Why Is Hong Kong Erupting?

Hong Kongers are fighting for their city's unique status under the shadow of Beijing.

Protesters face off with police during a rally against a controversial extradition law proposal outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong on June 12, 2019.
Protesters face off with police during a rally against a controversial extradition law proposal outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong on June 12, 2019. Dale De La Rey/AFP/Getty Images

Hong Kongers are on the street again this weekend, as they have been for the last two months, facing tear gas from police and threats from Beijing. The initial spark for the ongoing protests was an extradition bill that would allow Hong Kongers to be sent to mainland China for trial. Although the issue had been brewing for months after the bill was proposed in February, it was in June that it truly exploded. A million protestors took to the streets on June 9, and as many as 2 million on June 16. Half a million showed up at the annual pro-democracy protests on July 1. (Those estimates are from organizers; police estimates are considerably smaller.) Individual protests since then haven’t been as large, but they’ve become more contentious, including breaking into the Legislative Council building, violent attacks by members of the triad organized crime groups on protestors, and regular clashes with police.

Why was the extradition bill so contentious?

Under current Hong Kong law, it’s effectively impossible to render a fugitive from either the Chinese mainland or Taiwan (which Hong Kong treats as part of China) back to the authorities there. The bill, nominally sparked by the case of a Hong Kong man who killed his girlfriend in Taiwan, was theoretically supposed to allow extradition only for serious criminal offenses.

Opponents of the bill saw it as a backdoor to extend into Hong Kong Chinese law—a legal system that is regularly used to persecute dissidents and critics, sometimes by charging them with other trumped-up offences, sometimes by using vague charges like “endangering state security.” There were already fears that a new Chinese extraterritorial zone around the city’s high-speed rail terminus could be used as an excuse to legally kidnap Hong Kongers passing through it and render them to the mainland.

Analysts generally believe that the bill was the initiative of Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam, not a measure suggested or strongly pushed from Beijing. Lam may have been aiming to please the Chinese authorities and strengthen her position, or it may have been an attempt to put a formal procedure in place in order to circumvent the Chinese authorities from simply kidnapping Hong Kongers. (The Chinese secret services have already grabbed Hong Kong booksellers who distributed scandalous texts about the Chinese leadership from other countries, probably including from Hong Kong itself, and put them on trial in China. It also kidnaps mainlanders around the world.)

Wait, is Hong Kong part of China or not?

Officially, yes. The city, a former British colony, was handed back to China in 1997 as part of a deal struck in the early 1980s between British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the Chinese leadership. But part of that arrangement was that Hong Kong would preserve its own unique legal system, borders, and government until 2047, when it could be fully incorporated into the People’s Republic of China.

But the British failed to introduce full democracy in Hong Kong before the handover, leaving the city with an ungainly system that mixes limited democratic elections with a chief executive appointed by a narrow council of just 1,200 elites and approved by Communist Party leaders in Beijing. The current chief executive, Lam, is wildly unpopular.

2047 is a long way off, and many Hong Kongers once believed China might liberalize by then. But as human rights and freedom of speech on the mainland have been dramatically curtailed under President Xi Jinping’s rule, the prospect of direct rule from Beijing looks a lot grimmer. And increasingly, Hong Kongers are convinced the Chinese government doesn’t want to wait 28 more years to exert control.

But the bill has been withdrawn. Why are protesters still angry?

Whether the bill has been withdrawn or not depends on whom you talk to. On June 15, Lam announced the process had been “suspended.” That was followed by an ambiguous statement on July 9 that it had “died a natural death.” But the bill hasn’t formally been withdrawn from the legislature, and that’s one of the five demands protesters are now making—along with Lam’s resignation, that the government drops its characterization of the protests as “riots,” a full inquiry into police behavior during the protest, and the release of everyone arrested during the protests without charge.

But beyond that, the protests are an expression of an anger that’s been brewing for years, even since the first round of massive pro-democratic protests in 2014 failed to produce meaningful change. Since then, numerous activists have been arrested, from youthful protest leader Joshua Wong to independence activist Edward Leung, while the electoral process has increasingly excluded anti-Beijing parties and candidates, most notably by disqualifying elected officials who refuse to take oaths of loyalty to China. Much of the anger is directed at the police and their brutal, colonial-era tactics, as well as their alleged collusion with triad members who attacked protestors.

Young Hong Kongers also simply don’t feel Chinese. Hong Kong University’s Public Opinion Program, a long-running survey, found that just 3.1 percent of those under 30 identified as Chinese, with the vast majority seeing themselves as Hong Kongers. That pits them against an older generation with stronger ties to the mainland—and against the city’s political and business elite, who effectively switched allegiance to Beijing in the 1990s. Hong Kongers feel the elite has sold them out, not least because the city’s growing inequality is making it harder and harder for the young to find housing or meaningful jobs.

How does this end?

The biggest fear is that Beijing responds to what it sees as growing provocations by protestors by sending in the People’s Liberation Army (or the paramilitary forces, the People’s Armed Police) to quell the movement—possibly resulting in a second Tiananmen. That would be a massive escalation, and it seems unlikely, given Hong Kong’s prominence in international media. But it doesn’t help that China just released an army propaganda video showing officers yelling commands in Cantonese and aiming weapons at protestors.

Targeted violence, however, seems quite possible. That could include wider use of deniable forces such as triads or thugs bussed over from the mainland, or simply an escalation of police force. Whether that could control increasingly angry youth is an open question.

De-escalation from the government might seem like the most sensible route, especially since the financial community—considered vital to the city’s prosperity—increasingly backs the protestors. De-escalation could include Lam’s resignation and public inquiries into police activities, even if those end up being limited in scope. But that might be a political impossibility given how hard-line Communist Party politics has become of late.

And even if protests are temporarily quelled, the underlying issues won’t disappear. Hong Kongers still want democracy. Beijing’s shadow still looms. And the government is still caught uneasily in between.

James Palmer is a deputy editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @BeijingPalmer

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