To the public eye, the current situation in Hong Kong has caused violent protests, political conflicts and the potential for global interference. Behind closed doors, the conflict has divided families.
Engineering research fellow Leo Tse, who is from Hong Kong, told The Daily his father no longer speaks to him because of their polarizing views on the Chinese government. While Tse believes there is a lack of human rights protections in Hong Kong and is protesting against the government, his father believes in China’s economic success under the current system and does not approve any interference with the country’s policies. These differences in beliefs are not uncommon among Chinese families, according to Tse.
“Is there a good outcome for this?” Tse asked. “I don’t know, I really don’t know. But that’s the choice (for) a lot of people. You know you’re going to piss off your parents, but you know what to do to make things right as well, so you have to do it.”
To try and better the condition and rights of those in Hong Kong, in September, Tse formed the Hong Kong Human Rights Concern Group at the University. Made up of about 13 students and faculty members, this group is advocating for civil liberties in Hong Kong through various initiatives.
“So right now, there are still different opinions within the group to be fair, but all of us agree upon the concept of human rights … all of us want to fight for it,” Tse said. “There might be different political views on specific events and incidents, but overall, we support human rights, and that’s why we gathered together and are doing what we’re doing.”
Background on Hong Kong protests
Conflicts sparked in China after Hong Kong citizen Chan Tong-kai murdered his girlfriend Poon Hui-wing in February 2018 while the couple was on vacation in Taiwan. Though Chan was arrested, there was no extradition treaty that would permit him to return to Taiwan to face his murder charges.
As a result, Carrie Lam, Hong Kong's chief executive, proposed the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill, a controversial extradition bill which would allow Hong Kong authorities to detain and transfer suspects from countries and regions with which it has no official extradition agreements. These territories include Taiwan, Macau and mainland China.
Many were opposed to the bill because they believe there is a lack of transparency and no guarantee that their rights would be protected within the legal system of mainland China. According to a study conducted by the University of Hong Kong, 66 percent of Hong Kong residents surveyed disagree or strongly disagree on extraditing people from Hong Kong to the mainland for trials.
This dissatisfaction with the government spurred protests within Hong Kong, which have occurred for 22 weeks thus far. They have resulted in violent confrontations between the police and the protesters, as well as the arrest of over 2,800 people.
According to May Chan, faculty member at the University of Michigan’s Medical School, seeing the violence unfold in her home city is both shocking and difficult for her to accept.
“I was born and raised (in Hong Kong), so it’s very disheartening to see how much the entire society, in terms of the governing of the city, has really deteriorated,” Chan said. “A lot of things people never thought would happen in Hong Kong are happening in Hong Kong, like all the police brutality, reports of torture by police and also, how the government is probably trying to cover up a lot of the things they’ve done.”
Though Lam officially announced that she would withdraw the extradition bill in September, protests have moved beyond the bill, as protesters formed four other demands for the government: the development of a commission of inquiry into alleged police brutality, retracting the classification of protestors as “rioters,” amnesty for arrested protestors and universal suffrage for the Legislative Council and the chief executive.
Engineering senior Edgar Chung, who moved to Michigan from Hong Kong when he was 19 years old, said it was troubling for him to learn about the protests and conflicts occurring while he was in Ann Arbor this summer for research.
“It was really sickening,” Chung said. “It was really hard for me to just read all the news. You got this feeling where all of this is happening in Hong Kong, but I wasn’t able to do anything because I am on the other side of the planet.”
Violent protests and police brutality
One of the major issues expressed by the group members has been the police brutality at these protests. Police have been using batons, rubber bullets, pepper spray and even live bullets, among other weapons, on protesters. Others have also complained about the minimal and delayed responses of the authorities when protesters are attacked by civilians.
According to Chan, the right for people to protest in Hong Kong has deteriorated overall, becoming less and less protected as disputes continue.
“Hong Kong people are supposed to have freedom of assembly, it is in the constitution, but somehow the police are not allowing them, basically by making it illegal,” Chan said. “It’s taking away their freedom of assembly.”
The conflict and violence is not one-sided, however. Some protesters use weapons of their own against police, and others who hold resentment towards the Chinese government target Chinese-affiliated businesses in the city.
