(Facts are current as of November 7, 2019.)
Hong Kong, a city on a small island off the coast of mainland China, has become a hotbed of protests. Though tensions have been brewing since the late 90s, most recently, the people of Hong Kong have broken out into full scale demonstrations in response to an extradition bill that would would allow mainland China to take criminals from Hong Kong and put them on trial in mainland China. Both the protests and the Chinese government’s response have caused such outrage that many American companies have been forced to come out in favor of or against the demonstrations.
Why all the fuss over the fate of criminals? Why are so many Hong Kongers protesting daily and for so long? The answer first requires context.
Home to seven million people (for context, NYC is about 300 square miles and home to eight million), Hong Kong is a major metropolis in Southeast China and is about 400 square miles. Hong Kong wasn’t always a massive city, though, and it’s thanks to the British Empire that it grew so large and, as a result, so important.
The situation in Hong Kong can trace its origin back to the 1800s. In the mid-late 1800s, the British Empire wanted a trade post and trade rights to gain access to the Chinese markets. The only problem was that China didn’t want any of Britain’s goods. Fortunately for the British, they had a good which the Chinese desired: drugs, specifically opiates. British Traders sold a massive quantity of opiates to the Chinese--so much that it, along with larger questions of trade and diplomacy, prompted what became commonly known as The Opium Wars. The first Opium War ended with a British victory, giving Britain the rights to sell opium into China and making Hong Kong, a small island off the Chinese coast, a British colony from which traders could sell the drug. A few decades later, in 1898, a treaty was signed with China that enlarged the amount of territory that the British had control over in a 99 year lease (as good as forever to the people who signed the treaty). Fast forward again to 1982: Hong Kong is an economic powerhouse, and Margret Thatcher, Prime Minister of Great Britain, and Deng Xiaoping, Chinese Premier, agree that Hong Kong will be handed over to China on June 1, 1997, just as the treaty signed nearly a century ago stipulated.
In the meantime, between 1982 and 1997, the two nations began negotiating what would happen once Britain handed over Hong Kong. The two sides agreed that Hong Kong would be guaranteed at least 50 years of self-rule, which would allow them to elect their own leaders and pass their own laws while still being reliant on mainland China for foreign relations and military, all of this in theory at least.
22 years later, back in modern day: Hong Kong is still supposed to be guaranteed at least 50 years of autonomy under what is commonly referred to as China’s “One Country, Two Systems” policy. This was to appease the more democratic Britain, who worried that China would impose their own un-democratic system of government on Hong Kong. At the time of negotiations and the eventual handover, the one-child policy and the Tiananmen Square Massacre were fresh reminders of China’s style of government. Meanwhile, the British had exported their legal system to Hong Kong, and Hong Kongers enjoyed many of the rights that British citizens enjoyed, like a free press and the right to demonstrate. So, the previously free Hong Kongers were now being handed over to a totalitarian regime with little to no democratic systems of its own. As a result, just as the last Britsh troops left Hong Kong, the Chinese government began chipping away at the rights of the Hong Kongers.
For example, in 2003, China tried to pass Hong Kong Basic Law Article 23, a law which would make it illegal to commit any treasonous activities. It may not sound so bad -- after all, the United States has laws against treason. However, in China, treason can be something as benign as criticising the government. The people of Hong Kong took to the streets, and article 23 was later dropped due to successful protests. In 2012, the Chinese government tried to revamp the Hong Kong education system, this time with more propaganda in favor of the Chinese government. Once again, the people took to the streets and the initiative was dropped. Later, in 2014, the Chinese government promised people that they would be able to elect their “Executive” (think state governor). However, when the time came for the people of Hong Kong to vote, the government made it so that all candidates were nominated by the Chinese government. This is what would lead to the “Umbrella Movement” where Hong Kong protesters used umbrellas to shield themselves from Hong Kong police’s tear gas. Despite massive protesting for 79 days, the people were not able to change the system and still can not elect their Executive.
Now, in 2019, the Chinese government has unveiled its latest initiative, a proposed extradition bill. The bill was justified over a murder in 2018. A young man named Chan Tong-kai had murdered his pregnant girlfriend Poon Hiu-wing in Taiwan. Chan, a native Hong Konger, went back and turned himself in. The problem was, the Hong Kong police could not extradite Chan to Taiwan as no extradition bill existed. The Hong Kong government put forward an extradition bill to resolve this problem. The bill would allow Hong Kong police to extradite criminals to mainland China; however, mainland China doesn’t have an extradition bill with Taiwan either, meaning that the criminals would have to be tried in the mainland. The people of Hong Kong do not trust the Chinese government because of their history of injustice. Hong Kongers believe that the Chinese government will use the bill to take criminals from Hong Kong’s more democratic court system and try them under China’s guilty-until-proven-innocent court system. This would mean that the next time there’s a big protest and the police begin making arrests, those protesters would be tried in China where they are much more likely to be found guilty.
In June, when this bill was proposed, the people of Hong Kong took to the streets. Millions of them. At its peak, two million Hong Kongers were protesting the bill. As more and more people took to the streets, the police began cracking down on the protesters using tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets, and triads (organized crime members). In July, protests broke into the legislative building, where protesters vandalized the building by breaking windows and writing graffiti. Then, in August, a young protester was shot in the eye with a live bullet from a police officer, though she fortunately survived. Later, in the Hong International Airport, two men were beaten and tied up at the Hong Kong airport, because protesters thought they were undercover cops. After it became apparent that the two men were actually reporters, they were let go and taken to the hospital. The protesters did apologize afterwards. A few weeks later, the violence escalated with more and more protesters arrested as clashes with police intensified. Surveillance cameras have been torn down by protesters and many wear masks to hide their identities. At this point, the Hong Kong protesters have put forward demands:
The demonstrations should not be referred to as riots in official press releases
For an independent inquiry into police brutality
Amnesty for all arrested protesters
For Carrie Lam (the current executive leader of Hong Kong) to step down
For the extradition bill to be formally and permanently withdrawn
Of these demands, only one (the extradition bill being withdrawn) has been met. And it is unclear if the Chinese government will meet any other demands. In the meantime, the people of Hong Kong have continued to protest, though not in such great numbers as they were in June and July.
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