In the past five months, Hong Kong has been rocked by intense anti-government protests against the Communist Party of China’s encroachment on its sovereignty and democracy. These protests experienced their most extreme levels of violence thus far in the days surrounding the 70th anniversary of the Communist Party of China on Oct. 1. The initial impetus for the protests in their current form was the decision by Carrie Lam, chief executive of Hong Kong, to push forward a bill allowing for the extradition of fugitives to mainland China. Since their inception, the protests have become increasingly violent with as many as eight suicides linked to them. Additionally, 18-year-old student protester Tsang Chi-kin was shot in the chest by a police officer at close range on the same day, further compounding the protesters’ fervor.
The extradition bill that first sparked the protests was introduced in April 2019. It allowed for criminal suspects to be extradited to China under certain circumstances. Critics of the bill stated that it would expose residents of Hong Kong to unfair trials and potential violence at the hands of the Chinese government. Other criticisms include fears that China would further increase its influence over Hong Kong and potentially begin to target journalists. These hostilities towards the bill are what first led to the protests, which became much more pressing in June. The protests have become increasingly violent, with more instances of the Hong Kong police force firing tear gas at protesters and deploying water cannons. In return, protesters have lit fires and thrown petrol bombs and bricks. As of Sept. 30, 48 people had been admitted for medical treatment as a result of protest violence.
Despite the obvious chaos and violence characterizing these protests, the protesters involved have maintained their momentum. The extradition bill that prompted the initial protests was withdrawn in early September. Protesters remain steadfast with their other demands oriented toward broader democracy and greater suffrage, demanding an independent probe into force used by police, amnesty for arrested protesters, a halt to the categorization of the protests as riots and the implementation of universal suffrage. Many of the protesters, the majority of whom are young adults, have taken to social media to declare that the withdrawal of the extradition bill is simply not enough to bring an end to the protests. The chaos and violence have not deterred demonstrators from their cause. Instead, many have doubled down, refusing to give in to the pressures and tactics employed by mainland China. Most recently, this includes the widespread refusal to comply with an emergency law banning face masks during protests. During the Oct. 6 protests against this ban, almost all demonstrators covered their faces, chanting “Hong Kong, resist!” as they marched through the streets in clear defiance of the laws employed to control them.
Along with the use of social media, these young activists have employed several nontraditional methods in constructing the protests. First of all, the movement is largely decentralized and without a clear leader. Earlier protests, such as the Umbrella Movement of 2014, were based on the concept of occupying essential areas of the city for several months. In contrast, the current protests have adopted the slogan of “Be Water.” Originally a reference to a quote by famous Hong Kong actor Bruce Lee, demonstrators have co-opted this saying as a call for agility and adaptability within the movement. As opposed to a fixed occupation, these protests are much more mobile. Marches often do not have a fixed route, rallies may abruptly turn to marches and small groups of protesters may break off from others and carry out smaller, targeted occupations of government buildings. Moreover, these protests are essentially leaderless. While this is partly because of the harsh prosecution of the leaders of past movements, the absence of a leader also allows more equal collaboration among protesters on internet forums. Those involved in the protest say this method allows more equal participation within the movement while also encouraging the type of participatory democracy that they are ultimately fighting for.
Hong Kong has enjoyed a “one country, two systems” style of government for over two decades. This notion, indicating that Hong Kong is a part of China while maintaining its own political system, is essential to Hong Kong’s identity. As a Special Administrative Region, Hong Kong maintains a high degree of autonomy through its own independent legal structures and police force, while Beijing is merely responsible for the region’s diplomatic relations and national defense. This unique status grants Hongkongers an independence and freedom they hold dear, yet many have expressed concerns for the arrangement’s upcoming expiration in 2047. As this deadline approaches, China is continually encroaching on Hong Kong’s democracy. In the past few years, owners of banned bookstores have disappeared mysteriously and lawmakers have been disqualified from running in elections due to their support for Hong Kong independence. In 2014, the Umbrella Revolution emerged in response to a series of restrictive and reactionary electoral reforms proposed by the Chinese legislative. Even though the movement concluded without resolving any political disputes, it was a warning for China’s determination to suppress democratic voices and generated awareness for the importance of dissent in resisting authoritarian measures. The most well-known leaders of the movement, Joshua Wang, Nathan Law and Alex Chow, were even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize in 2018, to recognize their efforts to promote peace and freedom.
Similarly, the ongoing student-led protests, keeping in the spirit of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, are also fighting for Hong Kong’s right to democracy and autonomy. As students with ample access to democracy, it is imperative that we take note of the determination of our counterparts in Hong Kong and fully participate in our own democratic processes. Such participation can include supporting the Hong Kong protests while also registering to vote in our own upcoming elections and creating systems to facilitate increased voter turnout.
Though the spirit of the protesters has remained fierce for the past few months, it is hard to say whether their struggle will yield the desired results. The failures of previous campaigns, the silence of Chinese state press and the indifference of international leaders may foretell a bleak future for the Hong Kong protests. However, this does not render the protesters’ attempts futile or reduce the significance of these movements. Rather, it conveys the importance of defiance in the face of oppression and makes the protesters more honorable in their endeavors to defend their own democracy. Protester Hazel Chan, 18, told the BBC that she was “not sure how many more chances we’ll get to fight for freedom,” and while she did not think their actions will have a huge impact on the government, she said she believes their actions are worthwhile in gaining international attention. As Hong Kong’s political tides gradually shift from liberal to authoritarian, these protests leave much room for contemplation about our own situation and the decay of democracy in the United States. Nevertheless, by standing with Hongkongers today, we are standing with all of those who were oppressed in history and, perhaps, even ourselves in the future.