A peaceful Sunday evening is usually spent relaxing before another bustling Monday morning. “K”, however, spent her Sunday evening as a medical volunteer in a tense and chaotic clash between protesters and police in Tsim Sha Tsui in Kowloon, Hong Kong. Suddenly, K was seen lying on a pavement with blood streaming from her right eye as medics wrapped a bandage. Richard Scotford recounted how the “non-lethal” shot was fired in the direction of first-aid volunteers and journalists. Doctors attending to K reported serious injury due to a ruptured eyeball and shattered eye socket that may blind K in her right eye.
Hong Kong protesters rallied behind the injured K as she became a figurehead in the subsequent protest occupation of the 8th busiest airport in Hong Kong. Demonstrators donned bloodied eye patches as a symbol of resistance against police brutality on Hong Kong civilians. Demands from demonstrators have escalated from scrapping the extradition bill to greater democracy and police liability.
In a move to methodically incorporate Hong Kong into mainland China, Beijing has been eroding the few freedoms Hong Kong enjoyed after the British handover in 1997. Forms of freedom such as the right to protest, freedom of expression, and press freedom, all absent in mainland China, are made available to Hong Kong residents through the Basic Law. However, Beijing’s authority to interpret the Basic Law has doomed democratic reveries for Hong Kong. The promise of autonomy in-state powers and election of leaders eludes Hong Kong since the turnover.
Hong Kong’s chief executive (head of the state) has been selected by a committee composed of a handful of professional sectors and elites, (most of which are Beijing loyalists). In 2017, candidates screened by Beijing are the only ones allowed to run. A series of laws passed in Hong Kong was aimed to control elected leaders in key offices, limit freedom of protest, spread Chinese propaganda, and quell secessionist movement against China.
The massive protest from 2019 to 2021 which spurred due to the extradition bill was also an extension to the previous Umbrella movement in 2014 which sought democracy after Beijing proposed universal suffrage for the executive chief with a catch: candidates are endorsed by some Beijing loyalists. Demonstration gained traction after the Hong Kong police aimed “non-lethal” crowd control measures against student protesters that stormed a prohibited area.
Like a record in repeat, the 2019 Eye-Patch movement was fraught with the same struggles protesters from the 2014 Umbrella movement suffered. Thugs-for-hire or Beijing-loyalist gangs and paid crime syndicates haphazardly attacked commuters in a metro station on a Sunday evening in July 2019. A study has shown that the same organized syndicate known as Triad attacked the protesters back in the 2014 Umbrella movement in Mong Kok. The extra-legal means employed by either the Hong Kong government or Beijing affiliates was a stark sign of repression and shift to authoritarianism.
Perhaps the most decisive blow in the 2014 Umbrella movement was the intensified police violence against protesters, prosecution of protest leaders, dismissal of pro-democracy legislators. In a similar fashion, the protracted protests beginning in 2019 were subdued in 2021 after the unilateral imposition by China of the Hong Kong National Security Law by the end of June 2020. The newly passed law gave the justification for police apprehension by criminalizing acts of secession and subversion. Beijing’s attempt at reigning control heightened the prosecution of protest leaders and activists, expulsion of pro-democracy lawmakers, attacks on civil society and international organizations, and restrictions on media.
One important factor to consider in relation to the movement for greater democracy is the political standpoint of Hong Kong residents. Keep in mind that the positions of Hong Kong residents are ever-evolving from 2019 to 2021.
Back in 2019, a survey conducted by Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (HKPORI) shows that 59% of the city residents supported the protest movement while 30% opposed it. Hong Kong respondents pushing for independence from China is recorded at only 17%; 41% had strongly opposed Hong Kong’s independence. 74% wanted an inquiry on police violence while 57% favored Carrie Lam’s resignation. The majority of the respondents blamed the Hong Kong government for the crisis instead of Beijing. The poll has also shown that the younger and educated respondents supported and took part in the protests.
Another survey conducted by HKPORI in 2020, shows that support for the pro-democracy movement was gaining major support after the introduction of the National Security Law. However, support for the protest movement has decreased to 44%. 70% of the respondents wanted investigations on police handling of demonstrations. 63% wanted universal suffrage and 50% supports amnesty to be granted to protesters. Respondents backing Hong Kong Independence have increased to 20% since 2019.
The survey shows that the secessionist movement demanded by some of the protesters was not entirely backed by a majority of Hong Kong residents. 70% of the respondents in the survey are seeking police accountability; 63% sought the right of suffrage; 58% wanted Lam to step down. In 2019, the majority was against extradition law. After it was scrapped in late 2019, concerns over National Security Law garnered opposition in 2020.
A study conducted by Chenoweth and Stephan (2012) has shown that nonviolent campaigns are more effective in pushing for a regime change than violent campaigns. Mass movements are one of the vital factors for upheaval success. This is highlighted in the success of the 2019 mass Hong Kong protest attended by millions to scrap the extradition law.
Schock’s (2003) analysis has shown that nonviolent campaigns are effective in violently repressive regimes. Contrary to the findings of Schock, the peaceful protest movement in Hong Kong besieged by both internal and external factors slowly dissipated. However, Hong Kong shows potential for another more organized protest movement due to an increasingly oppressive state.
Wood (2003) posits that with the higher costs induced by insurgents to the economic elites sustaining the status quo, the probability of transitioning to democracy increases. Beijing’s interest lies not only in the integration of Hong Kong to mainland China but also due to its well-developed financial systems. Victoria Hui says “Beijing’s ideal scenario is to keep Hong Kong as a financial center without all the freedom. But it seems that you really cannot maintain Hong Kong’s international financial standing while stifling its freedom,”
Whether Hong Kong’s future protest movement gains backing from the majority of the Hong Kong residents to weaken the grip of Beijing-loyalist elites in the Hong Kong government would decide the success of regime change amid Beijing’s looming authority.
Cover image source: “1 Oct 2019 National day rally 29” by etanliam is licensed with CC BY-ND 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nd/2.0/