A comprehensive guide to the Hong Kong protests.
Sarah Haque

A comprehensive guide to the Hong Kong protests

October 1 marked 70 years of Communist rule in China, but elaborate celebrations in Beijing felt stifled by a major escalation of violence in Hong Kong.

President and party leader Xi Jinping declared that “no force could shake China”, as a carefully choreographed display of military prowess showcased tanks, nuclear-capable ballistic missiles, fighter jets and goose-stepping troops in Tiananmen Square.

Two thousand kilometres south, Hong Kong police opened lethal fire upon protestors for the first time in months.

The semi-autonomous region has been embroiled in massive unrest since June. The national day saw the territory engulfed in anti-government protests, with the public burning of Chinese flags, goading of police with makeshift weapons and the storming and subsequent vandalising of the Legislative Council complex.

Law enforcement responded fiercely.

More than 100 people were taken to a hospital, over 180 arrested, and in the Tsuen Wan district of northern Hong Kong, an 18-year-old protestor was shot at point-blank range.

Student Tsai Chi-kin became the first protestor to be shot with a live round in almost 16 weeks of demonstrations. According to UN Basic Principles, officers should only use firearms under “imminent threat of death or serious injury” and are required to give “clear warning of intent” to shoot, “with sufficient time for the warning to be observed”.

Footage of the incident indicates no warning before the shot rang out, and the New York Times’ investigative team have identified the officer to be armed with a shotgun, likely loaded with rubber bullets, and a holstered can of teargas.

Local police have defended the officer’s decision to use live fire in self-defence, deeming it “reasonable and legal”, unwavering despite public outrage.

What is Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status?

(Democratic) Hong Kong, (Communist) China. 

To understand why this unprecedented conflict in Hong Kong is so significant, it is important to contextualise the region’s history. 

In 1997, Britain handed over sovereignty of Hong Kong, a British colony until then, to China under conditions of democratic rights and a level of autonomy.

The “one country, two systems” agreement within Hong Kong’s Basic Law stipulates the state as a special administrative region (SAR) for fifty years. Set to expire in 2047, this constitution protects the region’s freedom of assembly, freedom of the press and freedom of speech.

Hong Kong also has its own judiciary, a legal and legislative system separate from mainland China, and retains its capitalist economic system with its own currency. 

Citizens of Hong Kong live vastly different lives to those in the rest of the People’s Republic of China, who are under authoritarian rule. They have different experiences, different political opinions and even speak a different language: Cantonese. 

It became evident that China did not want to wait until 2047 to enforce its rule on Hong Kong. Pro-democracy leaders in the state have been removed, Mandarin has become the primary language of instruction in 70% of Hong Kong’s schools, and in 2018, China built the 55km Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, the longest sea-crossing on earth.

The bridge connecting mainland China to Hong Kong is seen as a physical representation of Beijing extending control into the region. Citizens fear they may sooner, rather than later, be stripped of their democracy and be subject to China’s totalitarian system.  

Why are they protesting?

The murder that started a revolution

Hong Kong initially began protests after the government proposed a controversial extradition bill. 

In February 2018, Chan tong-kai murdered his pregnant girlfriend, Poon Hiu-wing in Taipei in Taiwan. One month later, he confessed to the police – but there was a problem.

He could not be charged with murder, as the crime was committed in Taiwan. Hong Kong could not send him to Taiwan to be tried for his crime, either, as they do not share an extradition agreement.

He was later arrested on money laundering charges for using his girlfriend’s credit cards after her death.

A year later, the Hong Kong government cited the case to propose legislation that would allow them to transfer subjects to Taiwan to be tried. However, this same bill would have allowed extradition to mainland China, where the flawed judicial system has “no fair trials, no humane punishment or separation of powers”.

Critics labelled the plan as a ‘trojan horse’ that would allow Beijing to seize communist control over Hong Kong, accusing the government of politically opportunistic legislation. Protests started on June 9th. Since then, over 2 million of the 7 million Hong Kong citizens have participated in the protests.

Carrie Lam, communist Chief Executive of Hong Kong, ultimately announced the bill would be suspended indefinitely. In September the bill was scrapped entirely.

But the protests surge on.

What began as peaceful opposition has rapidly descended into violent revolt. The bill was just a catalyst. Now protestors demand full democracy and denounce the Communist Party’s current and impending interference in the region. 

Days after China’s anniversary celebrations, Hong Kong’s government enforced a colonial-era law, an emergency ban on wearing face masks in public.

The following weekend saw Hong Kong plunged into mayhem as thousands of protestors, undeterred by the new law, defied the ban and further tension flared across the region. Among them, a 14-year-old boy was allegedly shot in the leg by an off-duty officer, according to Hong Kong Free Press

What happens next?

After initial silence, China has now condemned the protests as “behaviour close to terrorism”, indicating a hardening approach.

Recent events exhibit a dangerous deadlock between the government and pro-democracy protests, and Carrie Lam has warned that Chinese military intervention could be deployed upon further escalation. 

While the future of the protests is uncertain, one thing is clear: whether it’s 2019 or 2047, Hong Kong will not go gently.