This backgrounder explores what is going on in Hong Kong. Massive Hong Kong protests continue and the threat of violence is growing daily.

The Hong Kong protests have been ongoing since June. In recent weeks the police moved in force against the protest movement. This includes more than 2,000 arrests. Violence against the protesters, as well as among them, is proving a threat that could easily derail the movement. Police allege protesters are vandalizing and throwing 100 firebombs at them.

what is going on in Hong Kong

In the early months of 2019, the government of Hong Kong proposed a bill known as the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation. If passed, this bill would allow for the transfer of fugitives to jurisdictions where Hong Kong does not have an extradition treaty. The announcement of the bill set off immediate alarms in Hong Kong. Critics contended passage of this legislation would lead to politically motivated and unfair trials for Hong Kong citizens in China.

This was the immediate cause of the 2019 protests in Hong Kong. To better understand what is taking place in the massive protests in Hong Kong we need to go deeper.

Hong Kong History

For 150 years Hong Kong was a colony of the British. In the 1950s the colony exploded as an industrial hub within the postwar global economy. It also became a popular migration destination for dissidents fleeing communist China.

Britain’s control of Hong Kong came to an end in 1997. A unique status was negotiated for its return to Chinese control. This is known as the “one country, two systems” status which many of the Hong Kong protesters frequently reference. Hong Kong belongs to one country – China, but it is self-governed in many ways. Excluding foreign and defense affairs, Hong Kong is to enjoy this special status for fifty years (until 2047).

Hong Kong has its own legal system and unique culture as a result of this history and the ongoing one country, two systems status. The BBC reports that most Hongkongers are ethnic Chinese but do not identify as Chinese people.

Protests became a prominent part of Hong Kong culture and political expression after the changeover to Chinese rulership in 1997. In 2003 a march against a law that would limit free speech in Hong Kong included more than half a million people and successfully shelved the proposed law. In 2012 tens of thousands of young protesters, many of them schoolchildren protested an order for schools to teach moral and education classes. These classes glorified Chinese communist history.

In 2014 tens of thousands of protesters demanded the right to elect their own leaders. These protests included violent clashes with the police. The protesters often defended themselves against police attacks with umbrellas earning this event the nickname, The Umbrella Movement. The authorities effectively dismantled this protest movement. The anniversary of this protest was recently commemorated during the current ongoing Hong Kong protests.

Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation Bill

In 2018 a 19-year-old man killed his pregnant girlfriend in Taiwan. He then returned to Hong Kong and soon confessed to the killing. Because China does not recognize Taiwan the man could not be extradited to Taiwan for trial and sentencing.

Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation Bill

The Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation Bill was proposed as a solution to this. Under this law, criminals could be extradited on a case by case basis to countries that Hong Kong does not have an extradition agreement with.

hong kong protests

Opponents to the bill quickly rose up against the proposed legislation. They argued that this bill will put alleged criminals at the mercy of Chinese courts. A person could be arrested for a political crime in Hong Kong and extradited to China for trial and sentencing. They see the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation Bill as a trojan horse for the Chinese government to infiltrate Hong Kong’s special status and independent values.

Five Demands Not One Less

In early September the governor of Hong Kong relented to the demands of the protesters and withdrew the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters bill. That did not slow the protesters in any way. The protesters stated this was too little, too late. Even as Governor Lam made the announcement on television that the bill was being withdrawn, the protesters began chanting, “Five demands not one less.”

Accordingly, the five demands of the protesters include the following:

  1. Withdrawal of the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Bill. Mission accomplished on that one.
  2. A commission of inquiry into alleged police brutality over the course of these protests.
  3. Official retraction of the classification of the Hong Kong protesters as “rioters.”
  4. Amnesty for all arrested protesters.
  5. Dual universal suffrage, meaning for both the Legislative Council and the Chief Executive. In other words, they want to vote for all of their representatives.

Scale of the Protests in Hong Kong  

The protests began in the early part of 2019 but picked up significant steam over the course of the weeks since early June. The size of the protests varies between what is reported by official state sources and the protesters themselves. The largest protests ranged from several hundred thousand to two million Hongkongers.

The protesters deliberately avoid organizing around specific organizations or leadership. In previous protests, such as the Umbrella Movement, government forces and Chinese authorities leveraged that tactic against the protest movements by specifically targeting the leadership.

