First Impressions and Reflections

From August to November 2019, I lived in Hong Kong and attended the University of Hong Kong (HKU) as an exchange student. Upon my arrival, I was immediately struck by the British colonial heritage epitomized in the double decker buses driving on the left side of the road. At the same time, the city, while it does have English signs, is filled with traditional Chinese characters on the roads and in shop windows and the sounds of people speaking in Cantonese. I would say that Hong Kong did embody a kind of fusion of Western, British culture on the one hand, and Eastern, Chinese culture on the other. The city is connected together by an excellent public transport system (MTR and buses) with an impressive skyline facing out to Victoria Harbour from Hong Kong Island and Kowloon. But actually Hong Kong is made up of three main areas: Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and the New Territories and is mostly undeveloped; Approximately 75% of Hong Kong’s land is green space. After having lived in Beijing for four weeks before moving to Hong Kong, it was so much prettier and nicer when I arrived on Hong Kong Island with the breeze from the sea in Kennedy Town and the peak looming overhead.

Tuesday, August 20, 2019. My first night in Hong Kong

Hong Kong’s food is quite good, and I had the experience early on of trying yum cha (飲茶) one of my first days there. Yum Cha literally means drinking tea but involves eating a variety of small plates with tea (traditionally for breakfast). Another good Hong Kong food is Char Siu (叉燒) or barbecued pork, and it is served inside buns for yum cha. It seemed to me when I first arrived that Hong Kongers favorite pastime is to go to the mall because there seems to be a giant mall everywhere you turn. And people use the air-conditioning in the malls to escape Hong Kong’s blistering summer heat. But in all seriousness, my time spent in Hong Kong was one of the best times in my life, and I am very grateful to have lived in the city. I am also grateful to all the people I met and talked to for giving me new ideas and perspectives and making my time in Hong Kong enjoyable and meaningful.

I now want to move on to talking about the current situation and the Hong Kong protests. The protests in Hong Kong have long been about resistance to oppression and the authoritarianism that Beijing exports. Contrary to certain analysis that the root of the problem lies in economics and Hong Kong’s housing crisis (including arguments by the Chinese state media), I would argue that the protests have mainly been about defending the identity of Hong Kong as a place where people are allowed to speak their mind without fear of arrest or allowed to demonstrate for their human rights. While I disagree with Trump and Pompeo on virtually everything, I do agree that Beijing must be challenged for imposing the national security law and potentially imposing fully authoritarian rule in Hong Kong. China uses “debt diplomacy” where its signature belt and road initiative (BRI) is used to make poorer countries perpetually in debt and thus vulnerable to Chinese political pressure and influence. The systematic incarceration of Uighurs and destruction of Uighur culture and identity in Xinjiang constitute serious human rights violations. Thus, the concerns of the Hong Kong people that Beijing will perpetuate serious repression against them through the implementation of the national security law is very justified. I would now like to move on to discussing the recent history of Hong Kong since the handover was confirmed in the Joint Sino-British Declaration.

The Sino-British Joint Declaration

It is one of my regrets that I did not really learn any Cantonese while in Hong Kong, though I did learn a little basic Mandarin (through a course at HKU). In Hong Kong, the locals all speak Cantonese, which is a dialect of Chinese, and is quite different from the standardized Mandarin Chinese spoken in Mainland China. In addition to this language difference, I noticed very quickly that Hong Kong is a much freer place than the mainland in terms of freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Newspaper are allowed to, and do, criticize both the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and the Hong Kong government. In terms of academic freedom too, Hong Kong is different from the mainland. While I was in HKU, I went to multiple talks that criticized the CCP, and one that proposed strengthening civil society in mainland China as a way of resisting Chinese rule. In mainland China, Tsinghua University suspended law professor Xu Zhangrun after he wrote essays critical of Xi Jinping, China’s authoritarian leader.

