Backgrounder: the Hong Kong protests

By: Cormac O’Harrow

The Hong Kong protests: a series of demonstrations by hundreds of thousands of people in the streets of Hong Kong, the semi-autonomous territory of islands off the coast of mainland China. Since the territory reverted back to Chinese control from the British in 1997, questions about its sovereignty have loomed heavily over its residents, uncertain about its position within the One Country, Two Systems state.

The protests continuing into this year have been in efforts to revert the passage of the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation Bill of 2019. The proposed bill would allow offenders who have committed crimes within the semi-sovereign territory to be extradited to mainland China. This effort puts many Hong Kongers at odds with the One China, Two System state of affairs, which was written into law in 1997 after the return of Hong Kong to China from Great Britain. The system guaranteed Hong Kong self-control over issues of currency, economics and law, leaving only defense and diplomacy to Beijing. The component leaving legal issues to the territory of Hong Kong means that the passage of the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters act is an illegal violation of the constitution already in place. This violation of sovereignty sparked protests in early 2019 to revert the passage of the bill. Since then, the protests have escalated, leaving the state of affairs in Hong Kong uneasy. 

On June 9th, 2019, the largest protests began with about one million people flocking the streets of Hong Kong in an effort to revert the bill. Additionally, three days later, the protesters blocked a highway used by commuters, and set up long-term supply chains of food and water to extend the protests further. In response, police fired tear gas  into the crowds, angering the movement and sparking more widespread protests. On June 12th, the government, having compared the protesters to “errant children”, offered to suspend the bill. In response, more than two million Hong Kongers flocked the streets in frustration over the government’s lack of respect in dealing with their affairs.

The protests have continued, and on September 4th, Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of the affairs of Hong Kong, agreed to withdraw the bill from the Chinese legislature. However, protesters contended that this was not enough. They have escalated their demands to include full democracy and police accountability. The group has demanded five concessions from the government, saying “five demands, not one less.” This list includes demands for withdrawal of the bill, for leader Carrie Lam to step down, an inquiry into police brutality, the release of  those who have been arrested, and for greater democratic freedoms. This escalation of effort shows a growing trend of demands for democracy in the past four decades. Since the September demands, efforts have continued, but have grown smaller in magnitude. Recent demonstrations have included ones on the 70th anniversary of The Republic, Halloween, Christmas, and on the Lunar New Year, and have shown an overall increase in violence surrounding the efforts of the protesters and the government’s treatment of them.

The disagreements are ongoing, and the efforts of protesters are not going unnoticed by the international community. More than anything, the people of the United States and the government are saying: on Hong Kong!

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