Hong Kong is a global city precariously positioned along geopolitical and economic fault lines. Located along the coast of the South China Sea, the former British colony has enjoyed a relatively high degree of autonomy after being handed back to China in 1997. It holds elections, defends its free press, and prides itself on its independent judiciary system. And yet, despite enjoying all these democratic norms, Hong Kong is anything but normal, and not quite democratic either. In a world of growing nationalism and Chinese expansion, the region finds itself in an uncertain moment which could either solidify its independence for decades to come or destroy its freedoms altogether. As the national government continues to encroach on the city, protesters have taken to the streets by the millions to fight back, both figuratively and literally. The outcome of these protests will shape international politics and trade for the foreseeable future, acting as a modern proxy war between authoritarianism and democracy.
But what exactly is it that makes Hong Kong important in the first place? In a country of over a billion people, a city of seven million could almost be regarded as common or forgettable. Essentially, the city is special because its democratic institutions allow it to serve as a crucial hub connecting Asian and Western markets. Under the terms of its return to China, Hong Kong enjoys the special privileges of the “one country, two systems” arrangement. While it is technically a part of China, it has its own government which is democratically elected and courts which are politically independent of the mainland, at least until the terms of the handover agreement expires in 2047. These factors have given the city the favorable optics of having transparency and the rule of law in ways that the rest of China simply doesn’t. It is an accessible gateway to the lucrative but state-dominated Chinese market.
This unique position has been enough to attract countless international companies to the crowded island, which is consequently the most expensive real estate market in the world. Yes, the most expensive — as in more expensive than New York, San Francisco, London, or any other cosmopolitan hub. Housing is in such short supply that most small apartments are subdivided and filled with dozens of people. And yet, through a combination of circumstance and choice, most Hong Kongers continue to live in such impressively crowded circumstances.
Hong Kong exists in a three way tug-of-war between groups who all value it for different reasons. Corporations want it for market access, Beijing wants it for national unity, and residents want it for the independent culture it represents. Obviously, not all of these interests can exist simultaneously, and so it was just a matter of time before something sparked a serious conflict. That something turned out to be a controversial bill brought up by the Hong Kong government.
The proposed bill would have allowed for the extradition of certain criminal suspects to China, a previously impossible process. Extradition is a legal mechanism by which one jurisdiction can request the turnover of a suspect from another jurisdiction. The idea is that such a process prevents criminals from escaping justice by fleeing to another region or country, which sounds pretty uncontroversial when described theoretically. For instance, the case that inspired such a bill in the first place revolved around a Hong Konger who went on a vacation to Taiwan with his girlfriend and returned before admitting to police that he murdered her while there. Sounds simple enough, right? He literally confessed to one of the most violent crimes a person can commit. Just send the guy back to Taiwan to stand trial for murder and everyone can go home happy. What’s the issue? While that may work in most places, it should be noted that Taiwan is contentiously treated as part of China, which, as always, complicates everything.
Public backlash was swift and fierce, as citizens feared that the national government would exploit the bill to extract any political opposition, which would effectively destroy the region’s independence. Given that Chinese courts lack true independence, this was hardly an unreasonable fear or reaction. For instance, last year I wrote a piece exploring the ways in which China has been using mass surveillance and “social credit scores” to systematically target its enemies. By tracking peoples’ movements, purchases, and conversations, it has developed comprehensive profiles of nearly everyone it deems dangerous. And such a designation is not merely some red flag on a government file; it carries extreme real-world consequences. In the westernmost province of Xinjiang, a Muslim minority known as the Uighurs has been aggressively targeted and forced into concentration camps. They have committed no crime other than being despised by the Party, and yet they face unfathomable and inhumane treatment.
As one might expect, the politically active fare no better under the regime, and often face intense consequences for their actions. One particularly telling case is that of Liu Hu, who has worked for years as an investigative journalist solving crimes, exposing corruption, and politically educating Chinese citizens. Back in 2013, he was detained for publishing an exposé of a high ranking official involved in illegal prostitution. He was eventually released after being forced to pay a fine and apologize, but his sentence still wasn’t quite over. Upon returning home, he found himself banned from buying rail tickets, posting online, or doing other things that, for a journalist, are routine. As it turns out, he had been flagged by a social credit system for a criminal charge which he claims is completely false and politically motivated. Yet even such a suspicious claim as this is enough to effectively place him under house arrest and prevent him from doing his work. Such is the story for many Chinese dissidents.