These differences are encapsulated under the “One Country, Two Systems” model agreed to in the Sino-British Joint Declaration of 1984. Section 2 and 3 of Article 3 state that “The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will enjoy a high degree of autonomy” and that “The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will be vested with executive, legislative and independent judicial power, including that of final adjudication. The laws currently in force in Hong Kong will remain basically unchanged.” Thus, according to this regulation, Hong Kong should have high autonomy, and while this is vaguely defined, it presumably means that Hong Kong should be allowed to make its own decisions, though, of course, this does not extend to advocating for independence. Crucially, as well, Hong Kong should have an independent judiciary that is not beholden to laws from Beijing. Section 5 of Article 3 continues, “The current social and economic systems in Hong Kong will remain unchanged, and so will the life-style. Rights and freedoms, including those of the person, of speech, of the press, of assembly, of association, of travel, of movement, of correspondence, of strike, of choice of occupation, of academic research and of religious belief will be ensured by law in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.” Section 12 of Article 3 concludes that these freedoms and policies will remain in place unchanged for 50 years from the handover (so until the year 2047). I would like to clarify here that throughout most of Hong Kong’s colonial history, the British did not guarantee these rights and freedoms, but these rights and freedoms were, however, promised in the Joint Declaration and should be respected by China.

In the early summer of 2019, before I arrived in Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, the chief executive of Hong Kong, proposed the introduction of the extradition bill, which would theoretically allow any Hong Konger to be extradited for trial to China under the CCP’s legal system. This bill itself seems to be a violation of the Sino-British Joint Declaration because it threatened the independent legal system of Hong Kong by allowing dissidents to be extradited to China. However, the new national security law proposed by Beijing goes much further than the anti-extradition bill in violating the Sino-British Joint Declaration because it fundamentally threatens the freedoms outlined in Section 5 of Article 3. In addition, to the Sino-Joint Declaration, the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region was constructed under the jurisdiction of the Basic Law, a kind of constitution.

The Basic Law

The Basic Law serves as Hong Kong’s constitution and is the method through which Beijing created the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (along with the Sino-British Joint Declaration). The preamble to the Basic Law states that,

“The People’s Republic of China has decided that upon China’s resumption of the exercise of sovereignty over Hong Kong, a Hong Kong Special Administrative Region will be established in accordance with the provisions of Article 31 of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China, and that under the principle of “One country, Two systems”, the socialist system and policies will not be practised in Hong Kong.”

Thus, Beijing assured Hong Kong and the world that Hong Kong, while it would remain a part of China, would be governed under a different system than that which exists in mainland China. And increasingly with the extradition bill, and now, in particular, with the national security law, this has come under threat.

Shortly before the national security law was revealed, the Secretary for Justice in Hong Kong, Teresa Cheng, claimed that Article 22 of the Basic Law does not apply to Beijing’s liaison office in the city. Article 22 of the Basic Law states,

“No department of the Central People’s Government and no province, autonomous region, or municipality directly under the Central Government may interfere in the affairs which the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region administers on its own in accordance with this Law.”

This assertion by Secretary Cheng fundamentally undermines the Basic Law and threatens to impose Beijing’s direct rule in Hong Kong. The liaison office is a department of the Central People’s Government, and yet the Hong Kong government itself says that the article does not apply to the liaison office. The Hong Kong government has shown time and again that it is unwilling to stand up to Beijing and will help Beijing destroy “One Country, Two Systems” (despite false claims by Beijing that the national security law would still uphold “One Country, Two Systems”).

However, perhaps the most controversial article in the Basic Law is Article 23. This article pertains to national security legislation in Hong Kong. It states,

“The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region shall enact laws on its own to prohibit any act of treason, secession, sedition, subversion against the Central People’s Government, or theft of state secrets, to prohibit foreign political organizations or bodies from conducting political activities in the Region, and to prohibit political organizations or bodies of the Region from establishing ties with foreign political organizations or bodies.”

