This article is written by Jisha Garg, a student currently pursuing B.A.LLB (Hons.) from Rajiv Gandhi National University of Law, Punjab. This is an exhaustive article dealing with the Hong Kong protests which started in March, 2019 and also encompass the factors that led to the protest, the underlying objectives, the current situation and the possible outcome of the protest.
The Hong Kong protests against China’s authoritarian regime’s alleged encroachment of people’s rights started back in March, 2019 with over a million protestors taking to streets on 9th June, 2019. With 4319 people arrested as of November and many injured, what started as a protest against the extradition bill has now turned into a full-blown protest for the protection of civil liberties in Hong Kong. The protestors have alleged the Chinese Government for intruding into Hong Kong’s autonomy by trying to introduce such policy measures which would seriously endanger Hong Kong’s independence and in turn provide more powers to the Chinese regime.
These are not the first protests that have taken place in Hong Kong. There were two protests that occurred in 2003 and 2004. The 2003 protest was against the introduction of the National security legislation and the 2014 umbrella movement was against China’s interference in the demand for election reforms.
With the protests now going on for almost 7 months now, there are brutalities and the subsequent casualties from both sides with the majority of the cases being reported from the side of police forces. Due to the large scale nature of the protests, it has garnered international attention with the US President intervening in the issue. The protests have led to a dent in China’s image internationally with the global community expressing its solidarity with the protesters.
The history of the conflict between China and Hong Kong can be traced back to colonial times when Hong Kong was a part of China. Hong Kong came under British territory in the mid 1800’s when it won the first opium war. After that, Britain ruled Hong Kong for 150 years and ended by ceding it after a period of 99 years. In 1997, Britain gave it back to China under a special agreement. Since then, Hong Kong has been treated as a Special Administrative Region (SAR). This means that although Hong Kong will be a part of mainland China, it would also provide Hong Kong with ‘a high degree of autonomy’ and various other rights such as freedom of speech, freedom of press and freedom of assembly.
Before providing autonomy to Hong Kong, there was a basic law which was provided to it on 1st July, 1997. The principle of ‘one country, two systems’ was enshrined in it. Basic law had provisions for providing autonomy and various other freedoms to the people of Hong Kong which were not available to the people of China. China, through the introduction of the extradition bill, has been alleged to breach the state’s right to prosecute criminals on their land which led to a breach in the basic law. Under the extradition bill, the Hong Kong government was vested with the power to extradite the criminals to Taiwan and China in order to prosecute them for the crimes they commit on their lands. China has also been alleged to interfere in the working of Hong Kong by indirectly trying to control the working of its government by encouraging the quelling of protests.
There are clear demarcations in the working of both the governments. The government of Hong Kong is given control of the economy, police force and the judicial system, and the Chinese government is provided with the control of military, foreign affairs and to some extent, the political systems. The radical protestors are demanding complete independence from the Chinese regime and have alleged it for interfering in the internal matters of Hong Kong.
Background of the protests
The background of the conflict dates back to 8th February, 2018 when a young couple named Chan Tong Kai and Poon-Hui-Wing went for a vacation to Taiwan from their home in Hong Kong. For 9 days, the couple stayed at a hotel in Taipei. But, surprisingly, Poon never returned from the vacation and Chan did, with a suitcase in which he allegedly hid Poon’s body. Chan confessed, after coming to Hong Kong, that he murdered his wife. The conflict, however, was that neither could he be persecuted in Hong Kong since the crime took place on Taiwanese land, nor could he be sent back to Taiwan for prosecution since there was no extradition treaty signed between the two countries.
It was in the wake of this incident that the Chinese Government pressurized the Government of Hong Kong to introduce the extradition bill. This meant that the criminals would be easily transferred from Hong Kong to China. The people of Hong Kong were very skeptical about the transfer of such criminals to the mainland of China since they had concerns about free trial and torture of the criminals. The people of Hong Kong were also fearful of the attempt by China to curtail various freedoms, provided under Article 27 of the Basic Law, such as freedom of press, association and speech under the garb of this bill.
Contentions put forward by the protestors at Hong Kong
The contentions of the protestors were not only limited to the direct removal of the cause of conflict but also demanded action on all the indirect causes of conflict which were leading to violations of rights. The protestors at Hong Kong were firm on their five demands put forward before the government, evident from their slogan of “Five demands, not less!”.
Following are the five demands put forward by the protestors:
- The first and the foremost demand of the protestors was the withdrawal of the Extradition Bill giving immense powers to the Chinese Government. This demand was fulfilled by the government on 4 September when the Chief Executive of China, Lam Cheng Yuet-Ngor, withdrew the bill.
- The second demand put forward by the protestors was providing amnesty to 5800 protestors who have been charged with protest-related crimes. The protestors believed that there was an urgent need to look into matters of sudden disappearances from Hong Kong which was later leading into people landing on the Chinese mainland. The arrests of some pro-democracy activists in 2017 and the abduction of booksellers in 2018 were some of the evident cases.
