Understanding Hong Kong's Civilian War of Disobedience
Millions of people are repeatedly taking to the streets of Hong Kong to express their wish to remain autonomous of China. Throughout June, a grassroots movement has united the masses against China's efforts to increase its influence over Hong Kong's government. This Gist Say'n will examine how a proposed extradition bill can frighten so many law abiding citizens into taking action in what some describe as "life or death" protests.
Hong Kong is in the midst of the biggest protests in its history. Given the numbers involved, the demonstrations have, so far, been amazingly orderly and peaceful. During the largest gatherings, there has been virtually no vandalism. No one is breaking windows or setting cars on fire.
A few bricks and bottles have been thrown, but protesters have been far more likely to repurpose barracks to block off streets and hinder police movements than they are to do any permanent damage. However, demonstrators who refused to disperse on command has led to the use of tear gas and non lethal bullets by police.
Though sparked by a proposed bill working its way through the Hong Kong Legislature, what fuels the protests is something much broader.
If the measure before the legislature passes, Hong Kong's government would be allowed to consider extradition requests from jurisdictions where they have no prior agreements. The most notable and concerning of these places is China.
In an interview with the BBC, Anson Chan, a former Hong Kong Chief Secretary from the era when Britain was still in charge said,
"You're taking away everyone's personal freedoms. At least up til now, most people feel that they're safe in their own beds, but once these extradition proposals are passed, no one is safe."
The Fugitive Offender Ordinance was proposed in February and ever since critics have raised concerns about the possible extradition of residents to mainland China. Oppositionists fear the communist nation lacks basic human rights protections that are in place in Hong Kong.
One of the principal organizers of the marches is a Hong Kong-based coalition called the Civil Human Rights Front. On its website the organization describes itself as being, "composed of more than 50 civil society groups, including human rights, democracy, labor, grassroots, religion, culture, women, communities, minorities, sex work, and different sexual orientations."
The efforts to get people out into the streets and get the government's attention has groups that might otherwise be at odds working toward the same goal. While many demonstrators in the streets sing hymns like "Sing Hallelujah to the Lord," the owners of at least two prominent pornography internet businesses temporarily shut down their sites to display messages of support for the protests.
One reason for the singing is that under Hong Kong's Public Order Ordinance, religious get-togethers are exempt from the definition of a "gathering" or "assembly" and are thus more difficult for police to break up.
"[The song is] a very good way to express not just an emotion, but our desires in a peaceful, spiritual, religious way," Catholic priest Cyril Cheung told TIME after leading a round of hymns and bible verses in Tamar Park. He added that the tune spoke to everyone, regardless of their beliefs.
Australian news has reported that in the days leading up to the first of these landmark protests on June 9th, a message on the "ThisAV" homepage encouraged users to attend the "life or death" protests instead of "jerking off at home."
University Student Unions are also sending electronic posters to help get the word out and organize their actions using apps like Telegram that can support chat groups of up to 200,000.
Five years ago, massive protests against China's infringement on Hong Kong's freedoms and autonomy had little impact. This time the strikes and demonstrations seem to be at least giving the legislature reason to pause.
Since the protests began the government postponed the vote on the bill and authorities have issued public apologies, including two from the Beijing appointed Chief Executive, Carrie Lam.
"I personally have to shoulder much of the responsibility. This has led to controversies, disputes and anxieties in society," Lam told reporters at a press conference. "For this, I offer my most sincere apology to all people of Hong Kong."
"I have never spared any effort to serve the public, but this incident has made me realize that, as the chief executive, I still got much to learn and do better in balancing diverse interests, in listening more to all walks of life, in taking our society forward," Lam added. "I truly hope that those injured can fully recover soon and that the rift in society could be quickly mended. Hong Kong is our home – it is only by walking together as one community and by staying closely connected that we can bring hope for Hong Kong."
Lam's apology was not enough to dissuade millions of Hong Kong's citizens from continuing to demonstrate. Delaying votes to disperse protests, only to then quietly pass laws in the wee hours of darkness, is a tactic the government has used in the past, so this time protesters are, thus far, refusing to back down.
At another recent press conference, Bonnie Leung, of the Civil Human Rights Front, went on camera to lay out the five main goals those demonstrating want to achieve.
She said, the first goal is that the government, not just postpone, but completely withdraw the extradition bill.
Second, they want those who authorized the use of force against protestors to be held accountable.
Third, they want the release of all arrested demonstrators with all charges against them dropped.
Fourth, they want the government to retract its characterizations that the ongoing events in the streets of Hong Kong are riots.