Looking at this article, it seemed inevitable that Hong Kong would end up with national security legislation because Article 23 actually mandates Hong Kong’s government to enact it. The Hong Kong government tried in 2003 to enact this legislation but failed, and I will go into more detail in the section describing the background of the current protest movement. Beijing was not satisfied, however, and under Xi Jinping has grown even more authoritarian (and bold in the context of the pandemic). Instead of waiting for the Hong Kong legislative council to enact this legislation, the National People’s Congress in Beijing drafted the legislation itself and directed the chief executive of Hong Kong to enact the legislation through Annex III, which is a provision in Article 18 of the Basic Law that allows the Chinese government to do this. However, this move is unprecedented and clearly threatens the freedoms promised in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and the “One Country, Two Systems” framework promised in the Basic Law. I will now turn to look at the history of activism and protests by Hong Kongers since the handover up until the current movement.

The Background of the Current Anti-extradition Movement

One of the first mass protest events to show that the people of Hong Kong were unhappy with Beijing encroaching upon the rights of Hong Kongers was the anti-Article 23 movement in the summer of 2003. In July 2003, hundreds of thousands peacefully marched in Hong Kong to oppose then Chief Executive Tung Chee-hwa’s plan to implement Article 23. The proposed Article 23 legislation in 2003 was draconian in nature, and various civil society groups came together to oppose it and were able to mobilize the public to stand up against Beijing’s encroachment. The law was eventually shelved when it became clear that the legislative council would not pass the Article 23 legislation. In a similar vein to current propaganda, the Chinese and Hong Kong government sought to assure the Hong Kong people and the world that the impact of the law would not be very severe, and that business could still go on normally. Businessmen, in particular, who depend greatly on mainland China for trade have endorsed the new national security law in 2020. So, in both 2003 and 2020, there has been a large disconnect between the elites (both business and governmental elites) and the common people who are largely scared of the impact that the national security law will have on the freedoms guaranteed in the Sino-British Joint Declaration.

Another movement that I wish to talk about before moving on to the current protest movement is the Umbrella movement in 2014. The Umbrella movement was triggered by the broken promise of Beijing to implement universal suffrage for Hong Kong’s chief executive by 2017. Currently, Hong Kong’s chief executive is chosen by a 1200 strong election committee that is mostly made up of those loyal to Beijing. In this way, Beijing is able to ensure that the chief executive will always be loyal to China. In August of 2014, Beijing decreed that universal suffrage by 2017 would be allowed, but that these candidates would first have to be vetted by Beijing (thus ensuring that universal suffrage would still elect a pro-Beijing candidate). The protesters occupied central Hong Kong and shut down the roads and many protesters carried umbrellas, which coined the term, the Umbrella Movement. The protest ended in defeat for the protesters, and they did not win concessions from Beijing. The current anti-extradition movement has highlighted once again the demand for democracy in Hong Kong.

The Anti-extradition Movement

The movement began as a response to the extradition bill proposed by the current chief executive Carrie Lam that would allow criminals in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China. Almost exactly one year ago, on June 9, 2019, between five hundred thousand and one million people marched in the street to demand the withdrawal of the extradition bill. After police violence against demonstrators on June 12 and the overwhelming anger over the bill, Lam announced the suspension of the bill on June 15. On July 21, men in white shirts wielding clubs attacked commuters at the Yuen Long MTR station, while the police failed to arrest anyone, and a pro-Beijing lawmaker, Junius Ho, was spotted talking with the men in white shirts before their attack. This attack added to growing anger against police who were responding to peaceful protests and roadblocks with tear gas and rubber bullets. As tensions escalated into the fall when I arrived in Hong Kong, a growing unifying call among the protesters was “five demands, not one less.” I would now like to take a look into these five demands.

The Five Demands

1. The complete withdrawal of the proposed extradition bill

This demand is the most straightforward of the five demands. It is also the only demand that has actually been fulfilled. Of course, with the enactment of the national security law, the withdrawal of the extradition bill becomes rather meaningless (though it was still a good symbolic victory over the Hong Kong government). On September 4, 2019, Lam announced the official withdrawal of the extradition bill after months of protests.

