two or three candidates who “loved the country” to run for the executive spot.
Known as the Umbrella Movement (the carrying of yellow umbrellas later became an important symbol representing pro-democracy), these protests were among the first of many to demonstrate the need for an administration that could acclimate to its people’s needs. Therefore, it makes sense to say that Hong Kong is no stranger to protests regarding political freedom.
Hong Kong’s administrative government opened the floor to negotiation and change in February 2019, after citing many legal cases they could not resolve due to the lack of a formal extradition treaty. Specifically, a local man, Chan Tong-kai was wanted for the suspected murder of his pregnant girlfriend while the two were on holiday in Taiwan. However, Hong Kong officials ruled that Chan could not go through a trial in Taiwan as the territories lack an agreement for extradition. Consequently, Chan was only charged for money laundering despite the murder he committed. Lam has been quick to note that the SAR cannot be a territory that houses fugitives through a 'legal loophole’; and, instead, needs a way to properly uphold legal dealings.
Despite good intentions at heart, the people of Hong Kong have been quick to criticize the treaty. The main effect of its implementation would, according to western critics, expose the likes of activists, social workers, or journalists to unjust criminal punishment. Similarly, both Hong Kong and foreign nationals can be subject to trials in mainland China.
What once started as peaceful protests over the extradition treaty has now changed course. Although peaceful protests spurred the conversation about pro-democracy in the past few months, they have turned increasingly violent. K.T. Li, a 23-year-old recent college graduate, stated that more extreme methods needed to be used after the government didn’t formally withdraw the bill.
Mass protests soon turned violent with protesters breaking windows with bricks, initiating fights, and attacking the police. In what seems to be a cycle of anger and lack of action on the part of the city’s administration, striking incidents have occurred in the short amount of time since the protest’s beginnings in early summer. On July 1, 2019, protesters broke into Hong Kong’s legislative building, spraying graffiti on the walls and defacing artifacts and portraits of local lawmakers. Those who remained outside of the building barred entrance by the police in efforts to protect those inside.
Demonstrators break windows as a form of protest
These protests demonstrate a constriction of freedom and the newfound responsibility of the people forced to act for their futures.The Hong Kong protests were sparked in opposition to a plan to allow the extradition of criminals to mainland China, but have since grown into a wider call for democratic rights in the former British colony after Beijing halted the plan.
How far is too far?
As of most recently, Hong Kong suffered massive international backlash due to its protests that caused mass havoc in the Hong Kong International Airport. In the wake of a leaderless protest, many reporters from China’s state-run media networks and were detained and beaten. Among those people, young protesters detained a man, Xu, who they thought to be an undercover cop, beating the man senselessly until he was unconscious. Some punched and kicked Xu as airport security and staff attempted to intervene. Protestors kept at it for around four to five hours until paramedics and airport security were finally able to reason with the crowd and navigate out of the airport. Furthermore, some protesters who could not see him shared photos of his bruised face that had been posted online, laughing at his predicament. However, no hard evidence was provided for him definitely being a cop other than a Google search which came up with a police officer in Shenzhen with a name that matched the one protesters found on his personal ID.
Violent and chaotic protests at the Hong Kong International Airport
Following the protests, the United Nations was quick to condemn Hong Kong for its violent protests. Many larger Western nations are also following in suit. What once was a cause that many Western nations supported has now come under high scrutiny. Now nations are asking for a compromise between China and its territory Hong Kong to prevent further chaos from arising and damaging international peace.
Many Chinese celebrities have also spoken out about the situation. In fact, Hong Kong native Jackie Chan has broadcasted his opinion. Chan, who was born in Hong Kong, broke his silence on the pro-democracy demonstrations and said he hoped the semi-autonomous territory “can return to peace soon”. Furthermore, he stated that he “wanted to go to this event to represent everyone’s voice,” adding, “I also deeply feel that safety, stability, and peace are just like fresh air, you never know how precious it is until you lose it.” Similarly, actress Yifei Liu, who is starring in Disney’s upcoming Mulan, has also posted her input regarding the situation on social media, saying that she supports the Hong Kong police. Her claims have subsequently prompted many people to boycott the movie Mulan, but others have praised her for not succumbing to the influence of Western media.