- The third demand is to look into the excesses created by the police during the protests including the use of water cannons and live bullets. They also demanded that an independent committee be set up to look into the police brutalities to increase transparency and accountability.
- The fourth demand was the retraction from labeling the protests as ‘riots’. The chief executive of Hong Kong once referred to the protestors as ‘rioters’. There were others labeling the protestors as ‘violent mobs’, ‘criminals’ and ‘terrorists.
- The last demand of the protestors was for providing universal suffrage which meant a right to vote to elect the members of the legislative council as provided under Article 68 of the Basic Law.
There are two sources of power in Hong Kong; one being the Chief Executive Officer and the other being the Legislative council. The Chief Executive Officer is not elected through elections but by a committee which predominantly consists of members of Chinese influence. The mode of election of the chief executive raises serious concerns over the fairness of elections. The legislative council consists of 70 seats. Out of the 70 seats, the vote on the 35 seats are reserved for the big corporate business houses. They would often vote for pro-China parties because this would be favourable for their businesses in the future. Elections are conducted on the remaining 35 seats. Although, people vote against the regime and the pro-China parties lack the majority mark of 50% still they manage to rule over Hong Kong due to the flawed election mechanism in the country.
The protestors demanded a right to vote on all the 70 seats of the legislative council in order to elect their true representatives and increase transparency.
Important developments in the situation
So far, the extradition bill has been withdrawn but the protestors are firm on not withdrawing their protests unless the other four demands are fulfilled. The police forces are trying to quell the forces with all its brutal force using tear gas, rocks and even shooting the protestors with live bullets. The government is leaving no stone unturned to crush dissent and label the protestors as a threat to the citizens of the country. The police forces have so far used 1600 rounds of tear gas and 10,000 rubber bullets in order to disperse off the protestors.
The mandate of the recent elections that were conducted in November last year indicated the firm resolve of the protestors towards attaining freedom from the Chinese Government. The elections saw a huge turnover with a total of 2.94 voters casting their votes. The elections resulted in the pro-democratic faction securing 17 out of the total 18 seats, uprooting the pro-China faction. The results are considered as a warning against the arbitrary use of power by the ruling government in China.
The government, in the meantime, also came up with an ordinance in the legislative assembly which banned wearing of masks during protests. The top court of Hong Kong ruled against the ordinance and it was struck down. The Chinese government intervened and favored the bill ordering its continuation. China has been alleged for curtailing judicial independence, the provision for which is provided under Article 22 of the Basic Law, by overpowering judiciary’s decisions.
Some analysts are of the view that the protests have lost steam partly due to the outbreak of Coronavirus and partly because of the movement reaching its peak in November with a massive win of the pro-democratic candidates at the local elections. With the pandemic spreading rapidly and social distancing measures, it is speculated that fear of infections has prevented the protestors from gathering and protesting. What is also speculated is the return of the second wave of protests once the pandemic is over in view of the rapid progress that Hong Kong is achieving in curtailing the spread of the virus. The second round of protests is predicted to start from 1st July, 2020. The protestors are of the opinion that it is better to be killed by a virus than to give up their rights without putting up a tough fight.
With the international community deploring the acts of the Hong Kong government in suppressing the voices of the citizens of the country using violent means, the USA has taken rigid steps against China. Joshua Wang, an activist, has introduced the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. The Act provides for provisions wherein the USA would annually review the situation of human rights and the actions taken by the government in that regard. If the government fails to reach the required benchmark, then this would invite sanctions from the US Government leading to strained trade relations. China has, however, refused to recognize the Act and rejected it by labelling it as a foreign intrusion into the domestic matters of their country.
The Chinese government is also arresting activists and potential moderators under the shadow of the pandemic so that the second wave does not pick up and a potential compromise is not reached. So far, the government has arrested 15 activists in April and it is taking all the necessary measures to ensure that the news of the arrests does not surface in mainstream media which could possibly impact the elections due in September.
The bill has finally been withdrawn but as various international activists have referred to it as a step “too little, too late”, it was a minute and a delayed relief. The delayed response in addressing the concerns of the citizens could cost the Government heavily in the long run considering the massive success of citizen- backed movements in the past. The government, from time to time, has refused to come to terms with the protestors by declining their demands and international action. Non- action in alarming situations can result in the loss of faith in the government of the country having serious repercussions in the future. It is high time for the government to pay heed to the demands of the protestors before the protests turn into a movement leading to casualties all across the country.
The protests have also forced the people all across the world to rethink the institutional order in Hong Kong. it has once again reinstated the fact that there needs to be a change in this system making it more representative, accountable and transparent.
The stakes are very high for the citizens seeking justice with the second wave of protests underway. Much is dependent on the success of the protests starting from 1st July. The international community has a big role to play in providing independence to the aggrieved citizens or reaching out a possible compromise between the two factions. Various countries can put pressure on the government to initiate people-centric policies so that justice and freedom prevail and the country gets back to normalcy.
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