The ongoing protests in Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) of China began in June 2019 as an Anti-Extradition Bill Protest .By August it had taken the shape of a pro-democracy movement. This paper tries to analyse the reasons for this evolution and compares the 2019 protests with other previously held protests.
Hong Kong is witnessing major protests there. They started as an opposition to the proposed Extradition Bill, but then took the shape of a pro-democracy movement. The Extradition Bill or The Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill, was proposed by the Hong Kong government in February 2019. The proposed bill allowed extradition of fugitives to Taiwan, Macau and Mainland China. Protests broke out in opposition to the Bill, which was primarily seen as Beijing’s rising influence over Hong Kong.
Protesters took to the streets against the perceived rising influence of Beijing with the potential to eventually erode the ‘one country, two systems’ framework, under which Hong Kong enjoys a certain degree of autonomy. Since 1997, the year in which Hong Kong was handed back to China, the relationship between HKSAR and mainland has not been very smooth because Hong Kong has often accused China of interfering in its affairs and various protests against the mainland has been a testimony to this. To understand the reasons for such protests it is also important to look at the historical background of Hong Kong-Mainland China relations.
HONG KONG–MAINLAND CHINA RELATIONSHIP
Handover of Hong Kong, 1997
The People’s Republic of China (PRC) and British signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984. The declaration stipulated transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong (including Hong Kong, Kowloon and New Territories) to China in 1997 and delineated that Hong Kong would be returned to Chinese sovereignty based on the ‘one country, two systems’ framework. The Joint Declaration included PRC’s basic policies1 regarding Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) enjoys independence of legislature, executive and judiciary.
‘One country, two systems’一国两制
According to the ‘one country, two systems’ framework, the HKSAR enjoys a certain degree of autonomy in matters apart from those related to foreign and defence affairs. Deng Xiaoping while formulating the ‘one country, two systems’ framework had mentioned that there would only be ‘One China’ with its various regions.
Further, the framework mentions that Hong Kong can continue to have its own governmental, legal, economic and financial system. Hong Kong maintains a mini-constitution of its own and a capitalist system as opposed to the rule of Communist Party of China (CPC) that is in place in Mainland China.
‘One country, two systems’ framework defines the Hong Kong-Mainland China relationship. There have been several protests in Hong Kong especially since 2003 against Mainland interference in Hong Kong’s autonomy and to ‘save’ the ‘one country, two systems’ framework.
THE VARIOUS PROTESTS THAT THE CITY HAS WITNESSED
The 2003 Protests
The 2003 protests were against the introduction of Anti-subversion legislation, which prohibited treason, secession, sedition and subversion against the Chinese government. After a huge protest the bill was shelved indefinitely.
The 2012 protests
Protests broke out in 2012 in Hong Kong as the authorities tried to change the curriculum of the school system in Hong Kong. Some of the changes that were brought about were inclusion of topics on China’s history, culture and national identity. For the protesters “it was seen as brainwashing of Hong Kong’s youth.” 1 On September 8, 2012 it was decided that the schools would have the authority to decide on the implementation of the curriculum, rendering it effectively dead.
The 2014 protests
The 2014 Umbrella Movement2 was a movement against the decision of China’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee (NPCSC) regarding the ‘proposed reforms of the Hong Kong electoral system.’ The reforms suggested a pre-screening of the candidates by the CPC for the post of Chief Executive of Hong Kong. The citizens of Hong Kong termed it as a measure restricting its autonomy. The protests also demanded ‘genuine universal suffrage’. The Chinese government did not agree to any demands of the protesters and after 79 days, the protests finally subsided without any real achievement.
The 2016 protests
This was the first pro-independence protest held in Hong Kong. It demanded complete independence of Hong Kong from Mainland China. The protest was against the banning of six pro-independence candidates from running in the election for city’s legislature.
The 2017 protests
In 2017, as Hong Kong celebrated two decades of handing over of Hong Kong to the Chinese control, the pro-democracy protesters marched against China’s refusal to grant ‘genuine autonomy’ to Hong Kong and the erosion of ‘one country, two systems.’
