Protesters in Hong Kong may have almost won this battle - but the fight for freedom and identity is far from over
- Protesters in Hong Kong have taken to the streets for weeks, coming out in large numbers, blocking access to main roads and sometimes clashing with police in some of the largest demonstrations the city has seen in its history.
- Protests centered around a controversial bill, which is being debated, that would allow the extradition of Hong Kong residents to the mainland. Critics of the bill said it would subject Hong Kong residents to unfair trials and would encourage China's overreaching hand into the semi-autonomous territory.
- Last week, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam conceded to protesters by postponing debate on the bill and delivering a rare public apology.
- But demonstrations have continued in large numbers, and they show no sign of stopping anytime soon.
- Though protesters may have won this battle, the war over China's creeping influence on the fragmented city is far from over.
Protesters in Hong Kong have taken to the streets for weeks, coming out in large numbers, blocking access to main roads and sometimes clashing with police in some of the largest demonstrations the city has seen in its history.
But Hong Kong isn't just fighting against legislation. It's fighting for its identity and freedom from China.
Sporadic protests began in late April in opposition of proposed legislation that would allow for the extradition of Hong Kong residents to the mainland. Critics of the bill say it would subject Hong Kong residents to unfair trials in China and would encourage China's encroachment on the semi-autonomous territory.
Demonstrations amplified on June 9, with hundreds of thousands of residents marching from Causeway Bay to the government headquarters near Admiralty, urging the government to strike down the controversial bill. Protests continued into the week and culminated in clashes with police on June 12 in which tear gas and rubber bullets were fired at protesters, injuring 81 people and leading to the arrests of 11. Police say they had "no choice but to use force" as demonstrators allegedly turned violent.
Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam conceded to protesters last Saturday by postponing debate on the bill and acknowledging "deficiencies" within her government. Her announcement did not quell protesters, who piled into the streets on Sunday in even larger numbers demanding full withdrawal of the legislation. Organizers say as many as two million people came out for Sunday's protests, while police estimated the number was closer to 330,000.
On Tuesday, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam delivered a rare public apology, though she refused to step down or table the bill completely. "This incident has made me realize that I need to do better," Lam told the press.
While it would seem activists should hail this small victory, many have been left frustrated and unimpressed, which is only fueling further efforts. On Friday, thousands of protesters swarmed the police headquarters and nearby buildings. And more demonstrations have already been planned in the lead up to the G20 summit in Osaka next weekend. "Before this important event on the international stage, we should rally again to deal another blow to Carrie Lam!" organizers wrote in a call to action on Facebook.
Though protesters may have won the a small victory in the battle over this legislation, the war over China's creeping influence on the fragmented city is far from over.
Hong Kong isn't just fighting against legislation. It's fighting for its identity.
While Hong Kong technically operates under a "One Country, Two Systems" rule with China, its relationship with the mainland is growing more fraught as time passes.
Hong Kong operated under British colonial rule for more than 150 years until its sovereignty was passed on to China in 1997 through an agreement called "the Basic Law." This allows Hong Kong to maintain its own political, legal, and economic systems separate from China until 2047.
Notably, guarantees for full and free elections were left out of the agreement. And what happens after 2047 remains unclear.
In the meantime, China has been growing increasingly overbearing in its policies towards Hong Kong. Proposals, like the easing of travel restrictions on visitors from China to Hong Kong, and the creation of a high-speed rail system linking parts of the mainland to Hong Kong sparked resentment in society and heightened calls for the city to move towards a full democracy.
"Hong Kong's role is changing in that no longer are we a so-called economic city," Albert Lai, chairman of Professional Commons, a pro-democracy think tank, told Reuters in 2010. "Hong Kong is fully aware that to stand up for our rights is the only way to safeguard our future."
And stand up it has.
Large scale protests, referred to as the "Umbrella Movement" for protesters' use of umbrellas against police brutality, erupted in 2014 in support of free and fair elections without Chinese influence. Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets in the month's long demonstrations, which were hailed as "the most significant social and political events in recent Hong Kong history."
