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Hong Kong: A Summer of Protest

Editor’s note: All opinions pieces published in the Clerk represent only the views and ideas of the author. Content warning: This article discusses violence and links to depictions of violence.

It all began in early June, when Hong Kong’s public voiced its discontent with a bill proposed by the government that would allow extradition to Taiwan, Macau, and most importantly, China.  What started out as peaceful opposition has quickly evolved into pitched battles nearly every weekend since, and a look into how far Hong Kongers are willing to go to preserve their freedoms.

Hong Kong, once a British colony, was handed over back to China on July 1, 1997. The handover comprised a unique agreement where Hong Kong would be part of China, but only as a Special Administrative Region (SAR): separate constitutions, judicial systems, and currencies, as well as a border separating the two territories. The city’s way of life was to remain unchanged for 50 years following the handover. No extradition agreement between China and Hong Kong was created at the time. This was intentional. It allowed the SAR to preserve some of the freedoms it had as a colony, including freedom of the press, freedom of speech, and the right to assembly. Hong Kong is the only territory in China that holds an annual memorial to commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.

When Carrie Lam, Chief Executive of Hong Kong’s government, introduced the Extradition Bill earlier this year (supposedly to allow for extradition to Taiwan in response to a specific murder case, although Taiwan had made it clear it would not request an extradition even if it was possible), the public immediately felt their freedoms were threatened. With China’s laws being so different from Hong Kong’s, and the mainland’s historic record of unfair and secret trials, it is unsurprising that Hong Kong’s public—as well as the vital business and legal sectors—would be against an extradition agreement. 

On June 9th, a reported 1 million people (of the city’s 7 million inhabitants) took to the streets to march against the bill. It was my first protest in Hong Kong and I, like many others who consider the city their home, felt like it was necessary to come out to ensure our freedoms would not be stifled. Downtown was flooded with people wearing white, as a symbol for “light and brightness, with an overall theme of justice”. There was no violence, only a quiet, peaceful, and calm crowd on the streets. Despite this large turnout, Carrie Lam’s government ignored the public’s demands and pushed forward with the bill, scheduling a Legislative Council (LegCo) meeting to discuss it on June 12th. 

That day, in an effort to stop discussions, tens of thousands of (mostly) young people took to the streets around the LegCo complex. They succeeded in blocking legislators from attending, but soon enough the police arrived to disperse the illegal gathering: all large scale gatherings that have not been pre-approved by the police are considered illegal in Hong Kong. In what has since been called an excessive amount of force, Hong Kong police used tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper balls to disperse the largely peaceful protest.

Since June 12th, the situation has only escalated on both sides, even though Carrie Lam announced that the extradition bill had been suspended in the days following the violent outburst. Despite the suspension of the bill, June 16th was another day of large scale protest, with a reported 2 million people attending. The designated protest streets very literally could not contain the turnout and much of downtown was closed that Sunday. People came dressed in black, a colour that would continue defining the protesters over the next few months. 

The June 16 protest felt very different from the one that had happened just the week before. There was a tangible energy in the air, a frenzy of anger and discontent. June 16 was about much more than just the extradition bill: it was about Carrie Lam’s failure to listen to the public, about the police’s excessive violence on June 12th, about mourning the death of a man who had committed suicide the day before in protest, and more than anything, it was about the Hong Kong public being entirely unwilling to give up their freedoms and standing their ground to do so.

Over the last few months, most of the world has seen images of Hong Kong’s streets looking like a battlefield. News outlets have broadcasted sensational footage of the police shooting rubber bullets, tear smoke wafting between buildings, large fires blazing. 

But at its very core, this protest movement is not one of violence, it is about Hong Kong aching to retain its already-limited freedoms, and reaching for what has always been right outside of its grasp: democracy. 

I spent most of my summer amid the Hong Kong protests—I consider the city my home despite my status of foreign national. I was born and raised in Hong Kong, and my family continues to live there. It’s the place I go back to during winter and summer breaks at Haverford. Studying abroad in the US, I often see people taking their freedoms for granted, something many people in my city are seeing slip right out of their fingers. The fact that I can even write this article is breathtaking. In the US, there is such fervent discussion surrounding elections, with no one even considering the privilege that is to elect your own leaders. 

August 31st marked the 5th anniversary of Beijing’s decision that all candidates running for the top government position of Chief Executive must be approved by the central government. This decision guaranteed that any leader of Hong Kong would be pro-Beijing and would never properly effect democratic change. This decision sparked the Occupy Central protests in 2014, which became known as the Umbrella Movement. Major thoroughfares in Hong Kong were shut down for nearly three months, and the public eventually got tired. Thus, that plea for democracy failed, with many of the student leaders of the movement jailed in subsequent years. 

This time, though, is different. Although Carrie Lam has agreed to one of the five protestors’ demands, and has (finally) fully withdrawn the Extradition Bill, there are few signs of the protests stopping. The last three months have resulted in an incredible momentum and a fervent energy that will likely continue fueling anger. The Hong Kong government has time and time again demonstrated that it only reacts to violence, a prime example being the suspension of the bill after (and as a consequence of) June 12th. The more radical protesters are willing to give up everything for this objective: a local friend of mine once told me that she felt this was the “last chance” for Hong Kong to retain its freedoms. Although Hong Kong’s public does not participate in the more violent clashes, there has been an unprecedented outpouring of support towards the black-clad protesters. 

What started out as a simple protest against a proposed bill has transformed into something completely different. The people of Hong Kong feel so unheard and upset that they feel they have nothing left to lose. 

As October 1st (National Day in China: this one will mark the 70th anniversary of the creation of the PRC) nears, I worry for Hong Kong and potential Chinese intervention. But for now, the fight goes on. 

This year’s June 4th annual vigil for the 1989 Tiananmen massacre. Hong Kong is the only place in China to hold an annual memorial for the victims. 

The June 9 protest: a reported 1 million people came out to oppose the Extradition Bill.
The first spark of violence in Hong Kong on June 12th. Protesters, milling about behind a barricade they made to block the road, in a standoff with riot police standing about 50 meters away.
June 12th: People drive their cars to Central and park them in disarray to make sure the road remains blocked.
A bus is stuck at a major intersection in Central on June 12th. Luxury shops are ubiquitous in this area of the city; protests were largely peaceful and no shops were vandalized.
A black-clad march on June 16th. A reported 2 million people took to the streets several days after Chief Executive Carrie Lam had announced the suspension of the bill.

So many people attend the June 16 protest that marchers spill over onto parallel streets, as seen here. Pictured, Johnston Road in Wan Chai.
A yellow umbrella–a major symbol during the 2014 Occupy Central protests–makes an appearance at the June 16 protest.
During the month of July, so-called Lennon Walls begin appearing across Hong Kong. These walls, filled with pro-democracy messages written largely on post-it notes, invite the public to anonymously participate or simply observe. Here is one put up in Sai Wan district.
Posters in both English and Chinsese calling for a citywide strike. Text on the helmet reads “Give me back my democracy” and text on the baton reads “5 demands, not one less”, a popular protest slogan referring to the protesters’ five demands to the Hong Kong government.
A major thoroughfare in shopping district Causeway Bay is blocked by protesters on August 31st.

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