2. Stopping the use of the word riot in relation to the protests

This is the demand that I personally feel the most strongly about because I am angry at the characterization of protests as riots. The property destruction of Bank of China branches or Maxim’s owned stores was done in the pursuit of sending a political message. Meriam-Webster defines a riot as “a violent public disorder.” From what I observed while in Hong Kong, most of the violence was not coming from the protesters but rather from the police. If anything, the police were guilty of rioting for firing huge amounts of tear gas in residential areas and beating up arrested protesters. Another reason that this demand is so controversial is the implications that rioting has in Hong Kong law. The charge of rioting means a maximum of a ten-year jail sentence. Rioting has an overwhelmingly negative connotation, when my view of the protests is that they are protesting to promote democracy (universal suffrage) and fairness (equality before the law) and resist authoritarian rule from China. The protests have never been about senseless destruction or violence.

3. Unconditional release of all arrested protesters and all charges dropped

If not for the stubbornness of Carrie Lam and her lack of regard for the wishes of the Hong Kong people, the protests would never have been needed in the first place. If there is ever to be healing and reconciliation in Hong Kong (which now looks impossible with the national security law), then something like this would be necessary. The next demand would also be necessary.

4. An independent inquiry into police behavior

This demand is needed now more than ever. The police continue to brazenly arrest large groups of protesters, and they now use the coronavirus ban on gatherings to justify the arrests. Carrie Lam appointed the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) to investigate the police response to the protests. Foreign experts on the panel withdrew in December 2019 due to concerns that the panel lacked sufficient power to investigate the police and was not independent enough. Predictably, the IPCC found in its report that the police had always acted within the guidelines and noted that it was inappropriate to protest against police brutality. Clearly, an independent probe is needed that will not be beholden to the Hong Kong government and Beijing.

5. Implementation of genuine universal suffrage

Finally, the fifth demand is the demand that went unfulfilled in the Umbrella movement in 2014. Beijing’s attempt to implement false universal suffrage by pre-selecting the candidates was not good enough then and it is not good enough now. The district council elections are the only true seats chosen by universal suffrage in Hong Kong. In November 2019, at the height of the protest movement, Hong Kongers overwhelmingly selected the pro-democracy candidates. Before the elections, every district council had belonged to the pro-establishment candidates, and after the elections, 17 out of 18 districts belonged to the pan-democrats (the only one that did not had seats automatically given to pro-establishment figures). Understandably, Beijing is terrified that having universal suffrage for the legislative council elections (where currently only half are chosen by direct election) and for the chief executive would threaten its influence in the city. It would be far harder for Beijing to implement policies (like the national security law) that are fundamentally unpopular with the majority of the population.

The End of My Time in Hong Kong

I remember National Day in Hong Kong on October 1st. In Beijing, there were images of Xi Jinping looming over a massive display of military force. In Hong Kong, there were massive protests on that day all over the city, and the riot police responded with force. I remember how the entire MTR network was shut down, most likely in an attempt to prevent protesters from quickly forming large groups and to prevent damage to MTR stations (because MTR was viewed as being pro-government, particularly because the government owns a large share in the company). Throughout October, there were further escalations and intensifying clashes. Starbucks, all of which in Hong Kong are owned by pro-Beijing Maxim’s, were trashed to send a message against pro-Beijing businesses. In early November, A Hong Kong University of Science and Technology student named Alex Chow died after falling from an upper story of a carpark, supposedly because he was escaping tear gas. This death would spark an even greater escalation of protests, and the protest moved onto university campuses.

This brings me to being forced out of Hong Kong by the anti-extradition bill protest movement in November 2019. In fact, I was supposed to do a full year academic year exchange in Hong Kong, but the University of Edinburgh recalled all its students out of fear of a crackdown by Beijing after intensification of the protests in mid-November. On Monday morning on November 11, I woke up to the news that at HKU, the police had fired tear gas at one of the escalators, and students had destroyed the elevator leading up to HKU and were throwing bricks down onto the road below. I never had another physical class at HKU after that. That week witnessed the “battle” of Chinese University of Hong Kong where police used teargas and water cannon against student protesters seeking to hold the no. 2 bridge overlooking the crucial Tolo highway so they could blockade it. After a few direct confrontations with protesters, at the Hong Kong Polytechnic University (PolyU), riot police on November 18 trapped protesters inside and threatened to arrest all of them for rioting. The siege of PolyU, as it came to be known, deterred protesters from getting trapped in one place.