Just under 1000 people were arrested during the months-long protests, according to Amnesty International, many of whom faced judicial proceedings. Nine pro-democracy campaigners were convicted for their leadership roles in the protests, with four handed jail sentences this past April.
Still, the protests didn't result in universal suffrage, and highlighted a further divide within Hong Kong society between the people and its leadership.
Pro-Beijing candidate Carrie Lam was ultimately voted into Hong Kong's highest civil position in 2017 by an 1,194-member Election Committee - composed mainly of elites loyal to the Chinese government - rather than by a free election.
"Lam's victory despite her lack of representation and popular support reflects the Chinese Communist Party's complete control over Hong Kong's electoral process and its serious intrusion of Hong Kong's autonomy," the pro-democracy Demosisto Party said after her win.
Lam has defended herself against accusations that she is a "puppet" for the Chinese government, though under her leadership pro-democracy lawmakers have been blocked from office and the number of pro-democracy leaders represented on the city's 70-seat legislative council is shrinking.
"As long as a minority of the political community is picking the chief executive and some members of Legislative Council, protest will remain the main outlet for political opposition," said Richard C. Bush, Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, in 2017.
But protesters are facing an uphill battle against Xi Jinping
While Hong Kong residents have grown louder in their calls for autonomy from the mainland, China still holds the upper hand under President Xi Jinping.
Elected in 2013 and virtually unchallenged, Xi has become one of the most powerful figures in China's history. Almost immediately after taking office he initiated a large scale corruption crackdown that has reportedly targeted more than 1 million officials, including numerous political rivals, and effectively gave him oversight on almost all aspects of Chinese policy, from military reform to cybersecurity.
Xi also created a new anti-corruption agency, which can investigate any government employee in the country and can hold suspects for up to six months without granting access to a lawyer.
Xi has significantly increased the country's censorship regulations, restricting access to certain websites and keywords that might promote discourse, and has introduced mass surveillance programs to keep a close watch on his citizens. The country also plans to roll out a "social credit" system by 2020, which monitors citizens behaviors and punishes them according to their score.
Xi has also clamped down on any form of dissent beyond China's borders.
A growing number of reports indicate Chinese residents overseas have "disappeared" under mysterious circumstances and have popped up in mainland China to face charges. Once in the country, citizens face arbitrary detention, physical threats, unfair trials and even death.
Hong Kong, too, has reason to fear China's overreaching hand. In 2015, five associates of Causeway Bay Books, an independent bookstore located in Hong Kong, which sold a number of controversial titles banned in the mainland, went missing without a trace, causing international uproar. Chinese police later confirmed that three of the men were being held for "illegal activity."
One of the men, Lam Wing-kee, revealed details of his kidnapping and detention upon his return to Hong Kong, striking fear of China's watchful eye over the territory. "This is not just about me," he said during a press conference. "This is about the freedom of Hong Kong people. The Chinese government has forced Hong Kong people into a dead end."
And in January 2017, a Chinese-born billionaire was plucked from the Four Seasons Hotel in Hong Kong and is believed to still be in police custody. Sources told the South China Morning Post in December that he was set to face trial in Shanghai for ""manipulating stock and futures markets" and "offering bribes on behalf of institutions."
Which brings us to the controversial extradition bill. Austin Ramzy, who covers Hong Kong for The New York Times, explained in The Daily podcast on Monday the significance of the legislation.
"People see this [extradition bill] as a Trojan horse, a means by which the mainland authorities can further increase control and reach people here in ways that they never could before," Ramzy said.
It's unclear what will happen next - whether protests will die down anytime soon and when debate on the extradition bill will likely resume. But Hong Kong residents continue to count on small victories as China's hand reaches deeper into Hong Kong society.
"There is this fear that in the current climate with Xi Jinping in Beijing that the people of Hong Kong are fighting a losing battle, but they're not ready to surrender just yet," Ramzy said.
"People in Hong Kong know that they may have slowed this bit of legislation, but they will have to continue turning up in huge numbers for years to come if they want to protect Hong Kong's unique identity."
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