In Hong Kong, an unusual kind of protesting started in 2014. Marked by singing and yellow umbrellas, quickly the young students that represented Hong Kong’s peaceful resilience against the growing authoritarian grip of the Chinese government became worldwide news. Umbrellas grew out to be more then protection from sun or rain, they became tools for expression, self-defence and privacy. In 2019 protests broke out again, but this time turning more violent after a few months. What exactly has driven these people to protest in the last decade, risking their lives against a growing police state?
The backdrop of mass protests in Hong Kong
Hong Kong, the former colony of Britain, was handed over in 1997 with the premise that they would exist as a ‘’One Country Two systems’’ principle for at least fifty years. This is a principle founded by Xiaping, the leader of China from 1978 until 1989. According to this principle Hongkong would have its own laws, justice system and political freedoms independent from mainland China. The Basic Law acted as a sort of mini constitution for the new Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China (HKSAR). This way the citizens of Hong Kong enjoyed some freedom and protection since the British handover in 1997 unknown to the citizens living in the mainland of China. It would make sense to do it this way as Hong Kong under British rule developed a tradition of limited government interventions in society and free market operations. In the 1980s and 1990s they already had their own civil service-led government that was partially autonomous from Britain. This meant that when Hong Kong was handed over a semi-democratic autonomy was already in place.
The expectation of Hongkongers at the time was full democratization, but instead the reverse has been taking place. Causes for democratic backsliding could be found in democratic dissatisfaction, economic inequality, populism and the growth of social media. However, the growth of China’s authoritarian influence is seen as the most important factor in the democratic erosion. In an attempt to incorporate Hong Kong into China, Beijing has been eroding the freedoms Hong Kong had after the British handover in 1997. They set out a ‘’red line’’ on Hong Kong that targets “any attempt to endanger China’s sovereignty or security, challenge the power of the Chinese government, or use Hong Kong to carry out infiltration and sabotage activities against the mainland.” This vague description of national security has especially been used as an excuse for targeting activists and free speech, not only in mainland China but also Hong Kong.
The tightening grip of China
Ever since 1997 the united front has attacked challengers and convinced moderate elites that accepting the new political order rather than engaging in the disharmony would be the better option. The united front is a strategy created by the Chinese Communist Party and the government of the People’s Republic of China to gain more power in Hong Kong. This has worked for a number of institutions at the grass roots, proven by the electoral support for pro-establishment and pro-Beijing parties. For over a decade there has been an unfair playing field for pro-democracy opposition in Legislative Council and District Council elections. Pro-China parties distribute services and goods to grassroot voters, whereas the opposition does not have these resources. There have also been suspicions of vote-rigging by the pro-China parties, persuading grassroots people and the elderly to provide their voter registration so they can be mobilized to vote when its time for elections. The most obvious example of democratic erosion is the disqualification of six pro-democracy and independence legislators in the 2016 Legislative Council elections. Since 2016 it has also been a known practice in Hong Kong for government election officers to go through the political history of opposition candidates before allowing them to run for office. Media has fallen under control of pro-China Hong Kong capitalists, and local media firms have been acquired by Mainland Chinese tycoons. Non-compliant media faces heavy pressure, including for example a knife attack on the former Ming Pao chief editor Kevin Lau in 2014. Because of these kind of incidents, self-censorship became a bigger part of the daily operation of non-compliant media outlets. Since 2012 the Chinese Communist party persuades to make the best use of Hong Kong as an international financial centre serving for Beijing’s strategic and economic interests. China is heavy reliant on Hong Kong for raising capital and established irreplaceable financial dependence on it.
What makes this case special is that the hold on Hong Kong is growing under the ecology of a special hybrid regime with pre-existing civil liberties and rule of law. Changing these liberal institutions while ensuring that state institutions and agents do not stand up against them, have become demanding. China’s governing policy has been to contain opposition with authoritarian controls while holding up a semi-democratic façade under the ‘’One Country Two systems’’ model. Aggression has become more encouraged under grassroots counterprotest groups, attacking the mass protestors.
Mass protests: Successes in the past and doubts for the future
Mass protests as a reaction to the growing authoritarian hold of the Chinese regime have taken place multiple times in Hong Kong, with success. In 2003 half a million people protested the proposal for national security legislation, and afterwards it was withdrawn. In 2014 the Umbrella Movement emerged and even more people joined the protests after a new electoral reform framework handed down by the central government barred non-endorsed candidates from running for the city’s leader jobs. It started after proposed reforms to the Hong Kong electoral system, entailing that citizens from Hong Kong would not be able to directly elect the new political leader but only from a list of up to three candidates already screened by Beijing. This time Hong Kong lawmakers also rejected the proposal in 2015.
However, in 2019 China pulled off another attempt of eroding the city’s judicial independence. Mass protests rose again and this time it grew out to be one of the longest and most intense civil resistance movement in modern times. It has been seen as a last fight against the threat to democracy of Hong Kong. The existing extradition laws do not apply to the Central People’s Government, but the new law would entail that the Hong Kong government had to consider request from any country for extradition of criminal suspects, even if the countries do not have an extradition agreement. Simply put, it would make it possible to deliver suspects from Hong Kong to China. The Chinese judicial system is known for being deeply flawed, documented by torture, maltreatment, violations of fair-trial rights and disappearances. Criminal investigations in the Chinese court nearly always end in guilty pleas. Through torture and persistency people are being forced to confess to crimes even when they did not commit them. The Hong Kong protestors shared the fear that with this new law their critics and activists could be delivered to China. Therefore, the initial demand was the withdrawal of the extradition bill, but as confrontations with the police went on, the protestors’ demands grew. They called for an independent probe into police action, discharge of arrested protestors, to stop calling the protests riots and universal suffrage. However, after months of protests in 2019 the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic in early 2020 silenced the protests.
Protestors have been the victim of counter-mobilization, whereas counter-protestors are encouraged to intimidate and confront pro-democracy activists on the streets. In terms of police suppressions, pro-democracy politicians and protestors have been prosecuted for ’’unlawful assembly’’, a legal charge that could be applied from when three people or more gather together.
Is there still hope?
Although the regime has been limiting organized resistance, there is still hope in the protest movement and its strength. The resilience of 2019 along with the protest movement its internal solidarity, tactical inventiveness and internal appeal were consequences of the countermobilization attempts by the PRC and local authorities. These developments have resulted in increased costs of countermobilization for the PRC and local authorities, meaning that even though the protest movement is drained and exhausted, the war of position is still not over.
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