The 2019 protests in Hong Kong have the potential to completely redefine the relationship between mainland China and the semi-autonomous province. The demonstrations initially began as backlash to an unpopular extradition bill, in which criminal suspects would be able to be extradited to mainland China to stand trial. The bill prompted concerns among Hong Kongers over the fairness of China’s judiciary, and the effect it would have on dissidents. Although the bill was delayed and eventually scrapped, the demands of the protesters evolved over time. The initial protests began in June, but by August, there was an entirely new set of demands, including the resignation of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam. There is not one singular leader of the Hong Kong protestors, which means that there isn’t a universal set of demands. However, what most protesters still want is: the withdrawal of the term “riot” used to describe protests, amnesty for all arrested protestors, an independent investigation into police brutality, and universal suffrage in elections for Hong Kong’s chief executive. Protesters have adopted and chanted the slogan “Five Demands, not One Less” to reference these wishes at demonstrations.
While the protests began as overwhelmingly peaceful, by early August tensions were escalating on both sides. Protesters began hurling bricks and petrol bombs at police forces, who responded with tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons. Police have also begun to blast protesters with a blue dye in order to make it easier to identify and arrest them later. This measure was used in force to respond to heated demonstrations on October 1, as protesters were called in response to the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. August was also the first time Beijing directly addressed the situation, saying the protesters should “not underestimate the resolve of the central government”. Recently, Carrie Lam invoked a ban on face masks, which have become common among protesters. Masks have been used to conceal the identity of demonstrators from CCTV and potential retribution from authorities. Upon the announcement, thousands of people began a spontaneous demonstration against the new regulations.
As the protests have continued, violence has escalated on both sides. A pro-Beijing counter protester became engaged in an argument with a group of democracy activists and was doused in liquid and set on fire. On the other side, multiple protesters have been killed by police, most recently a 21-year-old who was shot. There have been three protesters shot by police in recent weeks, and there are no signs of the violence deescalating. This is further evidenced by the police invading university campuses where student protesters had previously found sanctuary. Many protesters are university students, and their campuses had been a refuge where the police were unwilling to go. However, that has recently changed, and police and students clashed on the grounds of several universities, battling with gasoline bombs, bricks, tear gas and rubber bullets. Specifically, police have laid siege to Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University, and students who attempted to flee the campus were arrested. Protesters who are not on the campus have begun to engage police elsewhere in the city to alleviate pressure on the students in the university and give them an opportunity to escape.
Recently, the outbreak of the coronavirus has led to a fresh wave of unrest in Hong Kong. Medical personnel in hospitals went on strike to protest Carrie Lam’s decision to keep the border with the mainland open, and business leaders have also urged her to deny all people seeking to enter Hong Kong from mainland China. All mass demonstrations in the territory had been halted in the face of the outbreak, but protests have recently started cropping up again. Hong Kong has avoided a widespread breakout of COVID-19 and as quarantine fatigue sets in, people are rejoining protests. June marks the one-year anniversary of demonstrations beginning in Hong Kong, and pro-democracy activists are keen to remind the world that their battle is not yet won.