Chaos Erupts at Hong Kong
The months-long fight for democracy is far from over.
January 23, 2020
Nov. 17, 2019. Hong Kong Polytechnic University. Hundreds of students had barricaded themselves inside the university. Outside the campus, members of the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF) threatened to fire live ammunition if the protestors would not peacefully exit the premises. The protestors refused to comply. They used make-shift roadblocks and home-made Molotov Cocktails to ward off police interference. The HKPF responded with rubber bullets and sponge bombs. Hospitals plastered grey tape on their windows and doors so they could continue to treat patients under a barrage of police tear gas. Those still in Poly U were treated on gym floor mats, having been doused by water cannons during the cold November night. By morning, the HKPF had breached the main entrance and were able to make some arrests before they were driven out by the students yet again.
That was only one encounter in the months-long Hong Kong protests.
Hong Kong has been in relative chaos since March of 2019, when the government proposed what soon became known as the Extradition Bill. Under the bill’s provisions, Hong Kong would be able to surrender fugitives to countries whom they had no formal extradition treaty with, most notably China and Taiwan. The bill’s proposal caused an immense domestic and international backlash, as many people feared that the bill would open Hong Kong’s legal system to Chinese influence.
While Hong Kong may be part of the Chinese state, it is not ruled by the Chinese government. Hong Kong has its own democratic government and legal system, as stipulated when Britain passed ownership of the peninsula back into Chinese hands in 1997. Most Hong Kong residents view themselves as separate from Mainland China and are highly critical of interference from the Communist Party of China. When the Extradition Bill was proposed, many viewed it as another attempt by pro-Beijing politicians to place more of Hong Kong under Chinese control and allow China to extradite its own political dissenters from the area.
The protests started small: a number of sit-ins and peaceful marches, organized by pro-democracy groups, to advocate for the withdrawal of the bill from the legislative process. They gained more traction when supportive lawmakers stalled the bill, and in response, the Hong Kong government organized a second reading of the bill, bypassing committee scrutiny.
On June 12, hundreds of thousands of protestors surrounded the complex where the bill was to be read. The protestors’ presence stopped the bill reading, and the government deployed riot police to disperse the crowd. The police fired rubber bullets and tear gas at the protestors, many of whom were defenseless.
Far from deterring the protestors, the attack only bolstered their cause. Spurred on by their characterization as a “riot” by police commissioner Stephen Lo, the protestors solidified their demands: (1) Complete withdrawal of the Extradition Bill from the legislative process.
(2) Retraction of the “riot” characterization.(3) Release and exoneration of arrested protesters.
(4) Establishment of an independent commission of inquiry into police conduct and use of force during the protests.(5) Resignation of Carrie Lam (the chief executive of Hong Kong) and the implementation of universal suffrage for legislative council elections and for the election of the chief executive.
Protests reached a fever pitch on Oct. 1, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. A protestor was shot in the chest when he approached an officer armed with a pipe, the first such usage of live rounds of ammunition since the start of the protestors. However, before this, protestors had already sustained numerous injuries, such as ruptured eyes, when hit with bean bag rounds and rubber bullets from the police.
On Oct. 23, the Extradition Bill was officially withdrawn from the legislative process. The protestors did not surrender.
During the month of November, protestors took their fight to universities in response to the death of student Alex Chow. Chow was found unconscious after police fired tear gas at a demonstration in a housing estate, and died after two unsuccessful brain surgeries. Activists blamed his death on the police, claiming that their interference delayed Chow’s ambulance from reaching the hospital in time. The police denied any responsibility in Chow’s death.
Several universities across Hong Kong were occupied by protestors, most notably the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the Hong Kong Polytechnic University. The weeks-long occupation of PolyU, alone, led to over 1,000 arrests, even of those who the police offered immunity for their surrender.
By the end of November, the universities had been cleared of protestors. However, activists have shown no signs of stopping their demonstrations, and are still holding out for the rest of their demands to be answered.
The protests have thrown Hong Kong into an increasingly dire situation of economic and societal instability. Commerce and investment are falling to some of the lowest numbers of the decade, and travel warnings have been issued by several countries. The rift between the people and the government is mourned as irreparable, even if all the protesters’ demands are met.
The people of Hong Kong are also separating into hostile political camps. Moderates and pro-Beijing citizens say that the protesters have brought fear and violence to the country, while the protesters argue that their actions are worth it for long-term political reform.
“This riot, recently, has been such a negative impact[…]” Suncoast student Christal Fan, who visited Hong Kong during summer break, stated. “Even though [the Extradition Bill] was thrown away, the citizens are still rioting and causing chaos throughout the whole city and community. The citizens, now, are even scared to go out in the streets.”
“Over the summer, I did go to Hong Kong[…],” Fan further explained. “The rioting wasn’t as bad as it is now but I kept away from certain cities. I want to go back but I just know its very unsafe because I do have family members there.”
The full impact of the Hong Kong protests, both domestically and internationally, has yet to be fully explored as the world waits for the city to decide its fate.