In these protests, authorities frequently infiltrate the movement by pretending to be protesters to learn where and what protests are taking place. This results in heightened paranoia and fear among the protesters. The protesters consist of a variety of organizations all being careful to not take the lead. Social media is playing a large role in coordinating protest tactics, specifically Reddit.

hong kong protests

In June police fired rubber bullet and tear gas at protesters. One protester was blinded in one eye by a rubber bullet fired by police. The symbol of a bloody eyepatch became a symbol of the protests in Hong Kong for a time. This drew attention to the protesters’ cause and also to the levels of force being used by the police. In recent weeks the police fired tear gas at protesters in the subway system.

A combination picture shows anti-extradition bill protesters wearing an eyepatch, in reference to a demonstrator that was injured at previous day’s clashes with police during a protest inside the airport terminal in Hong Kong, China August 12, 2019. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

The protesters are not entirely peaceful. Nonviolent resistance and protest is the general goal. Last week two Chinese reporters suspected of being undercover police agents were taken captive by the protesters. They were later released.

Police accuse the protesters of hurling bricks at them, charging and tackling them to the ground and using gasoline bombs against them.

 what is going on in Hong Kong

In July the Hong Kong protesters stormed the parliament building. Walls were smashed and spray-painted with graffiti before the police cleared the area using tear gas. More recently the Hong Kong international airport is consumed by the protest movement. Hundreds of flights were canceled in recent days and weeks. The business and economy of Hong Kong have been frequently paralyzed by the protest movement. The financial toll of the protests to Hong Kong’s economy is enormous but specifics are not yet determined.

The protests swelled in size and ferocity yet again in the week before China celebrated its 70th anniversary of Communist rule. Tens of thousands marched in dueling protests throughout Hong Kong. The protests moved in greater numbers and accomplished new levels of vandalism. Meanwhile, police fired their first live bullets at the protesters.

International Response to Hong Kong Protests

The US has issued multiple statements of concern to Hong Kong regarding the proposed legislation. It is believed that the new law would be US security interests in Hong Kong at risk. The European Union, Canada, and Britain similarly have issued official protests to Hong Kong over the proposed legislation.

hong kong protests

President Trump has broadcast an array of responses regarding the protests. An editorial by David Ignatius in the Washington Post editorial noted the President’s changing on the subject:

“President Trump has been as erratic on Hong Kong as on most foreign policy issues. In the early days, he all but invited Beijing to crack down, calling the protests “riots,” and saying it was a matter between Hong Kong and China, “because Hong Kong is a part of China.” This week, as a crackdown seemed near, Trump whined about being blamed for Chinese intervention and offered a “personal meeting” to resolve the crisis peacefully with the “great leader” President Xi Jinping. Then, on Wednesday, he personalized the issue even more by linking a trade deal with Xi with a cooperative resolution of the Hong Kong crisis.”

In fairness, expressing too much support for the protesters by the US President could signal political backing which they cannot actually rely on. It could also trigger consequences in the form of even harsher Chinese responses. There is a risk of “moral liability” as Ignatius describes it when US officials voice too much support for democratic protesters in these situations.

what is going on in hong kong

China meanwhile is clearly in support of the original bill that prompted the protests. At the G20 meetings in June Beijing refused to allow the issues in Hong Kong to be discussed even while the Hong Kong activists called on the G20 nations to liberate Hong Kong. China asserts that foreign powers are behind the protests. Domestically China barely reported on the protests in the beginning. Now the Hong Kong protests are referred to as “riots” in the Chinese media. Most concerning, there are reports of Chinese army vehicles accumulating on the border with Hong Kong. This, of course, raises concerns of a greater Chinese military intervention on the protests.

China originally sought to downplay the significance of the protests in Hong Kong. That strategy failed. Today China is using the language of “terrorism” to describe the movement. Many understand this as a means to justify a violent crackdown against the protesters in the near future.

Where Is It Going?

China wanted to deliberately avoid a clash and any form of dissent in the run-up to its 70th Anniversary celebration on October 1. The protesters seemed to be pushing for just such a clash. It is theorized that a sort of Tiananmen Square episode is what the protesters both feared and hoped for from the Chinese government. Such an act would then garner world sympathy for their movement.

The Chinese government resisted that temptation but its patience is not likely to last much longer. The more time that has passed since the beginning of the protests, the more the government has relented to the demands of the protesters, the larger and more violent things have become. It is reasonable to expect we are about to see a massive and forceful confrontation from the Chinese government very soon.