Protests gripped the streets of Hong Kong on 9th June 2019 with more than 1 million people participating – the largest ever seen since the 1997 handover. The Legislative Council was under siege and attack by protestors trying to stall the second reading of the extradition bill on 12th June. More protests came on 16th June for a complete withdrawal of the bill with an estimated 2 million protesters – breaking the record set just a week ago. These events triggered the polarisation of politics and society in Hong Kong. Despite the movement being interrupted by COVID-19, up to the present, there seems to be no end point nor a clear solution.
History of unrest in Hong Kong
The first significant violent unrest occurred in 1967 which was originally caused by minor labour disputes but was taken up by pro-Communists and sympathisers of the Cultural Revolution in China. Police force and curfews were used to contain the unrest and concessions to the Left were made to diffuse tensions.
More recently and eerily similar to 2020 were the protests in 2003 against the anti-subversion legislation under Article 23 of Hong Kong’s Basic Law (Hong Kong’s mini constitution). The bill was withdrawn as a result of the protest. The SARS pandemic also hit Hong Kong in the same year. 2003 was almost identical to 2020’s National Security Law and COVID-19.
The Umbrella Movement in 2014 demanded universal suffrage for the elections of the city’s leader and the Legislative Council. Protesters paralysed Hong Kong’s financial centre and gained significant international attention. Hints of violence such as pepper spray and tear gas were used for dispersion. The system remained the same.
Why in 2019?
A horrific murder case committed by a Hong Kong resident in Taiwan in 2018 prompted the proposal for an extradition arrangement between Mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. The extradition bill, originally proposed to deal with the murder, raised all kinds of questions as to what it could be used for in the future. The Basic Law promised a “high degree of autonomy” for Hong Kong for 50 years after the handover and this has been tested several times since the handover in 1997 over controversial issues and events, leading to mass protests and movements. The protests on 9th June 2019 and all subsequent unrest aimed to oppose and demand the full withdrawal of the extradition bill. People in Hong Kong were uncertain about the differences in the Chinese legal system and an extradition law would mean suspects would not enjoy the common law system in Hong Kong. The extradition bill was seen as an attempt to further erode autonomy and final adjudication power in Hong Kong, despite many promises made by the Hong Kong government.
Police misconduct when dealing with peaceful and also hostile protests also added emotion towards the protests and kept them going. Escalation of tensions between protestors and the police occurred with petrol bombs, lasers, metal weapons, mass arrests and tear gas, more tear gas and even more tear gas. Police stations were under siege every weekend demanding justice and accountability in the executive branch of government. This evolved into some demands, including the full withdrawal of the extradition bill, an independent enquiry into police conduct and universal suffrage. The extradition bill was finally withdrawn in September 2019 but it was too little too late. Government inaction for months since the protests started had shown the frailties of this government. It has triggered a whole series of events and unrest until COVID-19 arrived in February 2020. An earlier withdrawal of the bill would have diffused the crisis but the long-term problems, usually swept under the carpet, would still remain.
Why at all?
A lack of trust, perhaps also understanding, between people in Hong Kong and the Central government and a lack of confidence in the Hong Kong Government has persisted since 1997. People in Hong Kong feel as if they have not gotten what they have expected from ‘one country, two systems’ – which is the agreed framework of governance by the British and Chinese governments in the 1980s. The common law system from the colonial era is to remain for 50 years after the handover. People in Hong Kong see their protected freedoms of speech, assembly and press, as well as the rule of law, being eroded.
The most striking disagreement, or clash, would be the divergent interpretations of the Basic Law articles on elections for the Chief Executive and the Legislative Council between the government and people in Hong Kong.
The government focuses on this sentence of Article 45 (regarding the election of the Chief Executive) – “The method for selecting the Chief Executive shall be specified in the light of the actual situation in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and in accordance with the principle of gradual and orderly progress.” The pro-democracy camp focuses on the next sentence of the same article – “The ultimate aim is the selection of the Chief Executive by universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee in accordance with democratic procedures.” The government has not shown much initiative to implement such change due to the uncertainty of the outcomes of universal suffrage. However, the pro-democracy camp saw universal suffrage as a constitutional right and their movement gained momentum in 2014 as there was no clear plan as to when the government might consider the situation in Hong Kong to be fit for universal suffrage. There was no sign of gradual progression towards universal suffrage until mass protests began. Due to the 2014 protests, the government proposed to have universal suffrage for the Chief Executive but the candidates had to be vetted centrally.
Perhaps a mistake was made when the pro-democracy camp rejected such a proposal and insisted on universal suffrage based on “Western” and “universal standards” – whatever that means. It is not possible to simply lift a political system from elsewhere and implement it in Hong Kong. Universal suffrage was offered but was rejected, so what do people in Hong Kong want? What is missing? Interestingly, this shows the lack of trust between the Central government and people in Hong Kong and a reluctance of interference in the governing of Hong Kong. Neither side accepts each other’ proposals. Universal suffrage has been non-negotiable for the pro-democracy camp and is seen as the only way out as a way to produce a more responsive government. The 2014 proposal was a sign of compromise from China and the first step of progress but that was not enough for the pro-democracy camp. The same issue, in terms of diverging interpretations of the Basic Law, remains for the Legislative Council elections. Article 68 has almost identical sentences but without the phrase “upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee.” These elections are more inclusive but the Council is always dominated by pro-Beijing lawmakers. The continual struggle for a more competitive and responsive government fuels the protests.
The lack of democratic progress in both these elections has amounted to serious frustration, in addition to serious socio-economic problems that have been brewing for years. House prices have rocketed due to an increased demand for high-quality properties as buyers from China flooded the property market, causing prices to be unaffordable. The lack of opportunities for young people because of an economy over-reliant on finance and banking has hindered the potential and competitiveness of Hong Kong. Many have lost hope for the future but do not have the means to move away to seek work. Inequality has reached peak levels and social mobility is tightening. Communication and feedback between the government and people is key and enfranchisement is seen as a method for this. The remaining choice is to voice their concerns and push for a change, any change, for their futures. The rapid growth of the 1970s to 80s benefitted the last generation but this generation’s Hong Kong seems to be stagnant, politically and economically, like a ship that has lost its course.