Hong Kong Protests

Natalie Kees

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Recent protests in Hong Kong started as a simple proposed bill, before turning into a dramatic escalation of violence, highlighting rising tensions between Hong Kong and the Chinese mainland.

Protest Escalation:

On Sunday, August 25th, police forces in Hong Kong drew their guns and fired a warning shot at protesters who were gathering in the streets. Protesters were on a march to Tsuen Wu park when they encountered the police. The protesting crowd had been stringing bamboo poles and shuffling traffic cones in an earlier attempt to confuse the police. The police raised warning flags and used tear gas in an attempt to disperse the crowd, which was starting to get violent with the arrival of the police. In response, the protesters threw bricks and gasoline at the policemen. As more protesters arrived and more police came to back up their distressed men, a scene of chaos, confusion, and anarchy took place on the streets of Tsuen Wu, which were covered with lasers, fires, and rising tear gas.

But what lead up to this intense protest? This battle between the people and the government began as a targeted pro-democracy protest against a controversial extradition bill. In order to understand the intense backlash against this proposed extradition bill, you need to know how the Chinese government works.

Chinese Government:

The Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984 and Hong Kong’s Basic Law say that Hong Kong is supposed to govern itself with executive, legislative, and independent judicial powers. However, this arrangement also gives China the power to appoint Hong Kong’s chief executive based on the results of elections held locally.

Here’s how that works in practice: An election committee, currently around 1,200 people, selects the chief executive, who serves a five-year term. The problem is that the committee is filled with Beijing loyalists, meaning that whoever wins is more or less the candidate the Chinese government wants to win.

However, Hong Kong’s Basic Law states that the “ultimate aim” is to elect the chief executive through “universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee.”

For pro-democracy activists, this means one vote per person. In 2007, Beijing said that it would grant universal suffrage in 2017. But in 2014, the Chinese government decided that those in Hong Kong could have universal suffrage, but on the condition that the candidates have to be chosen by a nominating committee. The problem for these pro-democracy activists is that China gets to choose who’s on that committee.

“Now you can sort of see where the problem is at this point,” said Alvin Y.H. Cheung, a scholar at NYU’s US-Asia Law Institute. “If Beijing can control who gets nominated that isn’t going to result in any meaningful choice.”

Pro-democracy advocates were furious and headed to the streets in what would soon become the 2014 Umbrella Revolution, which was, in short, a protest against “a small-circle election without a popular vote.”

In the end, the Hong Kong’s legislature rejected Beijing’s version of voting reform. So in 2017, for the election of the chief executive, Hong Kong stuck with the electoral committee, most of whom are loyal to Beijing. Carrie Lam, the current chief executive, won. She was Beijing’s preferred candidate.

Extradition Bill:

Recent pro-democracy protests began as a way to protest against proposed amendments to Hong Kong’s extradition law.

The creation of a new extradition bill was proposed after a Hong Kong man was accused of strangling his pregnant girlfriend while they were in Taiwan in 2018. The suspect, after committing the crime, fled back to Hong Kong to avoid prosecution. And because Hong Kong doesn’t have a formal extradition treaty with Taiwan, he couldn’t be sent back to face trial.

The Hong Kong government used this case to propose amendments that would allow extraditions to countries that lack formal extradition treaties with Hong Kong. This would include mainland China, a country that is known to imprison its citizens if they displease the government.

Critics worried that China would take advantage of this law to unfairly detain people from Hong Kong, such as those who have openly protested against the Chinese government or have advocated for human rights. These proposed amendments would apply to past incidents, meaning thousands of people who may have angered the Chinese government could be at risk of facing trial there.

Changes in the extradition law are particularly feared, because China has been accused of kidnapping people from outside its borders (including Hong Kong) and vanishing them to China. This would normally violate international law, but this bill would give China legal cover to do so. Experts say that this extradition bill is really about Beijing trying to exert more control over Hong Kong.

Start of the Protests:

These proposed changes first prompted protests in March and April, and while the government made some adjustments to the bill, people still weren’t satisfied, so the protests continued. The protest movement really took off in early June. On June 9, as many as a million people, around one-seventh of Hong Kong’s entire population, peacefully protested against the bill.

This huge show of opposition failed to persuade Lam to back down. She insisted on moving ahead.

On June 12, protesters surrounded the area near Hong Kong’s legislature, postponing the debate that would have quickly passed the proposed amendments. These protests were met with police firing tear gas, rubber bullets, and beanbags at the crowds.

This use of force, and the decision of the police to call the protesters “rioters” and arrest some on rioting charges, has created a separation between the people and governmental institutions. This split helped turn the protests against the extradition bill into a larger movement against the Hong Kong government and police abuses, leading to a demand for an independent police investigation and Carrie Lam’s resignation. Lam has shown signs she’s considering retracting the extradition bill, but what will happen with Hong Kong’s legislature and the police force is currently unknown.