The 2019 protests
From Anti-Extradition Bill movement to a pro-democracy movement
The 2019 Hong Kong Extradition Bill protests are a series of protests that happened after Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam proposed the Extradition Bill in February 2019.The first series of protests were in March 2019, followed by demands on 9 June 2019 for the removal of Carrie Lam. Protests again broke out on 12 June 2019, the day planned for the second reading of the Bill. The protesters were met with police brutality and the protests were termed as ‘riots’ by the police. Thereafter the 26 June and 28 June, the protesters gathered in front of the consulates of the 19 countries,2 expected to participate in the G20 summit to attract international attention.
July 1, 2019 marked the day to commemorate the 22nd anniversary of the 1997 Hong Kong handover. The protesters demonstrated against the annual flag raising ceremony and broke into the Legislature Council (LeCo) complex. On July 9, 2019, Carrie Lam declared that the Bill was ‘dead’. The protests again broke out on July 14 demanding the full withdrawal of the Extradition bill.
The five major demands raised by the protestors includes: full withdrawal of the Extradition Bill, retraction of the characterisation of June 12 protests as ‘riots’ and inquiry on the police handling of the protesters.3 The protestors also demand amnesty for all arrested protestors and universal suffrage in election for Hong Kong’s chief executive.
By the beginning of August, it had become clear that the protests were no longer just about the Extradition bill. The protests had evolved into an issue of Mainland China trying to subvert the unique identity of the citizens of Hong Kong. On August 3, the protests took place for the 9th consecutive weekend; the protests were violent, as the police used tear gas and rubber bullets. On August 5, Carrie Lam delivered a media address and remarked that it was a very dangerous situation that Hong Kong is in.4
On August 9, the strongest warning from the side of China was issued. It warned the protesters to not to “play with fire” and that they should not mistake central government’s “restraint for weakness”.5 On August 11, the protestors occupied the Hong Kong airport resulting in the cancellation of flights the next day. 6
The anger among the protesters when the protest started was possibly because of the suicides that took place during the protests. 3 The other reason could be the resentment among the young people arising from their pursuit of universal values and their distrust of the local and central government and less about the anxiety over their personal lives.7 The turning of Anti-Extradition Bill protests into pro-democracy protests can be ascribed to the government’s handling of the situation with force.
Source: South China Morning Post (SCMP), 14th September, 2019.
SIMILARITIES BETWEEN THE PROTESTS
The major similarity that these protests bear with the previous ones is the pro-democracy nature of the protests. Even though not spelling out an explicit demand for greater democracy, each of these protests are similar in calling out China’s interference in various matters of the city and against the possible erosion of autonomy that it enjoys. The protests have demanded various kinds of freedom of legislature, judiciary, etc., which they thought Mainland China has been trying to subvert.
The Similarities between the handling of 2014 and 2019 protests by the government are also visible. The 2014 protests saw violence on the part of the police, which was seen this time as well and was fiercer. The government did not concede to any demands of the protestors during the 2014 protests and looking at the Central government’s response to the ongoing protest, it is highly unlikely that the government would agree to all of the demands of the protesters.
DIFFERENCES BETWEEN THE PROTESTS
The 2019 Anti-Extradition Bill protests had much greater intensity of protesters. With protesters occupying the Hong Kong airport that caused the cancellation of flights, the 2019 protests are much aggressive in nature than on previous occasions. Analysts had observed that the reason for the failure of the 2014 protests was due to the fact that the protests did not harm the economy of the city and if they have to ensure that the future protests are successful, they will need to impact the economy.8As it can been seen during the 2019 protests, the economy of Hong Kong took a blow due to the ongoing China-US trade war and the protests, but the central government did not budge for a long time showing that Hong Kong is more than its economy for the Mainland9 and even when the government has announced a formal withdrawal of the Bill10, there has been no statement by the government on other demands of the protesters. There had been a deployment of People’s Armed Police (PAP)4 along the border of Hong Kong and Shenzhen to deal with the “rioters” and “terrorists”,11 which has not been the case earlier.
