How the protests started, where they’re going, and what they’re all about
Some wear masks to protect their identities; some gather behind umbrellas, a Hong Kong symbol of protest; others don gas masks to defend themselves against tear gas used by police. They, along with reportedly millions of others in Hong Kong, have been protesting the increasing interference of the Chinese government in the island’s affairs for the past four months.
The protests began in June, after a piece of legislation was introduced in response to a criminal dispute: a Hong Kong man killed his girlfriend while the two were vacationing in Taiwan. However, he could not be sent back to Taiwan to stand trial because there is no formal extradition treaty between Hong Kong and Taiwan. The proposed bill would introduce terms for bilateral extradition with any country Hong Kong does not currently have an extradition agreement with — including not only Taiwan, but mainland China.
The historical relationship between China and Hong Kong is, to say the least, complicated. China leased the island to the United Kingdom in 1898 after being defeated in the decades-long Opium Wars. The island was returned to Chinese governance in 1997 under a “one country, two systems” model: Hong Kong would remain a part of China, under Chinese sovereignty, but retain some freedom from the mainland in their political, judicial, education and economic systems.
International studies professor Dr. Kyung-hwa (Christine) Kim described the “one country, two systems” model as a “dormant volcano.” As of this month, it’s no longer dormant. On Tuesday, Oct. 1, police shot an 18-year-old protester in the shoulder after reportedly being assaulted at close quarters.
This was the first time live bullets have been used since the protests began. Both sides participated in some of the most violent and sustained clashes since the protests began. More than 180 people were arrested.
Hong Kong has long been discontent under China’s authority; the current protests are far from the first time the volcano has erupted. In 2014, pro-democracy demonstrations swept the island in what came to be called the Umbrella Revolution. These were sparked by China’s announcement that the government’s promise of universal suffrage by 2017 would come with a few caveats: only a few heavily vetted (pro-Beijing) candidates would be permitted to run as Chief Executive, the leader of the Hong Kong government.
The so-called “revolution,” however, came to little fruition. The protests petered out, several leaders were arrested and restrictions on speech and activism have only tightened. Since then, a pro-independence political party has been banned, anti-Beijing legislators have been exiled and there are rumors that outspoken publishers have gone missing.
February’s extradition bill was the final straw. One scholar called it the “death knell” of the “one country, two systems” model. Protesters fear that the bill would allow China to demand the extradition of any who express dissent against the mainland government to be prosecuted under Beijing’s opaque judicial system rather than Hong Kong’s common law court.
However, this story comes with a twist: in early September, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced that the extradition bill was “dead.” The government canceled the legislation in one of the most significant public retractions of the Chinese government since Xi Jinping took office as president.
Yet more than four months later, protesters still swarm the streets of Hong Kong. Why? Because extradition was just one domino in what many Hong Kongers see as a long chain of the erosion of democracy on their island. Because increasing clashes with police have amplified the demonstrators’ frustration. And because ultimately, the protests were only partly directed at the Chinese government.
According to international studies professor Dr. Glen Duerr, this was a strategic move on the part of Hong Kong activists in response to the lessons of the Umbrella Revolution. Since 2014, protest leaders have become increasingly strategic in where, when, and how they target their protests.
They’ve focused their efforts on gaining sympathy not in mainland China, where the “Great Firewall” either omits or alters their message, but in the international community. They pause for 9/11; they wave the American flag and the Union Jack; they target the international airport; they sing “Do You Hear the People Sing” from Les Miserables, a song banned from Chinese music streaming services for its revolutionary message.
“One of the big mistakes [in the Umbrella Revolution] was that … broadcasting where you’re going to protest allowed the Chinese authorities to catch up with the Umbrella Revolution,” Duerr said. “What they do [now] is a lot of pop-up protests. They’ll show up unexpectedly to areas and have a protest over the extradition. It draws in all kinds of international viewers, and not a lot of it gets to mainland China because of the Great Firewall.”
By emphasizing the broader erosion of democracy, freedom, and autonomy, protesters have turned a domestic legislative dispute into an international discussion. In framing their demands not in terms of legality — China’s sovereignty over the island is clear — but in terms of human rights, Hong Kong has captured the attention of the international community.
The protests are a civil demonstration, yes, but they are also an intentional performance for an international audience. The protesters and the Chinese government are in what Kim described as a “tug-of-war” for the sympathy of the international media. And the international media — as well as China’s political rivals — are happy to participate in the drama.
“Depending on your position, the media, the protesters, and the Chinese government are all trying to frame this issue for their interests,” Kim said. “To be honest, I’d guess the U.S. is pondering how to take advantage of this problem to advance its interests.”
Hong Kong has long been a crucial point of stability for investors in Asia, looking to avoid the often-arbitrary judicial system of China yet gain access to the vast Chinese consumer market. However, the combination of the escalating U.S.-China trade war and the increasing mainland crackdown on democratic freedoms may risk its status as a neutral ground between the West and the East.
This traps Beijing in a catch-22. If it ignores the protests, the demonstrations will only gather more attention; if it cracks down, it will be painted as a brutal totalitarian regime and may face sanctions from the international community; if it acquiesces to the protesters’ demands, it invites further civil action in the future, not only in Hong Kong, but in Macau, Taiwan and similar territories.
Duerr described the tension in the international community, wondering how these protests will ultimately be resolved.
“I don’t know the exit ramp,” he said.
Protesters’ frustrations seem to only be escalating, as the October 1 events demonstrate. China cannot afford a public repeat of Tiananmen Square. However, they also cannot afford to be swayed by demonstrations such as these. To acquiesce even further would be to encourage future demonstrations, be perceived as weak and pliable, and to threaten the nationalist identity Xi Jinping has so far built his presidency on.
Hong Kongers, by contrast, are grappling with how to respond to the direction China is taking the island — how to react when “one country” feels more like another colonization. Some protest, others are resigned, recognizing that “one country, two systems” came with an expiration date.
In 2047, the island will be fully reintegrated into the Chinese fold. Already, the business and transport infrastructure developed since the takeover shows preparations for this shift.
Some feel Hong Kong needs to come to terms with this fact. Others are terrified by the immediacy of its effects less than halfway through the transition period. How do 7.4 million Hong Kongers simply “become” part of China?
Editor’s note: The author for this article was withheld to protect their ability to travel to China in the future.