And fifth, they want the government's Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, to resign.
It seems the fifth demand is negotiable though because various Student Unions from Universities across the city did not include it on a list of requirements they put out.
A Cause Worth Dying For
The call to keep China out of the territory's legal system is a cause Hongkongers are willing to fight for and in at least in one instance die for.
On Saturday the 15th, before falling to his death, either accidentally or intentionally, a 35-year-old protester gained an elevated position at Pacific Place. From the roof of a building at the well-known complex of office towers, hotels, and shops, he hung a banner that read, "No extradition to China, total withdrawal of the extradition bill, we are not rioters, release the students and injured, Carrie Lam step down, help Hong Kong."
While Lam apologized for the handling of both the extradition law and the protests, she says she will not resign or entirely scrap a vote on the postponed bill. She kept this stance even after close to two million people took to the streets on Sunday, June 16th. Instead, she says she wants another chance to rebuild people's trust in the government and acknowledged that her work over the next three years will be difficult.
A Dangerous Impasse
Each time the demonstrators take to the streets, there are concerns that either they or the police will escalate the situation to violent ends. The Student Union groups, in particular, seem to be itching for a fight. For example, on the 12th, in response to police efforts to clear the area around the legislative council headquarters, protestors used barricades, water bottles, and bricks to push back while shielding themselves with umbrellas. Police retaliated with pepper spray, batons, and non-lethal shotgun rounds.
Australia's SBS news site has displayed screenshots from the internet that read things like:
"We go onto the street not because we have hope or we think more people will make our action succeed. We know we need to do it no matter whether we shall succeed or not."
"Even a pig will scream before it is killed. Should we be killed but remain silent?"
"It's time for you to spill your sweat and blood."
It is essential to understand that though based on British common law, the laws in Hong Kong are not the same as here in the United States.
Even peacefully parading down a street or sitting in a courtyard has the potential of destroying your life. In Hong Kong, any person who loiters in a public place – or in the common parts of any building – with intent to commit an arrestable offense, is liable to a fine of HK$10,000 and imprisonment for six months. (BTW right now 1 US$ is equal to about 8 HK$)
Being charged with involvement in a riot has even graver consequences. In Hong Kong, those convicted of rioting face a decade behind bars. On June 12th as police began to use tear gas, rubber bullets and bean bag rounds to disperse crowds who were occupying main roads in Admiralty, a business district on Hong Kong Island, both Police Commissioner Stephen Lo and Chief Executive Carrie Lam initially called the protest a "riot."
The commissioner said police made 32 arrests that day, 15 of them stand accused of violent crimes, five of which face charges for rioting. However, Lo says police have received 34 complaints concerning that operation and that the department is looking into them.
So even though it is safer than protesting on China's mainland, marching for what you believe in Hong Kong, is fraught with personal dangers far more significant than here in the United States. You don't just get your mug shot taken, pay a fine, and return to work on Monday with a great story to tell. You could spend months or years in prison.
So it was a small win for organizers when the police decided not to charge eight people with loitering after arresting them during the June 12th protests against the extradition bill.
According to a report in the Hong Kong Free Press... "the eight, including seven men and one woman, were unconditionally released. The police said there was not enough evidence to file charges against them after they conducted an investigation and sought legal advice."
The article went on to say that Civic Party lawmaker Tanya Chan is warning protesters not to celebrate too early, saying that during the 2014 pro-democracy Umbrella Movement protests she was arrested and unconditionally released twice. She was later arrested for the third time in 2017 and charged with a different crime for her involvement in the protests.
"At a police station in 2015, police stopped me from meeting my lawyer on my own, and refused to provide a written record (I know it's hard to believe but it's true)," she wrote on Facebook. "I am not asking you to live in fear, but to know the reality, protect yourself and live your life."
She was eventually sentenced to eight months in prison, earlier this month it seems that sentence was suspended for two years, as she fights a brain tumor.
Examples like this are why residents of Hong Kong fear their liberties will be infringed upon even further if the Fugitive Offender Ordinance passes. China is known far and wide for human rights violations; often, people who speak against the communist regime disappear into the system on trumped up charges without due process. Right now, China is not allowed to do that to people in Hong Kong because it has an entirely different legal system.
Isn't Hong Kong Chinese?
If Hong Kong were trying to post its relationship status with China on social media, it would state, it's complicated.
Officially, yes, Hong Kong has been a part of China since July 1st, 1997 when the British handed it back to the Chinese after ruling the island and surrounding territory for more than a century and a half.
