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Mass street protests are an expression of Hong Kong's identity | World news

Category: Political Protests,Politics

In Hong Kong, people have most of the freedoms of a democracy except the right to choose their leaders. The city’s last British governor, Chris Patten, described it as a place that enjoyed “liberty without democracy”.

That has made protests particularly important as a political tool and an expression of Hong Kong identity. For more than half a century, the people of Hong Kong have been taking to the streets to force distant authorities – first in Britain and later in Beijing – to reconsider how they govern the city.

What is the proposed extradition law?

Hundreds of thousands of people have demonstrated in Hong Kong against legal changes that would make it easier to extradite people to China. Supporters say the amendments are key to ensuring the city does not become a criminal refuge, but critics worry Beijing will use the law to extradite political opponents and others to China. Under the amended law, those accused of offences punishable by seven years or more in prison could be extradited.

Who is supporting the change?

The government claims the push to change the law, which would also apply to Taiwan and Macau, stems from the killing last year of a Hong Kong woman while she was in Taiwan with her boyfriend. Authorities in Taiwan suspect the woman’s boyfriend, who remains in Hong Kong, but cannot try him because no extradition agreement is in place. 

Officials have promised to safeguard against abuses, pledging that no one at risk of political or religious persecution will be sent to the mainland. Suspects who could face the death penalty would not be extradited.

Hong Kong officials have repeatedly said the bill has not come from the central government in Beijing. However, Beijing has voiced its backing for the changes.

Why are Hong Kongers so angry?

Many Hong Kongers fear the proposed extradition law will be used by authorities to target political enemies. They worry the new legislation spells the end of the “one country, two systems” policy, eroding the civil rights enjoyed by Hong Kong residents since the handover of sovereignty from the UK to China in 1997.

Many attending the protests said they could not trust China as it had often used non-political crimes to target government critics, and said they also feared Hong Kong officials would not be able to reject Beijing’s requests. Legal professionals have also expressed concern over the rights of those sent across the border to be tried. The conviction rate in Chinese courts is as high as 99%. Arbitrary detentions, torture and denial of legal representation of one’s choosing are also common.

Lily Kuo in Beijing and Verna Yu in Hong Kong

This week’s mass demonstrations, over plans for a new extradition law that would allow suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial, is part of that long tradition. And many say they are demonstrating precisely to protect it.

“If this bill passes, we won’t have the right to protest any more. It’s a key part of Hong Kong culture,” said Jason Fong, 19, who has joined the demonstrations with his high school friends.

According to Antony Dapiran, author of City of Protest, a history of dissent in the territory, the first major demonstrations in modern Hong Kong came in 1966 and 1967. People took to the streets initially over a planned hike to the price of ferry tickets between Hong Kong island and the mainland, but “the Star Ferry riots” led to broader protests about labour rights and living conditions.

In 1967, more demonstrations turned violent on both sides, with protesters using homemade bombs and the police harsh crowd-control tactics. Dozens were killed in the worst protest bloodshed the city has ever seen, but the demonstrations had a huge impact on the lives of ordinary Hong Kong residents.

“The colonial administration of the time realised they had to start paying more attention to the welfare of the local population,” Dapiran said. “It instituted various reforms including housing, compulsory education and labour rights.”

In the 1970s, protests against a corrupt police chief brought government action on graft. At the end of the 1980s, the Chinese government’s brutal crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square made Hong Kong’s right to protest seem even more important.

Memorial gatherings each year still draw large crowds, particularly for milestones such as this year’s 30th anniversary. “It’s the only place in China territory where it is commemorated on a large scale, and that in itself is interesting and important,” Dapiran said.

“Originally the reason for the [demonstration] was to protest for democracy in China. Now it is more to commemorate and bear witness, and as an expression of Hong Kong identity, that we as Hong Kongers are different and going to exercise this right.”