Left: Jackie Chan, Right: Yifei Liu
Limitations of Western Media and Involvement
As a country that practices a different form of government, covering the trials and tribulations of the Hong Kong protests can be one-sided. This may be because of heavier censorship in mainland China, or the turbulent relationship the nation has with President Trump. Amidst a trade war and economic tension, it is plausible that American media outlets aim to weaken China’s strength by unconsciously siding with Hong Kong. The spread of the news on social media may also lead users to draw conclusions about the conflict without adequate context.
Many people in Hong Kong are also wary of the protests, a side not covered by the Western media. Those who are police officers in Hong Kong come home bruised everyday in hopes that violence will cease. In addition, many Hong Kongers are also vigilant that the economy will fall. These people cite that they aren’t as irate towards the police in Hong Kong, but rather aggravated at protesters as economic commerce is getting hurt as an indirect effect of the demonstrations. Specifically, the benchmark Hang Seng index has dropped 9 per cent in August, taking it into the red for 2019 amid a sell-off in both Hong Kong-focused stocks and those at risk from broader unrest. Hong Kong is the only one among 24 developed stock markets tracked by Bloomberg now in negative territory for the year. The protests are causing airports to be shut down and banks to be attacked.
Either way, there is a lack of reporting on Beijing’s side of the story, whether people agree with their policies or not. If there isn’t current information to obtain, it is possible to observe older protests, such as the Umbrella Movement mentioned earlier, to analyze possible trends as to how the government could handle the situation. Trends are better than nothing at all, and policymakers and journalists can use them to compile more unbiased stories.
A Possible Solution
The situation at hand requires transparency and discussion. Yet, compromise holds a space of ambiguity. China may choose to act out with harsher policies after Hong Kong’s destructive actions as Hong Kong has failed to restore order and peace after Beijing halted the extradition treaty. Even with that being said, a few possible solutions could hold the key to compromise.
In 2007, China implemented a policy known as Open Government Information (OGI) Regulations. This allowed the public, for the first time, to request government records and go to court if they were not satisfied with the information. At one point, out of 5,000 litigations filed against the mainland government, over one-third were analyzed. These findings were significant; although some litigations simply ordered the government to review its responses, it showed how power for the people could be effective in solving problems in a peaceful, diplomatic way.
To increase its effectiveness, Beijing should try to implement a system similar to this in Hong Kong, using more transparent methodology. According to The Diplomat, efforts like OGI are hindered by information classification. There are no specifications on what classifies as a “state secret,” and the sorting of information mainly helps state secrecy officials rather than those who are looking to learn more. Thus, both parties’ interests can be fulfilled by implementing a system that is similar to OGI.
What happens now?
Protesters form a human chain in a peaceful demonstration.
As of August 25, 2019, water cannons were used for the first time in Hong Kong’s twelfth consecutive week of protesting in the neighborhood of Tsuen Wan. According to Amnesty International, the cannons could potentially cause serious injury. Rubber bullets and tear gas were also thrown onto the streets of the city. Despite the protests, there remain demonstrators who want the violence on both sides to stop. Unfortunately, trends in the news imply that there are no signs of de-escalation.
Reporting on the news from Hong Kong from a third party perspective may be one of the ways to negate harmful effects of the protests. Although nothing can be done to directly influence China’s government, there are ways that international viewers can understand the situation as one that should not have excessive input from western media outlets. This is a problem that China must analyze and combat themselves. There must be a way for both parties to compromise on their own without pressure from the international community.
That being said, Hong Kong’s future and people are bright. Most of the city’s protesters are educated, young, and outspoken individuals. If the government can harness their energy and tenacity in a way that works for everyone’s best interests, there is definitely a way to move forward.
However, it is also important that both Carrie Lam and Beijing reopen lost discussions regarding constitutional reforms, while creating a comprehensive plan on how to do so. As 2047 approaches, it is imperative that Beijing and Hong Kong reach a point where “One China” is sustainable for all.