At 7am on Sunday the 9th of June my phone started buzzing and it kept buzzing in the days to follow. Instant updates and messages firing from various media outlets, family and friends overwhelmed both my WhatsApp and social media accounts. It was the start of a very tough week for Hong Kong.
What happened? Here is a quick recap:
- 9 June: more than a million people (one out of seven Hong Kong citizens) from all walks of life took to the street against the controversial extradition bill, which the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) Government originally pushed for amendments to be passed before July. The changes would allow for extradition requests, decided on a case-by-case basis, from authorities in mainland China, Taiwan and Macau for suspects accused of criminal wrongdoings. Many fear the law could be used to target political opponents of the Chinese state. Critics say this will expose to China’s deeply flawed justice system (e.g. arbitrary detention, unfair trial and torture, 99% conviction rate), leading to further erosion of the judicial independence of Hong Kong. Protesters called for withdrawal of the bill.
- 12 June: On the day scheduled for the extradition bill’s second reading at the Legislative Council, tens of thousands (many of them teenagers) gathered to blockade streets around government headquarters to try to stop the debate. Tear gas and rubber bullets were fired by the police. Some rights groups accused the police of using excessive force. Chief Executive Carrie Lam – supported by the Beijing government – condemned the protesters as instigators of the violence and labelled it as ‘organized riot’ which further fuelled anger from the public. Video
- 15 June: Carrie Lam, after staying out of public view for days, came out at a press conference announcing the suspension of the bill, still failing to appease protesters who demanded it to be scrapped entirely. On the same day, a protester fell to his death from a ledge, where he stood for hours after unfurling an anti-extradition banner.
- 16 June: peaceful, mass protest took place for the second consecutive Sunday. Nearly 2 million protesters, all wearing black, filled the streets of Hong Kong island, forcing a public apology from Carrie Lam and insisting on the bill’s withdrawal. Many shouted for Lam’s resignation. Hours later, the public apology came in the form of a government statement.
Hong Kong was a former British colony from 1841 until the handover of sovereignty to China on 1 July 1997, a date agreed in the Sino-British Joint Declaration signed between the British and Chinese governments back in 1984. Central to the handover was China’s agreement to the Basic Law that guarantees Hong Kong certain self-governance and civil liberties such as judicial independence, rule of law, freedom of the press and publication, freedom of speech, religious belief, assembly and demonstration under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ principles. The Basic Law also limits Beijing’s role to defence and foreign affairs. However, the Basic Law expires in 2047, leaving the Hong Kong way of life unchanged only for 50 years.
Hong Kong is just into its 22nd year after the handover but the promise of an unchanged way of life has already been eroded for a while. The Beijing government has been slowly and systematically tightening its grip over the city, both politically and economically, weakening Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy (executive, legislative and independent judicial power, including final adjudication). Key incidents include the disappearances of five Hong Kong-based book publishers who eventually turned up in the custody of mainland Chinese authorities, the rejection of a work visa renewal for foreign journalist Victor Mallet, Asia news editor for the Financial Times, after he hosted a talk at the city’s Foreign Correspondents’ Club by Andy Chan, an advocate of the city’s independence whose Hong Kong National party was subsequently banned. These incidents heighten concerns over the erosion of core Hong Kong values – human rights, rule of law, clean government, freedom and democracy, tolerance of different stances and views, respect for press freedom. For example, Hong Kong is a rare piece of land within China that allows holding a public candlelight vigil annually for the 1989 Tiananmen Square incident without interference, at least superficially.
The political climate in Hong Kong has changed a lot since 2010s. A key turning point was the 2014 pro-democracy ‘Umbrella Revolution’ which called for universal suffrage. The name came about as protesters used umbrellas for defence against police batons, pepper sprays and tear gas. The Umbrella Movement was partly mobilised by student activists including teenager Joshua Wong, who was later arrested for his involvement. Since then, more and more youth have begun participating in the civil movement, be it within the District or Legislative Councils, or in the civil society sphere.
Although it is stated in the Basic Law (Articles 45 and 68) that the Chief Executive and all the members of its legislature are to be chosen by universal suffrage elections, the interpretation of these lines by Beijing leaders and Hong Kong citizens are not on the same page. Now the Chief Executive is chosen by a ‘nominating committee’ of 1200 people, and most of them are from pro-Beijing elites. This is not what we want. It is foreseeable that civil disobedience will continue for some time, which Beijing leaders may not be comfortable with. Reconciliation will become increasingly challenging as political views and stances become more polarized.
1 July is the establishment day of HKSAR. While the government organizes celebratory events like a flag-raising ceremony, fireworks display and carnivals, it is also a yearly tradition that the Civil Human Rights Front organizes an annual march on the very same day. (Over 500,000 protesters joined the demonstration against the legislation of Basic Law Article 23 on anti-subversion in 2003). The world will watch how things unfold this year.
Note: The piece was written on 18th June and the dynamics kept changing throughout the week. As a Hong Kong citizen, I would be much appreciated if the international community follows our situation back home.