After Hong Kong was handed back to Chinese rule in 1997, with promises that it would be self-governing under a mechanism known as “one country, two systems”, protests have increasingly focused on protecting Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms.

Hong Kong's democratic struggles since 1997

1 July 1997: Hong Kong, previously a British colony, is returned to China under the framework of "one country, two systems". The "Basic Law" constitution guarantees to protect, for the next 50 years, the democratic institutions that make Hong Kong distinct from Communist-ruled mainland China. 

2003: Hong Kong's leaders introduce legislation that would forbid acts of treason and subversion against the Chinese government. The bill resembles laws used to charge dissidents on the mainland. An estimated half a million people turn out to protest against the bill. As a result of the backlash, further action on the proposal is halted. 

2007: The Basic Law stated that the ultimate aim was for Hong Kong's voters to achieve a complete democracy, but China decides in 2007 that universal suffrage in elections for the chief executive cannot be implemented until 2017. Some lawmakers are chosen by business and trade groups, while others are elected by vote. In a bid to accelerate a decision on universal suffrage, five lawmakers resign. But this act is followed by the adoption of the Beijing-backed electoral changes, which expand the chief executive's selection committee and add more seats for lawmakers elected by direct vote. The legislation divides Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp, as some support the reforms while others say they will only delay full democracy while reinforcing a structure that favors Beijing. 

2014: The Chinese government introduces a bill allowing Hong Kong residents to vote for their leader in 2017, but with one major caveat: the candidates must be approved by Beijing. Pro-democracy lawmakers are incensed by the bill, which they call an example of "fake universal suffrage" and "fake democracy". The move triggers a massive protest as crowds occupy some of Hong Kong's most crowded districts for 70 days. In June 2015, Hong Kong legislators formally reject the bill, and electoral reform stalls. The current chief executive, Carrie Lam, widely seen as the Chinese Communist Party's favored candidate, is hand-picked in 2017 by a 1,200-person committee dominated by pro-Beijing elites. 

2019: Lam pushes amendments to extradition laws that would allow people to be sent to mainland China to face charges. The proposed legislation triggers a huge protest, with organizers putting the turnout at 1 million, and a standoff that forces the legislature to postpone debate on the bills. 

Photograph: Dale de la Rey/AFP

Taking to the streets is perhaps particularly important in a city where people have few other outlets for political frustration and grievances. Although there are elections for some seats in the legislature, the system is weighted so people can never choose their own leader.

One of the most effective protest movements after the handover to Chinese rule was the 2003 campaign against article 23, a national security law to ban treason, secession, sedition and subversion.

Pro-democracy lawmakers and their supporters said it would destroy the territory’s rights and freedoms, and more than half a million people took to the streets to oppose it. Authorities were forced to shelve it indefinitely, and the debacle badly damaged the authority of the first post-handover leader of Hong Kong, Tung Chee-hwa.

In 2012, protesters forced the government to make a U-turn over plans to bring in a compulsory national curriculum, which opponents criticised as brainwashing. Those demonstrations helped forge new leaders including the schoolboy activist Joshua Wong, but they may also have alarmed authorities in Beijing.

As President Xi Jinping tightened control of Chinese society, cracking down on campaigners and presiding over widely criticised mass detentions and surveillance in western Xinjiang, Hong Kong authorities have also taken a stronger line on dissent.

The 2014 umbrella protests calling for genuine democracy in the colony were firmly crushed, albeit after more than two months, and prominent leaders and organisers were pursued through the courts.

“Beijing wouldn’t want Hong Kongers to get into the habit of thinking they can get results from protests,” said Dapiran.

Despite the determination of protesters stockpiling supplies on Thursday in preparation for more demonstrations, few analysts expect the government to bow to the crowds over the new extradition law.

“The Hong Kong government seems intent to ramp up rather than back down in its efforts to undermine the city’s autonomy in face of huge public protests,” said Human Rights Watch’s senior China researcher Maya Wang.

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