Now consider what all this means for Hong Kong. Were the extradition bill to pass, citizens of the supposedly autonomous region would be held accountable for any “crimes” committed in China, a country which has repeatedly demonstrated its willingness to drum up false charges against its enemies. In a city known for its free speech and political activism, it is hard to imagine such an arrangement not leading to mass incarceration of innocent citizens. Hell, just consider the fact that Hong Kong hosts the only legal commemorative vigil for the Tiananmen Square massacre in all of China. Back in 1989, a group of thousands of peaceful student protestors were violently killed by Chinese military and police forces. It is a mass tragedy which epitomizes China’s authoritarian response to political activists. In fact, the movement has been so aggressively repressed that any mention or acknowledgement of the incident is strictly banned on the mainland. A vast, complex firewall and monitor system ensures that no mention of the killings spreads online either.
The Chinese Communist Party invests massive resources into controlling the public narrative and collective memory. Hong Kong represents an existential threat to that system. So why would the Hong Kong government even consider legislation that would bring them closer to China’s national government? In short, it’s because Beijing still has a high degree of influence over Hong Kong’s Chief Executive. While legislative members are elected directly by popular vote, the Chief Executive must be approved by a 1,200 member committee consisting of Party loyalists from different sectors of the community. The specific provision states that
“The principle that the Chief Executive has to be a person who loves the country and loves Hong Kong must be upheld…The method for selecting the Chief Executive by universal suffrage must provide corresponding institutional safeguards for this purpose.” (HK Basic Law, Instrument 23)
That’s right — while Hong Kongers may enjoy far more freedom than mainlanders, they are still ultimately at the mercy of the national government, which is of course the central idea of “one country, two systems.” However, this is the recipe for an increasingly tenuous relationship. Hong Kong and the rest of China are headed in very separate directions, one towards democracy and one towards dictatorship. And yet, they are under the same ultimate leadership. As the difference has grown more stark, Hong Kong has made greater attempts to remove itself from China’s control, which is the true root of these protests. While the extradition bill was certainly the initial spark behind the movement, demonstrators have since expanded their demands to include amnesty for arrested protestors and universal suffrage for Chief Executive elections. All of these things are natural consequences of a desire by Hong Kongers to determine their own path. After centuries of exploitation by different distant powers, they are fed up and want to finally be given full independence.
Of course, it’s hard to capture the full scope of what the protests are about in a simple way, which is why most media attention has been focused on the details of the protests themselves. If you keep up with the news, you’ve probably seen a lot of intense videos showing a city on the verge of collapse. There are numerous clips of protesters being attacked by Chinese Triads on the subway while police stand by. One even shows a paramedic being prevented from helping the injured by police officers. Masses flee through the streets with frontline activists being pelted by rubber bullets and pepper spray. And yes, there is certainly a large element of chaos to the situation, but that does not mean that there’s no structure to it whatsoever; Hong Kongers have learned how to deal with police brutality effectively thanks to previous protests in 2014. Every week it seems that the protesters have come up with a new way to deal with tear gas canisters. Not even the facial recognition cameras can defeat them, thanks to the crowd’s effective use of laser pointers to disrupt the sensors. They can throw up a barricade in seconds, and tear it down just as quickly to let an ambulance through. The activists are as ingenious as they are numerous. Not only have they managed to persevere in the face of militarized police violence, they have continued to draw out hundreds of thousands of citizens every week for five months.
That’s a good story in and of itself: the clever protesters outwitting the evil cops in a big game of cat and mouse. It’s certainly been good enough for most of the media coverage surrounding the event, and there’s a lot of truth to it. While that perspective explains the “what” of the movement, it doesn’t really capture the “why.” Instead, there’s just a sort of blind sorting into the oppressed and the oppressors. A far more interesting and holistic way to view the situation is to analyze the root causes behind each side’s actions. China seeks further centralization of power under the national government. The Hong Kongers seek to have their cultural and economic independence reflected in law. The long-term outcome of this battle remains to be seen, but short term results are already beginning to materialize from the protests.
Pressure on the government continued to mount, culminating in a massive protest on June 9. Different sides report total attendance to have been anywhere between hundreds of thousands to millions of protesters. In a city of about seven million, that’s an almost unbelievable display of solidarity and unity despite the protests lacking a centralized leadership. After such sustained pushback from citizens, Chief Executive Carrie Lam agreed to suspend the bill until further notice, though she did not dismiss it entirely. Whether it gets reintroduced is the new line in the sand for activists, and will serve as a blueprint for China’s centralized expansion in the years to come. Hong Kong has the chance to shape that future positively by standing strong and resisting these manipulative actions.
The city has certainly been through a lot already. Over the past century, its citizens have gone from colonialism to revolution to independence. They routinely manage to persist and overcome oppressive foreign influence while retaining their own identity. Though they are a part of China, they have an experience all their own. Hong Kong is China’s memory; not as the Party has decreed it, but as the people have experienced it. And so it is also China’s future — for better or worse.
Evan Meade (sophomore | physics)
CEO of Crocs, Inc. and oblivious winner of The Game.