One of the striking things about the 2019 protests was the large turnout of people. The number of participants in the 16 June 2019 protests was more than what Victoria Park5 could have held. The estimated number of protesters given by the police was 338,000, while the pro-democracy Civil Human Rights Front claimed that it was nearly 2 million.12 The protests were also held at the less politically engaged area of Kowloon.136 18 August was the first peaceful weekend in the city after many days.14
Source: Vox.com, 11th June, 2019.
China has issued statements against European Union (EU), the United States (US) and Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as a warning to stop interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs. EU's High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini and Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland issued a joint statement on Hong Kong on 18 August, 2019.The statement asked all the stakeholders to initiate a dialogue to solve the issue. It also reiterated that the autonomy that Hong Kong enjoys is enshrined in China’s Constitution. In response to this, the Chinese side asked EU to not interfere in China’s internal matters and respect International law.15
You Wenze, the spokesperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People's Congress of China issued a statement against those US lawmakers who have accused China of human rights violations in Hong Kong. The statement mentioned that the Hong Kong protesters have gone against the Constitution of PRC and the laws on China’s national flag and emblem, and hence they must be punished according to the rule of law and that US should stop meddling in China’s internal affairs.16
Although having major similarities with other protests, both on the part of protesters as well as the government, the 2019 protests are bigger and more aggressive in nature. The youth makes up a large proportion of the protestors, which some analysts believe is because of the deadline of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 2047. The youngsters have grown with democratic values and in a democratic system and the incremental encroachment by the Mainland poses issues for them.17 Youth have been at the forefront of the protests and have voiced their demands, and these can have an effect on their as well as the on the coming generation. Joshua Wong and Nathan Law18 of Demosisto719, the youth leaders at the forefront of the protests are those who were earlier sentenced in 2017 for their role in the 2014 Umbrella Movement. Apart from demanding greater democracy and being frustrated with the economic inequalities in the city, the youth appeared concerned over the identity of Hong Kong. Although there has been a speculation about the repetition of the Tiananmen Square incident the Global Times in an editorial dated 16 August 2019, refuted such claims arguing that China has matured and have better ways to tackle the situation than using its military20. Mainland China cannot afford to lose face in the international sphere by using military to curb the protests; such a policy may affect the credibility of China’s plans to unite with other territories based on “one country, two systems”.
HKSAR enjoys a democratic system under the shadows of Communist China. The pro-democracy and pro-independence elements have been voicing their concern over ‘Mainlandization’21 of Hong Kong. The 2019 protests have been the most violent ever since Hong Kong was handed back to China under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which guarantees Hong Kong’s autonomy, under the ‘Hong Kong Basic Law’. The reason for the Anti-Extradition Bill protests turning into a pro-democracy movement can possibly be because of the underlying fear among the citizens of Hong Kong that its autonomy would completely erode if China is successful in bringing about even a single change in the Hong Kong system that it proposes from time to time. The autonomy of the city is closely related to the identity of the citizens of Hong Kong. The protesters think that China’s interference meddles with their identity and can lead to a situation where the unique identity of the citizens of Hong Kong will cease to exist and be assimilated into the Mainland. Even after the HKSAR government has announced that it would formally withdraw the bill, the protests are far from over which again testifies that every protest in Hong Kong is less about the immediate matter and more about its future and eroding democracy.
* The Author, Research Intern, Indian Council of World Affairs.
Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the Researcher and not of the Council.
1The Hong Kong Basic Law is a set of policies which makes up the mini constitution of HKSAR; it delineates China’s basic policies vis-a-vis Hong Kong. It was adopted in 1990 and came into effect in 1997.
2The 2014 protest in HKSAR is popularly known as Umbrella Movement because of protestors using umbrellas as a shield against pepper sprays and water cannons used by the police. During the earlier phase the protests were called Occupy Central protests.
3 There had been total of four suicides as reported by CNN. The suicides, as stated by the officials had connections with the ongoing demonstrations. The suicides are believed to have fueled the intensity of the protests.
4PAP not People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is used to control the situations like protests.
5Victoria Park is the largest open and flat area in Hong Kong.
6 The Kowloon area of Hong Kong is also the area where most mainlanders live.
7 Demosisto is a pro-democracy organization which aims to achieve democratic self-determination for Hong Kong.
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