Tuesday, November 12, 2019 in Hong Kong

I remember wandering through the streets in that week in mid-November and seeing what was going on. I remember in Central one night, we saw the police drive an armored vehicle to smash through the barricades and fire tear gas. Everyone was running, and I remember feeling quite afraid, even though the police did not arrest me. I can only imagine how the protesters must have felt. Even after experiencing only some of the lingering effects of the tear gas and coughing for a while, I realize how destructive those chemicals must be to the body after heavy exposure. It takes a lot of courage to go out there and protest over fear of arrest and exposure to toxic chemicals, especially now that Beijing is tightening its grip over Hong Kong.

Hong Kong’s Uncertain Future

Hong Kong as it has existed since the handover may be coming to an end. While no one knows exactly what the national security law will do, the signs are not good. One of the most worrying developments is that China would set up its own security forces inside Hong Kong, and these security forces would be independent of Hong Kong’s government. In April, 15 major, high-profile members of the pro-democracy movement were arrested in Hong Kong. These kinds of arrests will only become more common under the national security law. Another major concern is whether newspapers like Hong Kong Free Press or Apple Daily (which run articles critical of China) will be allowed to continue reporting after the law is enacted. One of the 15 arrested in the April crackdown was the founder of Apple Daily, Jimmy Lai.

In 1987, the UK issued British National Overseas (BNO) passports to citizens who applied for them, though only people born before 1997 could apply for them and keep them after the handover. Currently, there are over 300,000 BNO passport holders in Hong Kong, and the BNO allows them to reside in the UK for up to six months. However, since China announced the enactment of the national security law, the UK has explored granting the BNO to almost three million eligible Hong Kongers and expanding the right of abode and to work to 12 months instead of six. The BNO is still not the same as granting citizenship, but it might help Hong Kongers who have the financial means to be able to migrate to the UK. The US has also said that it will consider taking in Hong Kongers as part of its ongoing feud with China. In addition, the US is considering imposing sanctions on Hong Kong officials as part of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. Many Hong Kongers cannot migrate and will have to stay behind.

So what kind of future will await those who choose to stay behind or those who have no other choice? Certainly, there will be some who stay because they support the Hong Kong government or wish to do business with China. But there will still be many others who stay for whom that is not the case. Judging by Xi Jinping’s crackdown on the Uighurs, there will most likely be a severe curb to free speech and free assembly that was supposed to be guaranteed in the Sino-British Joint Declaration. Despite Carrie Lam’s assertion that the national security law “will only target an extremely small minority of illegal and criminal acts and activities,” that will obviously not be true. Beijing wants to crackdown once and for all on the Hong Kong protesters. The national security law shows that China is willing to destroy “One Country, Two Systems” to achieve this aim. On June 4, 2020, the Hong Kong government passed the national anthem law, which criminalizes disrespect of the Chinese national anthem. The national anthem law is already threatening freedom of speech, and it will only get worse with the national security law.

One of the acts of daily resistance to the Hong Kong government and Beijing is the yellow economy. Yellow shops are those that support the Hong Kong protests, and thus supporters of the protests frequent these shops to show support to the movement. On the other hand, blue shops are those that support the police. The yellow economy has its origins in the 2014 Umbrella movement, when protesters waved yellow ribbons. This yellow economy can be a way to show resistance towards Beijing after all other forms of dissent are crushed.

The Hong Kong protests clearly show the importance of standing against authoritarianism and repression. The protesters should seek solace in the fight against systemic racism in the Black Lives Matter movement because they are both striving towards similar goals: a fair and just system that treats people equally. The current protest struggles sweeping the globe are about human rights and about justice. I hope that Hong Kongers can continue their fight for democracy and justice against China’s oppression.

MSc Environment and Development Student at LSE. I write about political issues and personal things from a left-wing perspective.