For weeks young people have gathered in the streets of Hong Kong in record numbers to protest. But what are the protests all about? Asanga got the lowdown from his friend Edwin, a Hong Kong national with friends and relatives on the ground.
Tens of thousands of black dots are swarming past the pixels that illuminate Edwin Kwong’s laptop screen. This is the sixth hour of the live stream beaming the protests that are unfolding over 7,000 km away in his original home of Hong Kong. The scene captures protesters at the city’s police headquarters calling for the permanent scrapping of a controversial extradition bill.
Since the beginning of June, more than two million protesters (that’s two in every seven Hong Kong residents) have taken to the streets in the largest demonstration in the country’s history.
So what’s going on for real?
Protests initially broke out in response to an extradition bill that, if passed, would allow Hong Kong citizens to be extradited on a case-by-case basis to any jurisdiction in the world, including mainland China.
Any extradition request would be reviewed by the courts but the city’s Chief Executive (Hong Kong’s head of government who is elected in a closed process dominated by pro-China figures) would have the final say. Offences must carry a maximum penalty of at least seven years in prison to be extraditable, and span 37 different categories including murder, aiding and abetting suicide, corruption, and sexual assault.
There have been four major protests in June, beginning on June 9, growing in size for June 12 and 16, and subsiding a little by June 21.
Dominated by students and young people who are “being forced to be political” by the current political environment as Edwin describes, the protests have primarily sprawled through the main streets of the city with a focus on the Legislative Council building (the building stormed by protesters on 1 July), Central Government offices and the Chief Executive’s office too.
Carrie Lam, the city’s Chief Executive, apologised for causing the disruption to the city on June 18. She promised to suspend the bill but fell short of withdrawing it completely, which protesters fear means it could be revived after protests subside.
The police have also been widely criticised for use of excessive force against protesters, including beating subdued protesters, firing of rubber bullets at protesters’ heads, and use of tear gas in confined spaces. Amnesty International verified a number of such incidents that occurred on June 12. Edwin recalls there “being a slogan in Hong Kong that protests need to be peaceful, reasonable and non-violent” yet “the government is still responding with brutality.”
What started this?
The extradition bill was first floated in February 2019, after an arrest warrant was issued for Hong Kong resident Chang Tong-Kai who is suspected of murdering his pregnant girlfriend while they were both on holiday in Taiwan. He was unable to be sent to Taiwan to stand trial as the regions don’t share an extradition agreement. This provided the pretext for the introduction of the bill.
Protesters are concerned the amendment would be used to extradite Hong Kong citizens who are political activists and are critical of the Chinese government. Despite political offences being excluded from the amendment, critics argue China has a track record of persecuting dissidents and human rights activists for charges such as “running an illegal business”.
The amendments come off the back of increasing meddling by China in Hong Kong, including legal rulings that disqualified pro-democracy legislators from parliament, and the disappearance of Hong Kong booksellers that stocked books critical of the mainland government. Edwin sees this as stemming from the Hong Kong people being “disheartened and disappointed by not being able to exercise their rights.”
Wait, isn’t Hong Kong already part of China?
It’s complicated. Hong Kong is actually a Special Administrative Region of China and operates under the principle of ‘one country, two systems’. The city has a separate governing, justice and economic system to that of mainland China, and many residents identify as Hong Kong citizens, not Chinese nationals.
Hong Kong was governed by Britain for over 150 years after being annexed as part of the Opium Wars and was only ‘returned’ to China in 1997. A condition of the transfer would be that the region would govern itself for 50 years before coming under the full control of China in 2047.
Should we care?
“It’s easy to feel disengaged in politics,” explains Edwin, who grew up in Hong Kong. His family moved to Australia during the 1989 Democracy Movement, which included the famous Tiananmen Square protests.
Watching the latest protests from Australia, Edwin feels “angry, disappointed and a lot of negative emotions,” which he says reflects the mood of his friends on the ground. Despite this, he vows to think positively and reflects that, “it is really inspirational to see the resilience and spirit of the Hong Kong people. The creativity of the movement has been really empowering.”
It stems from a deep history of peaceful protests, emblematic of the camaraderie between residents, volunteers and young protesters, who are regularly offered medical aid, food, water and support.
The resurgence of political engagement by young people in Hong Kong comes at a critical juncture in its history. It also comes at a time in history when increasingly, young people are leading movements to address the most pressing issues of our time. From the School Strike for Climate (initiated by 16 year-old Swedish activist Greta Thunberg) to March for Our Lives (led by survivors of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shooting Cameron Kasky, Emma González and David Hogg), Hong Kong is yet another example of a youth-led movement that has been the spark for real political change.
Beyond potential breaches of human rights, Australia should care because what’s happening in Hong Kong is a reminder that people, and indeed young people, have power.
Pressure continues to mount
Pressure continues to mount on the government as global leaders such as Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe raised concerns about Hong Kong with Chinese President, Xi Jinping, at the G20 Summit in Osaka.
This is amidst over HK$5 million (approximately AUD$920,000) being raised to run front-page advertisements in international newspapers urging readers to pressure G20 leaders to act in addition to rallies in at least 12 countries and 29 cities standing in solidarity with protesters in Hong Kong.
More stakes rise as protesters stormed the Legislative Council chambers on 1 July, and a 21 year-old student fell to her death leaving a message opposing the extradition law.
For Edwin, the protests “show what people can do when we come together. It shows that you need to care, and if you don’t, the people in power can do whatever they want.” So keep listening and watching Australia.