In last April, the Hong Kong government attempted to pass a law that aimed at allowing the extradition of criminals within its territories to mainland China. The government’s efforts to adopt the law were soon scrapped as massive protests began to take place in the city in June.
Although the law never came to be passed, Hong Kongers still stood in the face of what they saw as a further encroachment of China’s central government in their internal affairs. Protests still take place in the city fairly regularly, and they even appear to have grown broader as complaints about Hong Kong’s policies in the main, and Beijing’s meddling in them in recent years.
Living in what has been a British colony for over 150 years, some Hong Kongers even make of it an identity issue. Surveys from the University of Hong Kong showed that only 11% of the island’s citizens see themselves as “Chinese”, and the vast majority as “Hong Kongers”.
As early as the late 50s, while still under British rule, Hong Kong was already prosperous and became a manufacturing hub —in contrast to a China that still endeavored to recover from its Civil War. It also became a safe haven for migrants and political dissidents fleeing mainland China during and after the Cultural Revolution.
In 1984, as the end of Britain’s 99-year lease neared —China had leased most of the territories to Britain until 1997— China and Britain began talks on the future of Hong Kong. China’s Communist Party vied for a complete return of territories to the central government, but the two sides subsequently reached a deal that stipulated that Hong Kong be returned under the principle of “one country, two systems”.
The deal also implied that, for 50 years, Hong Kong would still benefit from rights of “a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defense affairs”. As it happened, Hong Kong benefited from its own constitution, the Basic Law, its own legal system and borders, as well as rights of freedom in speech and assembly —both highly restricted in mainland China.
Yet nowadays’ Hong Kongers appear to yearn for what they see as basic political rights —universal suffrage, fair elections and end of police brutality, among others issues— had the claimed autonomy been legitimate.
For lack of a greater electoral influence, most Hong Kongers think their political institutions and representatives are growing more pro-Beijing and less democratic. Youths are growing restless to the idea of belonging to mainland China and tensions only appear to worsen.
On August 14, satellite images showed that China deployed paramilitary police along the border in signs of readiness to intervene. Yet, as though in response, Hong Kong protesters still proved resilient in the face of potential quelling when, later on August 18, hundreds of thousands of protesters thronged the city streets in a historical rally. Organizers said they totaled over 1,7 million demonstrators.
At the outset, the demonstrations went unheard-of on mainland media. But as they grew more evident to the rest of the world, China faced the obligation of adopting a new stand, other than that of silence. Its rhetoric: blaming protesters as far as deeming them “terrorists” and mere pawns under foreign instigation.
On July 26, China’s official newspaper The China Daily ran an editorial that boldly stated, “It does not take Sherlock Holmes to conclude that the C.I.A. has been —to whatever degree removed— behind the more extreme acts [of protesters].” On many instances, U.S. and U.K. national flags were held by demonstraters.
Whereas the Hong Kong protests are by and large reportedly peaceful and organized, the “Fan Song Zhong” movement (“No extradition to China”) struggle to remain devoid of violence and extreme acts, giving all the more reason to the Communist Party to rebuke it.
Early in August, a Chinese flag was torn down by black-clad and masked Hong Kong protesters and flung into the water, flaring up tensions between Beijing and the movement. Throughout the protests, numbers of buildings and infrastructures of the city were vandalized and damaged.
On August 13, Fu Guohao, a reporter from the Chinese state-backed Global Times, was assaulted by a group of protesters in the Hong Kong International Airport, after he attempted to take pictures of the airport shutdown led by protesters. His assailants blocked his way after he tried to flee and searched his belongings to find the Chinese flag and a T-shirt that read, “I love Hong Kong police”.
The reporter ended up beaten with his hands tied, as the assault was highly covered in mainland China, where he even stood as a quasi-national hero, highlighting the protests’ negative facet.
In turn, the Hong Kong police has stepped up its crackdown on the demonstrations, be they peaceful or radical. No march has taken place without the firing of tear gas or rubber bullets on the protesters, giving a lot more to focus on for Western media —which plainly supports the movement for its pro-democracy endeavor.
In those circumstances, China seems to have taken up a massive propaganda campaign to undermine the protests. On August 19, Facebook and Twitter removed hundreds of accounts that they said appeared to be state-backed efforts to sow misinformation.
Yet acts of violence were easily found in either side. In July 21, protesters who were headed home in the Yuen Long train station after the day’s march were abruptly attacked by a group of white-clad individuals (opposed to the black T-shirts worn by Hong Kong protesters). The assailants randomly charged at the passengers, not even sparing women. A reporter filmed her attacker while he battered her with a baton.
The Hong Kong government was accused of laissez-faire as the police only arrived an hour after the incident —even though the closest police station stands at barely one mile away. Later that evening, a Hong Kong Legislative Council member, Junius Ho, was videotaped shaking hands and calling “heroes” men wearing white T-shirts and holding the Hong Kong flag. One of the men Junius saluted also appeared in CCTV footage taking part in the station attack earlier.
Hong Kong’s Basic Law will expire in 2047 and, to majority Hong Kongers, what will ensue remains as uncertain as worrying.