In 1839, Great Britain invaded China during the First Opium War to crush the Emperor's opposition to British interference in his country's economic, social, and political affairs. That is to say, England needed to keep and expand its opium trade there.
One of Britain's first acts of the war was to occupy Hong Kong. Back then it was a sparsely inhabited island off the coast of southeast China with nothing more than an excellent harbor and location. As part of the treaty that ended the war, China ceded the island to England and the new colonial trading outpost swiftly grew into an East-West commercial gateway and distribution center for all of southern China and beyond. In 1898, China granted Britain a lease to continue its rule over Hong Kong Island and its surrounding peninsula for another 99 years.
In the 1980s, as the contract drew to a close, the British negotiated an exit deal, whereby it would peacefully hand the territory back to China in exchange for a Chinese pledge to preserve Hong Kong's capitalist system. With the written promise that Hongkongers would run Hong Kong for at least 50 years, the colony became the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (SAR).
So, for the past 22 years, Hong Kong has navigated its way through a one-country two-systems situation. It has its own currency, legal system, and immigration process that includes its own passports. It also has an Olympic team, anthem, and flag.
However, Chinese flags fly from government buildings, and though some representatives in the legislature are democratically elected, Beijing appoints the Chief Executive who runs the city. On an ancestral level, most Hong Kongers consider themselves Chinese, most do not, however, consider themselves to be part of China.
The fear of losing more freedom is what's driving nearly 28,5 percent of Hong Kong's entire population out into the streets. But why is the government trying to push this through now? It boils down to timing and opportunity.
Remember, despite Hong Kong's special status within China, Lam, the executive in charge of Hong Kong is directly appointed by Beijing and the territory's Legislative Council is dominated by lawmakers who are hand-picked by the Chinese Communist Party.
So even Lam gave pubic platitudes, it is highly unlikely she will completely capitulate to demonstrators demands, even though they vow to escalate. Each side has far too much at stake.
Anthony Kuhn is an NPR correspondent long based in Asia. Here are some excerpts of an article he posted on the 19th.
"Beijing has long perceived Hong Kong as a base for anti-Communist subversives, and a haven for fugitives from the mainland who often abscond with large sums of money. Initially following the handover, China dealt with Hong Kong with a light touch because of the city's financial power."
"But a decade ago, as Western economies reeled from the 2008 financial crisis, other Chinese cities began catching up with Hong Kong. Hong Kong's economy, as a proportion of China's GDP, fell from 27% in 1993 to less than 3% in 2017."
"Beijing has worked to integrate Hong Kong, Macau and the rest of the Pearl River Delta into an economic mega-region. Chinese leaders argued that, as demand from Western markets dried up, Hong Kong's best bet was to bind itself more closely to mainland Chinese markets."
"These developments strengthened the hand of China's leader Xi Jinping, as he consolidated power, silenced dissenting voices, modernized the military and extended the country's global reach through diplomacy and infrastructure projects."
Hong Kong's government says that the proposed extradition law came about not because of China, but because of a murder in Taiwan involving two Hong Kong citizens. Leadership has said the bill is necessary for Hong Kong to gain respect from other countries that see the SAR as a haven for criminals.
On the 20th, Evan Fowler, a columnist and co-director of the Hong Kong Free Press wrote:
"However, the need for a mechanism to allow persons to be legally extradited to a regime known for its arbitrary and politicized legal system must be weighed against the risk this poses not only to the person but also to the rule of law in Hong Kong."
Fowler went on to write that because Beijing appoints Hong Kong's Chief Executive, and Hong Kong exists purely by Beijing's grace, it is not politically feasible to see a situation where Hong Kong would refuse any extradition request from China.
Fowler, like others, believes China is actively using its laws to remove any domestic opposition. He feels China is systematically purging labor rights lawyers, social activists, intellectuals, journalists, and people within the Communist party itself. Therefore he fears there is no reason to believe that if given the opportunity, Beijing will not do the same in Hong Kong.
Anthony Kuhn agrees, he wrote that "When the one country, two systems policy expires in 2047, it seems Beijing intends to take control of a city that has already been tamed and emptied of any serious resistance."
That may be China's plan, but it is not there yet, Hong Kong stands untamed and resistant.
Fowler believes the lesson in Hong Kong that both China and the rest of the world should heed is that "all authority reliant on oppression is only ever a wisp away from revolution."
July 1st will mark the 22nd anniversary of Hong Kong's 1997 handover to China and plans for another massive rally on that day are well underway. At this point, the world can only watch to see what happens next.