In the summer of 2019, Hong Kong saw mass anti-government protests sparked by the introduction of a bill that many believed would allow China to have a greater influence over the region and target those who have openly criticised Beijing.
This piece will investigate why the protests occurred, the positions of China and the UK and the current situation in Hong Kong. But first it’s important to consider the history between the UK and Hong Kong to understand the international impact of these protests.
UK – Hong Kong History
Hong Kong (HK) and the UK have an expansive history together. In 1839, Britain invaded China and occupied HK, a small island on the coast of southeast China. In 1841, China formally conceded the island to British rule. Colonised HK became an area linked to successful trade and commerce in the years after and in 1898, under the Second Convention of Peking, China leased the Island to Britain for another 99 years.
Britain and China began formal discussions in 1982 regarding the future of HK. Two years later, both countries decided HK would return to Chinese rule in 1997 under the Sino-British Joint Declaration. HK would be governed under a ‘one country, two systems’ rule, which would allow the island to retain many of its economic and political powers for 50 years after the handover, despite formally becoming a part of China. HK would experience a high degree of autonomy, having its own legal system, democratic rights (such as free speech and assembly), and even its own ‘mini constitution’, the Basic Law. These rights are in stark contrast to those provided to citizens by the Communist Party in mainland China, where many aspects of society are controlled by those in leadership (such as the One Child policy which ran from 1979 to early 2016).
Reason for Protests
Since the 1997 transition, China has on occasion attempted to assert its power over HK by proposing laws that give it more control over the region. This interference has been largely unpopular with HK citizens, who feel this breaches the freedoms promised to them in the 1984 Declaration. In 2012, the Chinese government proposed the ‘Moral and National Education’ curriculum, which was immediately criticised as being a scheme for ‘political indoctrination’. In 2014, Beijing set restrictions on candidates running for the chief executive election, effectively allowing Beijing to control who became the region’s leader.
In April 2019, HK’s government proposed to implement the ‘Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) bill’, a law which would allow the extradition of suspected criminals to China. It was argued the proposal would ‘plug loopholes’ to prevent HK from becoming a criminal ‘safe haven’. Carrie Lam, the HK leader backed by the Chinese government and who supported the Bill, denied accusations of Beijing having any involvement, reasoning the proposals not only allow extradition to China but to other regions such as Taiwan, Macau and other countries where no formal extradition treaties exist.
The proposals came as a response to the case of a 19-year-old HK man who murdered his pregnant girlfriend in Taiwan in February 2018. He fled the country and Taiwan were unable to extradite him due to the lack of an extradition agreement between the two regions. This caused the HK government to quickly propose the bill, fast-track consultations and prepare for a second reading on 12 June 2019, despite earlier protests against its implementation. Their urgency only fuelled protesters, who feared extradition would apply not only to suspects but to anyone on mainland HK, especially ‘activists, human rights lawyers, journalists, and social workers’.
Many also criticised the bill for undermining the independence of the HK legal system, risking HK citizens undergoing unfair trials and violent treatment if extradited to China, especially pro-democracy HK activists who showed dissent to China’s increasing involvement in HK politics. It is important to note that Taiwanese officials made it clear they would not seek extradition under the proposed laws and urged the HK Government to consider this case separately.
Protests began shortly after the proposal was put forward in April and focused mainly on getting the bill thrown out. However, the situation escalated in June when the government made clear they had no plans to delay or withdraw the bill, and at one point over 2 million protesters gathered to show their opposition to the government’s plans.
In July, Lam responded to increasing protests by promising to indefinitely delay the bill, but protesters kept gathering and demanded its full withdrawal. This demand was met in September 2019, but by then protesters had gained immense momentum and the cause expanded beyond the bill to protesting China’s intrusion in HK’s affairs, specifically in the areas of democracy, human rights, and police brutality.
Various government buildings were stormed by protesters, and as the protests grew, violence escalated on both sides. On 11th August, police stormed enclosed railways stations, firing tear gas which resulted in more confrontation and a rise in tensions between protesters and police. The November 2019 campus protests saw students, in response to being tear gassed, throwing bricks and petrol bombs at police forces. Due to the growing levels of protests and violence, Universities were forced to close early. Protests carried on into 2020 but were halted by Coronavirus.
The HK government’s response was a critical one, with a HK and Macau Affairs Office spokesman stating the goal of protesters had been ‘to paralyze the Hong Kong government’. The government imposed a mask ban on October 5 2019 in response to protesters hiding their identities and protecting themselves from tear gas and pepper spray. On November 18 the High Court decided this was unconstitutional and was immediately criticised by Beijing who argued the decision allowed the overthrowing of central authority by protesters.
