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CWA # 197, 31 December 2019

The World This Year
Hong Kong in 2019: China's New Achilles Heel

  Sukanya Bali

What happened?
Anti-government demonstrations against China’s efforts to ‘Mainlandize’ Hong Kong rocked the City in 2019. The protests escalated with the proposed amendment, which would allow people to be extradited to mainland China for trial and prosecution. Gradually the protests transpired largely into a pro-democracy-movement.  People marched on the streets, demonstrated in malls and violently clashed with civil security forces from the last six months, mostly during weekends and the movements show no signs of dying.

The protest which started over the controversial extradition bill that threatened Hong Kong’s independence erected an army of about 8,00,000 people, led to the arrest of over 5000. The police used over 10,000 canisters of tear gas, fired around 4,000 rubber bullets and dozens of live rounds in last six months.

Streets of Hong Kong echoed, “Hong Kong, Persist!” & “Hong Kong, Resist”, as people rebelled against the government.  In December, a brief period of ‘peaceful protests’ following a landslide victory for pro-democracy campaigners ended and ‘violence’ returned to the streets as police and demonstrators clashed during the Christmas holiday.   

What is the background?
The extradition bill, introduced in Hong Kong which escalated a yearlong protest has impacted the social, political and economic structure of the nation. The protest which led to 3D’s i.e. Demonstration, Destruction and Division in Hong Kong are self-explanatory about the current situation.  

Hong Kong a former British colony was returned to China, in 1997.  According to the terms of the 1984 Sino-British ‘Joint Declaration’, Hong Kong would have autonomy in its internal affairs, whereas its defence and foreign policy would be under China. The principle of ‘One country, two systems’ under China’s ‘Basic Law’, guarantees an autonomous judicial and economic system in Hong Kong.       

Over the years several attempts were made by China to undermine the autonomy and pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong. The requirement of China’s approval for candidature in elections sparked the Umbrella Revolution in 2014, but eventually died down. In 2017 people protested in thousands against the jailing of democracy-activists of Demosisto party Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow. After 20 years of declaration, Xi warned Hong Kong, any demand against its national sovereignty would be dealt harshly.

Chan Tong-Kai, 19, a Hong Konger, admitted killing his girlfriend, Poon Hiu-wing 20 in Taiwan, 2018. The crime committed in Taiwan could not be prosecuted as countries lacked the extradition treaty. Conveniently, in February 2019 the Hong Kong government proposed an amendment to Fugitive Offender Ordinance and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters ordinance, to transfer of the criminals to mainland China, Taiwan and Macau. Critics described the proposal, a Trojan horse as it threatened the autonomy of the legal system in Hong Kong. It would enhance China’s influence in internal affairs and can also be used to extradite political dissidents to mainland China.

Hong Kong saw its first pro-democracy protests in March 2019, where thousands took to the streets against extradition bill and marched to government headquarters, Admiralty. Protestor’s demanded withdrawal of extradition bill, the government to retract characterization of protesters as rioters, universal adult suffrage, enquiry into police brutality and release of people arrested during protests.

The bill was suspended in June, and withdrawn completely in September as unrest expanded, but this did not suffice the protestors. Protestors claimed, “It’s too little, too late” to stop the agitation without fulfillment of all the demands by the government.  Protests swelled-up in weeks and saw the union of teachers, lawyers, artists and social workers all over on the streets of Hong Kong. They have used increasingly improvised tactics for expressing dissent.  In July, violent clashes erupted between pro-Beijing protestors and pro-democracy protestors. Police relentlessly used force against protestors, which drew criticism from the human right organization. Riot police fired tear gases, shot rubber bullets at close range and sprayed dye on protestors to arrest them later.

Defiant demonstrators marched to the airport which disrupted almost 200 flight services in one of the world’s busiest airports. Protest rallies were organized near the U.S. consulate and called for help ‘to liberate’ Hong Kong. China has repeatedly accused the U.S. of interfering and asserted Hong Kong its integral part. It extended full support to the pro-Beijing government of Hong Kong. The protest witnessed Chinese military move troops to borders of Hong Kong, evidently to threaten protestors.

The protestors concerns widened onto free press, academics and business. This movement divided Hong Kong between pro-democracy and pro-China. The protests evolved from ‘long-standing march’ to ‘small wildcat march’ in multiple areas. In elections that witnessed a 71-per cent-voters turn-out, pro-democracy campaigners won in 17 of the 18 councils.  
November was the bloodiest month for Hong Kong, with the death of a pro-democracy protestor and another pro-Beijing supporter set ablaze.  Despite an escalation of violent clashes from June to December, a challenge still persists for the protestors to convince the government on their consistent demands.

The United States passed legislation to support pro-democracy protests in November. The law requires the secretary of state to assess the autonomy of Hong Kong and also states that the U.S. give visas to people from Hong Kong not involved violent demonstrations. The U.S. also approved measures to control sale and export of equipment’s used by Hong Kong police. China expressed its displeasure over U.S. moves.

What does it mean?
Firstly, the protests would affect the local business and international trade. The economy of the city contracted in the last two quarters. Rampant protests across Hong Kong impacted the transport sector and resulted in the decline of tourists. Arrivals at airports fell by 40 per cent and hotel occupancy rates also fell sharply. Six months of continuous protests have affected investor-confidence and hurt the population of Hong Kong eventually.

Secondly, the protest has divided the society and became a battleground, where pro-democracy protestors clash with both pro-Beijing supporters and security forces, who are also fellow citizens. Police are handicapped and merely obey orders from establishments. A sense of mistrust towards each other grew, eroding the social fabric of Hong Kong.

Thirdly, the extradition bill was an attempt by China to strengthen its grip on Hong Kong. Dragon’s growth in the region is evident as its economic and military capabilities enhanced over the years. It is not likely that China would crackdown on the protestors with its military and repeat a Tiananmen Square, as it would hurt its image.

Fourthly, China is not likely to cave in to all the demands of persistent protestors or let go of Hong Kong, for it may inspire rebellion in other parts of China.

Internationally the protests attracted criticism from a few human right watch organizations but China’s economic might and rising status has muted responses from many countries.   
The Chief executive Carrie Lam is left with little options and protests continue to take a toll on the society and economy. The four demands of protestors have been refused. Either side perpetrated the violence, with police using blue dye, tear gas, petrol bomb, arrests, and water cannon for straight 28 weekend unrests and protests became a perpetual sight in Hong Kong this year.
 
Sukanya Bali is a Research Associate with ISSSP, NIAS. She can be contacted at sukanya9494@gmail.com 

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