On Saturday, for instance, protesters attacked Xinhua News Agency in Hong Kong, the official press agency of China, by throwing petrol bombs and attempting to torch the building while people were still inside. The office’s windows and doors were also smashed, and graffiti covered the walls.
Chung said this quick and violent progression of the conflict is worrisome.
“As the protests escalate and then all the police brutality escalates, you cannot help but think, ‘Oh, what would I do if it’s my friend or my family being put in that situation?’” Chung said.
Chung, Tse and Chan each have personal connections with people heavily involved in the political movement in Hong Kong.
Chung’s friend from high school, who is currently 21 years old, is protesting at the front line. He recently got arrested for possession of weapons when police found a brick in his backpack, Chung said. Many of Tse’s friends in Hong Kong are also supporting the movement by putting up political posters, which he says is dangerous — people get beaten up for doing so.
Furthermore, according to Chan, her relative was previously at the front line of the conflict and is now gathering protective gear for those currently at front line. Chan said she and her family are concerned for her safety.
“It’s scary,” Chan said. “My relative lives alone and she’s much younger than me, like 10 years younger than me. Well obviously, her family — my family — we’re all very worried about her, but we also know that she’s doing the right thing, so we’re all supporting her as much as we could.”
Group supports Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act
The U.S. has also recently become involved in the Hong Kong conflict. The House of Representatives passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act Oct. 15 with strong bipartisan support. Among other measures, the bill would require an annual review of Hong Kong by the State Department to determine if the city is adequately autonomous from Beijing. If the autonomous status is upheld, then the U.S. government will allow Hong Kong to receive special trading status according to U.S. law.
Now that the bill is under review by the Senate, the group at the University has been actively lobbying Michigan’s senators to approve the bill. The group says they met with Sen. Debbie Stabenow last week and are meeting with Sen. Gary Peters this week to discuss the bill.
They have also collected about 270 signatures from those on campus in support of the bill. Chung says the group’s efforts in speaking with Michigan senators is a crucial step in helping Hong Kong.
“One of the reasons why our work here is important, despite being such a small group, is if we were actually able to convince the senators to vote yes for the bill, a vote is a vote,” Chung said. “It could potentially mean actually changing the future in Hong Kong.”
According to Chan, the bill is crucial because under the communist system, government officials and police can currently act in any way they would like, which puts the people of Hong Kong in harm's way. She believes the bill would establish a much-needed system of checks and balances in the city.
Opposers of the bill have been calling on the U.S. to stop interfering with China’s affairs, believing that its previous involvement in other nations’ internal politics have had detrimental effects.
Furthermore, according to Chung, people believe the U.S. does not have true intentions to better the human rights and democratic conditions of Hong Kong through this bill. Instead, they say the U.S. is just using Hong Kong as financial leverage against China.
“A lot of people are saying Hong Kong is just being used as a pawn, as a bargaining chip, for the U.S. to gain some advantage in the trade war,” Chung said. “But to be fair … so what if we’re being used as a pawn? So what if the intentions behind it are not pure? We don’t really care, because it works in our favor.”
Tse says he understands that there is always potential for the U.S. to take advantage of Hong Kong through this bill as it has done to other territories in the past. However, he sees Hong Kong as being different than some of these other regions because the city is a vital financial connection point between China and western countries like the U.S.
“Hong Kong’s value is not to become a military power,” Tse said. “Maybe, it can be, but right now, the reason why businessmen are on board for all of this bill is because Hong Kong’s value is not to destroy it; it’s to keep it as a neutral zone for business.”
If the group is able to help get the government to pass the bill, members hope to continue their group’s work by educating people at the University about the political and social environment in Hong Kong. One way is through screening films and documentaries about Hong Kong and the experiences of those living in the city.
Chung recognizes the work the group is pursuing is important. However, for him, participating in the group is more than just achieving immediate solutions.
“It’s because me, as someone who was born and raised in Hong Kong, who has friends and family in Hong Kong, it is kind of like a responsibility, it’s kind of like a duty,” Chung said. “I’m obligated to do something about the town that I came from where maybe where my future would be, where my kids, my friends and family would be. And you know we would not have a future in Hong Kong if Hong Kong does not have democracy.”