Photo Source: Aljazeera
A Hongkonger waving a British flag; students, professionals, young and old marching on the streets; hostilities breaking out at the legislative council building; harassment and riots between law enforcement officers and civilians; and canceled international flights. These, in a nutshell, are the images that tell the story of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) of China in recent weeks. What is happening in Hong Kong? Why have peaceful protests suddenly gone violent? Where will they lead? What is the future of Hong Kong?
Hong Kong has long been known for its progressive economy, as a business hub, a tourist destination, a home for liberal and international education, and a government and people who respect and value the rule of law. However, in the 2019 World Press Freedom Index, Hong Kong ranked 73rd - a drastic drop after almost two decades from 18th place in 2002. 1 In Mercer’s 2019 Cost of Living Survey, HK ranked as one among the most expensive metropolises in Asia based on consumer goods and housing costs.2 Residential property prices have increased by 242 percent over the past decade.3 In 2018, the disparity between the rich and poor was the largest in 45 years.4
Only 11% of Hongkongers identify themselves as Chinese.5 Hongkongers fear losing their freedom of speech and are greatly concerned about mainland China’s growing influence on their identity and ideology, as well as the presence of more and more mainlanders in Hong Kong. Resentment continues to brew over the central government’s denial of Hongkongers’ genuine and universal suffrage.
Thus, there is growing discontentment with the Hong Kong government. At the start of this year, a survey showed that 49 percent of those polled were dissatisfied with the government. Chief Executive (CE) Carrie Lam recorded her lowest approval ratings since taking office in July 2017. 6 She and her predecessor CY Leung had been asked to step down for allegedly serving the interests of Beijing, rather than of Hong Kong.
Marches and protests occur every year in Hong Kong in commemoration of the region’s 1997 handover to China by the British government. These often become an avenue for the Hongkongers to voice grievances and push their advocacies in the hope that the Hong Kong administrators, the Chinese central government, and the international community, especially Great Britain, will listen and act in their favor. In the past, these protest actions helped Hong Kong maintain a high degree of civil liberties and protection of its democratic institutions.
China’s 1997 promise of ‘One Country, Two Systems’ – that Hong Kong could maintain its legal and political systems and continue to enjoy wide autonomy and freedoms for 50 years following the handover, is being tested. The birth of the ‘Umbrella Movement’ in 2014 awakened the world to the clamor of the Hongkongers for universal suffrage and self-determination. That 79-day protest ended in uncertainty for the protesters but contributed to the formation of new political movements and helped the opposition gain seats in the Legislative Council (LegCo).
At this year’s handover anniversary, protests centered on opposition to a proposed extradition bill that would allow mainland China authorities to demand deportation of suspected criminals who are apprehended in Hong Kong. Hongkongers fear and distrust the justice system and application of law on the Chinese mainland. They recall the 2015 case of Hong Kong booksellers who disappeared from Hong Kong, only to turn up as having been detained in the mainland.
The protests resulted in more violent encounters between the protesters and police. On 9 June and 16 June 2019, an estimated one million and two million people, respectively, went to the streets to show strong resistance to the proposed new extradition arrangements with China.7 On 1 July, the 22nd handover anniversary, an estimated 550,000 Hongkongers - recorded as the highest turnout ever - joined the annual protest.
Furious protesters managed to block the LegCo complex, and the series of violent encounters led to the death of a protester, causing Carrie Lam to suspend the bill’s reading, issue an apology, and then eventually declare it ‘dead’. However, the protesters did not accept these government actions and demanded the complete withdrawal of the bill, Protests continue until now, often ending in violent police dispersals. The protesters now demand dialogue with government to be led by opposition lawmakers, complete withdrawal of the bill, an independent investigation of police brutality, retraction of the proclamation that the protests are riots, dropping of charges against the arrested protesters, and the implementation of universal suffrage. 8
The picture of Hong Kong as a model city - prosperous, modern, international, with broad protection of the rule of law - continues to deteriorate in the eyes of its people. The conflicts and disagreements between the authoritarian regime of China and democratic Hong Kong continue to undermine trust in the current system. In 2012, there were protests against compulsory ‘moral and national education,’ that required the teaching of China’s history, nationalism, and the Communist Party’s role. Although protesters won and the proposal was canceled, the introduction of ‘Basic Law Education’ in 2017 indicates it was not fully scrapped. 9 Could this kind of outcome happen again?
