Hong Kong turmoil unlikely to go away anytime soon

Hong Kong has been rocked by a series of protests by hundreds of thousands of people in recent weeks, many of which have ended in violent clashes with the police

Hong Kong Protests against an extradition law
Hong Kong Protests against an extradition law

NH Web Desk

Hong Kong has been rocked by a series of protests by hundreds of thousands of people in recent weeks, many of which have ended in violent clashes with the police.

The protests were initially focused on a bill that that would make it easier to extradite people to China, but the authorities’ harsh policing of the protests, coupled with a refusal by Hong Kong’s leader to completely withdraw the bill, have triggered protesters to return to the streets time and again.

The proposed extradition law

The law would allow the extradition of suspects to mainland China for the first time, which, critics worry, would let Beijing use the law to extradite political opponents and others to China, where their legal protections cannot be guaranteed.

The new legislation would give Hong Kong’s leader, known as the chief executive, authority to approve extradition requests, without oversight by Hong Kong’s legislature.

Many Hong Kongers fear the law would be used by authorities to target political enemies and that it would signify the end of the “one country, two systems” policy, eroding the civil rights enjoyed by Hong Kong residents since the handover of sovereignty from the UK to China in 1997.

This meant that while becoming part of one country with China, Hong Kong would enjoy "a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs" for 50 years.

As a result, Hong Kong has its own legal system and borders, and rights including freedom of assembly and free speech are protected.

For example, it is one of the few places in Chinese territory where people can commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, where the military opened fire on unarmed protesters in Beijing.

Hong Kong still enjoys freedoms not seen on mainland China - but critics say they are on the decline.

Wider fears about Beijing’s influence

Many protesters feel overwhelmed by a sense of helplessness in the face of China’s increasing political, economic and cultural influence in Hong Kong. Hong Kong’s top political leader is not elected by ordinary voters but by a 1,200-strong election committee accountable to Beijing. Half of its legislature are chosen through indirect electoral systems that favour pro-Beijing figures.

Many Hong Kongers also cite the jailing of leaders and activists from the 2014 Occupy Central movement – a 79-day mass civil disobedience movement – as well as the disqualification of young localist lawmakers as signs of the erosion of civil freedoms.

Legal professionals have also expressed concern over the rights of those sent across the border to be tried. The conviction rate in Chinese courts is as high as 99%. Arbitrary detentions, torture and denial of legal representation of one’s choosing are also common.

Resentment towards China has been intensified by soaring property prices – with increasing numbers of mainland Chinese buying properties in the city – as well as the government’s “patriotic education” drive, and the large numbers of mainland tourists who flock to Hong Kong.

Many Hong Kongers are also concerned about China’s growing control over the city’s news media, as they increasingly self-censor and follow Beijing’s tacit orders.

Rights groups have accused China of meddling in Hong Kong, citing examples such as legal rulings that have disqualified pro-democracy legislators. They've also been concerned by the disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers, and a tycoon - all eventually re-emerged in custody in China.

Most people don’t identify themselves as Chinese
While most people in Hong Kong are ethnic Chinese, and although Hong Kong is part of China, a majority of its people don't identify as Chinese. Surveys from the University of Hong Kong show that most people identify themselves as "Hong Kongers" - only 11% would call themselves "Chinese" - and 71% of people say they do not feel proud about being Chinese citizens.

The difference is particularly pronounced amongst the young.

History of protests

The fact that protests have now returned is not necessarily surprising. There's a rich history of dissent in Hong Kong, stretching back further even than the past few years.

In 1966, demonstrations broke out after the Star Ferry Company decided to increase its fares. The protests escalated into riots, a full curfew was declared and hundreds of troops took to the streets.

Protests have continued since 1997, but now the biggest ones tend to be of a political nature - and bring demonstrators into conflict with mainland China's position.

The 2014 demonstrations took place over several weeks and saw Hong Kongers demand the right to elect their own leader. But the so-called Umbrella movement eventually fizzled out with no concessions from Beijing.

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