HK police forces’ response was also chaotic. They beat protesters in front of journalists, fired at unarmed protesters and rammed into them at high speeds in police vehicles causing stampedes and severe injuries. Following this, protesters turned violent, further escalating tensions.
China made clear that whilst they supported the bill, they had no part in pushing the decision to implement it. China has a history of opposing dissent and quickly condemned ‘rioters’ for ‘showing signs of terrorism’ and disregarding HK rule of law. Xi Jinping praised Lam’s leadership and the HK police force for ‘severely punishing the violent criminals in accordance with the law’ indicating that Lam would not be replaced. Notably, Beijing insinuated that protests were strongly influenced by ‘foreign forces’, specifically targeting the U.S for making ‘fact-distorting’ accusations about HK, and giving a platform to those wanting to undermine the stability of HK.
Whilst China has not intervened physically, protesters have been aware that this could change at any given moment. Right now no-one knows what a Chinese military response would look like or which line would have to be crossed by protesters to provoke a response from Beijing.
Response from the British government
In July, China warned the UK to not ‘interfere in its domestic affairs’ after Jeremy Hunt, then Foreign Secretary, backed peaceful protesters and called on China to listen to the HK people’s concerns. Beijing swiftly responded, labelling Hunt ‘shameless’ for having ‘colonial-era delusions’ of HK still being under British rule and hinted at future problems if the UK did not recognise China’s authority over HK.
China’s ambassador to London, Liu Xiaoming, told the UK they had stood ‘on the wrong side’ by interfering with HK internal affairs and backing ‘violent law-breakers’. Liu was promptly summoned by Britain for his ‘unacceptable’ comments and Hunt reminded Beijing that good relations could only exist if ‘the legally binding relationships between them’ was honoured.
Following China’s response to the protests, the UK has announced new visas for ‘British National (Overseas)’ passport holders in HK (offered to those in HK before the 1997 transfer), which allows those eligible and their dependents to emigrate to the UK and remain for five years during which time they can apply for permanent citizenship. However, many citizens are concerned about housing, employment and being tracked by the Chinese authorities. Others have criticised the UK for not taking measures to protect young protesters who were born after 1997, who are still in danger for speaking out against the regime.
What's the current situation?
Whilst protests reduced in 2020 due to Coronavirus, China has implemented a new law to further restrict HK citizens’ freedoms. On 30th June 2020, China passed a revised version of a law first proposed in 2003, which criminalises acts of ‘secession, subversion, terrorism or collusion with foreign forces’. This has shifted the focus from the discarded extradition bill to the Chinese government’s attempt at censorship in HK. There is worry the law could undermine HK’s autonomy by bypassing its legal structures. There has been unrest among HK citizens who believe it will be used both to silence critics of China, especially human rights defenders and political activists and will undermine the legitimacy of HK’s separate system of governance.
HK security chief John Lee said the law was needed to tackle ‘growing terrorism’ as the city was ‘shrouded in the shadow of violence’, with Beijing specifically saying it would address mass pro-democracy protests such as those seen in 2019. Carrie Lam assured that the rights and freedoms of HK citizens would remain intact but Amnesty International called out Chinese authorities for wanting to govern HK through fear.
So far, many pro-democracy activists in HK have quit their roles whilst HK disqualified 12 pro-democracy candidates in the July elections, a decision that HK said was ‘in line’ with the mini-constitution as advocating for HK independence is not in line with their constitutional duties. In July, books written by pro-democracy figures were removed from libraries in order to review whether the material was anti-CCP (Chinese Communist Party) and in October a HK teacher was disqualified for ‘promoting HK independence’ in his classes.
Lam stated that while ‘diverse opinion’ is welcome, it must be expressed ‘in a responsible manner’
After 4 pro-democracy lawmakers were dismissed for being deemed ‘threats to national security’, mass resignations from all of HK’s parliamentary opposition ensued. Lam stated that while ‘diverse opinion’ is welcome, it must be expressed ‘in a responsible manner’. In November, journalist Yuen Long was arrested due to her investigation into police violence in the 2019 protests. Most recently, 53 pro-democracy activists were arrested for attempting to ‘overthrow’ the government. Activists argue the legislation’s main aim is to quash growing dissent.
Tensions remain high in HK, with citizens particularly angry at their government’s complicity in allowing China’s intrusion into HK politics. Many citizens fear an increase in restrictions to their constitutional freedoms as well as a continued and increased presence in HK from Beijing.
With growing international criticism towards the government’s handling of the protests and many citizens keen to move abroad, concerns have arisen as to what will happen to HK’s reputation as an international financial hub, as well as what the future holds for HK in the next 26 years before 2047 (at which point the one country, two system treaty ends), and beyond.
For more information on this topic, head over to our dedicated section on Foreign Affairs.