Despite the claims that the protests are peaceful, they have now been marred with violent actions and harassment. The strong response from the Hong Kong government and law enforcement authorities have helped make the situation worse, fueled emotions on both sides, and extended the protests so they are now felt internationally, with protesters occupying and blocking international airports in order to gain support from the international community. These events have begun to hit the economy badly, increasing pressure for the protesters, the administration and the Central government to urgently address the problem.
For Beijing, this series of events can be seen as a major win as well as a loss, according to different facets. It may be a “win” in terms of arguing before Chinese citizens that democracy is not compatible with the Chinese system, but a “loss” in terms of perceptions of non-adherence to international treaty and law, especially with respect to commitments made under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ formula. If Beijing will bow to the pressure to act forcefully and interfere publicly in Hong Kong matters, this will trigger more protests and reactions not only from Hongkongers but also from the international community. For the Hongkong protesters, the risks of losing are high, as the effects on the struggling economy are apparent, whereas support from the US, UK and other governments may be unlikely in this complicated situation.
The Chinese government’s claim that the Hongkongers misinterpret the Basic law that governs them will continue to confuse more citizens and make them feel that they are under the mercy of laws “with Chinese characteristics”. There are 28 years left before the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ or the ‘50-year no-change policy’ is scheduled to expire. Whether or not the Hongkongers lose this current battle, the war is bound to continue for the next three decades.
Ivy Ganadillo is a lecturer at the Ateneo De Manila University's Chinese Studies Program and one of the Board of Directors of Philippine Association for Chinese Studies.
1 2019 Word Press Freedom. Reporters Without Borders. (https://rsf.org/en/hong-kong)
2 Mercer, “Mercer’s 25th Annual Cost Of Living Survey Finds Cities In Asia Most Expensive Locations For Employees Working Abroad.” 26 June 2019.
3 Peter, Thomas, “Why Hong Kong’s angry and disillusioned youth are making their voices heard.” SCMP. 22 July 2019. (https://www.scmp.com/magazines/post-magazine/long-reads/article/3019591/why-hong-kongs-angry-and-disillusioned-youth-are)
4 Wong, Michelle, “Why the wealth gap? Hong Kong’s disparity between rich and poor is greatest in 45 years, so what can be done?” SCMP. 27 September 2018. (https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/society/article/2165872/why-wealth-gap-hong-kongs-disparity-between-rich-and-poor)
5 HKFP, “Hongkongers identifying as ‘Chinese’ at record low; under 10% of youth ‘proud’ to be citizens – poll.” 28 June 2019. (>https://www.hongkongfp.com/2019/06/28/hongkongers-identifying-chinese-record-low-10-youth-proud-citizens-poll/
6 Chan, Holmes, “Approval ratings of Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam at lowest since taking office – HKU poll”. HKFP. 30 January 2019. (https://www.hongkongfp.com/2019/01/30/approval-ratings-hong-kong-leader-carrie-lam-lowest-since-taking-office-hku-poll/)
7 Wong, Joshua. 2 July 2019 Official Statement. https://twitter.com/joshuawongcf/status/1145951726295326720
8 Wong, Joshua. 12 August 2019 Official Statement. https://twitter.com/joshuawongcf
9 Chiu, Peace, “Why are Hong Kong teachers so concerned about Basic Law education?”. SCMP. 3 June 2017. https://www.scmp.com/news/hong-kong/education-community/article/2096727/why-hong-kong-schools-have-teach-basic-law