written by Matt H. and Eric Prince
You've probably seen images here and there: police with face-shields and tear gas, protesters with bandanas and tear gas, police committing violent acts, protesters fighting back.
You've also probably heard key terms here and there: authoritarian government, freedom, democracy, autonomy.
From an outsider's perspective, these protests appear enormous. Unfortunately, the protests may ALSO appear confusing, especially for someone who doesn't stay up-to-date on Chinese affairs.
Here's the essential question many people are wondering: Why is Hong Kong undergoing mass protests while the rest of China is quiet?
What Makes Hong Kong So Special?
Hong Kong, unlike the rest of China, is considered a “special administrative region”, which means they follow a different set of rules than the rest of China.
This "special administrative" status allows Hong Kong to maintain its own laws, economy, political system, foreign relationships, religions, freedoms, and much more.
One of MOST interesting differences between Hong Kong and mainland China is that the people of Hong Kong ARE allowed to criticize their government. The citizens of mainland China are NOT allowed this freedom.
For example, the image and likeness of Winnie the Pooh has been banned in mainland China because a few people on China’s internet noted his resemblance to President Xi Jinping.
Fortunately, the people of Hong Kong are still allowed to trade pictures of that lovable bear.
Hong Kong gets to follow a different set of rules because, up until 1997, Hong Kong didn't even belong to China. They belonged to Britain.
A Brief History Lesson
The modern history of Hong Kong begins in the middle of the 1800s with a strange series of wars named the Opium Wars.
Here's a quick summary of the Opium Wars for you: British people love tea, Britain buys tea from China, China only sells tea for silver, Britain doesn’t have enough silver to pay for their tea, Britain grows opium in India and sells it in China to raise silver, China gets upset that their people addicted to opium, China declares war on Britain, Britain defeats China, China gives up Hong Kong as punishment.
Long story short, Britain gains control of Hong Kong for 99 years (until 1997).
Fast forward to 1997: British returns Hong Kong to China under the condition that Hong Kong be allowed to maintain near-independence (this includes: separate government, freedom of speech, press, religion, protest, etc.).
China agrees to Britain's conditions, but with a few conditions of their own. They propose a 50-year deal named "one country, two systems".
Under this "one country, two systems" deal, China will allow Hong Kong to operate on its own until 2047. After this 50-year grace period, however, Hong Kong would have to join the rest of China.
Back in 1997, the world believed China would honor this 50-year deal. Many people also thought that the Hong Kong democratic system would influence China to become more like the West.
Instead, China has been doing its damnedest to make Hong Kong like the rest of China. And it's only been... *checks calendar*...23 years.
It All Began With a Murder
So, how did the turnover of Hong Kong lead to the protests we've been seeing for the past year? It's actually quite a strange story, and it involves this little island over here:
This is Taiwan. It's ALSO in a tricky situation with China (we'll talk about this in a second).
Our story begins with a man named Chan Tong-kai who took a little vacation to Taiwan with his girlfriend, Poon Hiu-wing.
During this vacation the couple got into a fight where Poon Hiu-wing was tragically murdered by Chan Tong-kai.
Chan returned to Hong Kong before Poon's body was discovered by Taiwanese authorities. Unfortunately, there was nothing the Taiwanese authorities could do since Chan had already returned home.
And now you're probably asking: "How does a murder in Taiwan lead to a year-long protest?"
Well, you see, Taiwan’s relationship with mainland China is complicated. Very complicated.
Let's take a look.
Another Brief History Lesson
In 1949, the Chinese Communist Revolution overthrew the existing government in China. The ousted government fled to the nearby island of Taiwan and set up shop there.
Since then, both governments have claimed to be the one true China. This confusion has forced the rest of the world to choose between the two when establishing diplomatic relations.
A total of 15 countries recognize Taiwan over China's current government (including Vatican City, the world’s smallest official country).
Meanwhile, the official stance of mainland China is that Taiwan is a “rogue province” that still belongs to mainland China.
So, we have three players involved here: Hong Kong, a Chinese city operating under the mandate of “one country, two systems”; Taiwan, a “rogue province” that operates more like a sovereign nation; and mainland China, the current government who claims control over both Hong Kong and Taiwan.
Now Let's Get Back To That Murder...
Eventually, Hong Kong decided to draft up an extradition bill that would allow Chan (the murderer) to be sent to Taiwan to face trial. Unfortunately, the extradition bill was drafted up by Carrie Lam, the current Chief Executive of Hong Kong and outspoken supporter of mainland China.
So, when Carrie Lam set up the extradition bill she included phrasing that muddled the independent nature of Hong Kong. By making it easier for citizens of Hong Kong to be extradited to Taiwan, the extradition bill ALSO made it easier for these same citizens to be extradited to mainland China.
And THAT is what set the protests off. Because Hong Kong doesn't want to be controlled by mainland China. The citizens of Hong Kong just enjoy too much freedom to be controlled by mainland China. They have more personal freedom, and they have a more fair justice system
Mainland China, on the other hand, is infamous for its authoritarianism, its severe lack of transparency, and its ability to exert coercion to get what it wants.
In fact, the citizens of Hong Kong have been on edge about mainland China's coercion for a while now. The creation of the extradition bill was just the final straw in a series of escalating events between Hong Kong and mainland China.
A Series of Escalating Events
These escalating disagreements between China and Hong Kong have been taking place intermittently since the British handover occurred in 1997. Since 2015, however, China has really begun to exert its authority over Hong Kong.
The first notable event was when five staff-members of a bookstore in Hong Kong went missing. The bookstore was known for selling certain political books to mainland citizens (there's also a rumor that one of the staff-members was writing a love story involving Xi Jinping, mainland China's president). These incidences upset mainland China, which is the working theory for the staff-members disappearances.
One of the staff-members was actually kidnapped in Thailand and brought to China where he “confessed” to a drunk-driving incident from over a decade prior (author’s note: I want to explicitly point out that the italics and quotation marks are intended to make it pretty obvious he did not confess of his own volition).
In response to these kidnappings, Hong Kong did what they’ve done for awhile: they protested.
You see, the citizens of Hong Kong (unlike the citizens of mainland China) are allowed to protest peacefully. And it's a right they’ve exercised many times since the handover in 1997.
In 2003, nearly half a million people protested a controversial security bill.
In 2014, a hundred-thousand people protested mainland China's move to only allow pre-approved candidates in Hong Kong.
And that’s IN ADDITION to the annual Hong Kong candlelight rallies in remembrance of the 1989 Tiananmen Square event, a subject that is SO off limits in mainland China that Taylor Swift was almost banned because the name of her album was the same year as the event.
The Straw That Broke The Camel's Back
So, while a murder and subsequent extradition bill set off this current group of protests, the real underlying causes have been bubbling beneath the surface for much longer.
The people of Hong Kong are tired of the coercion and aggression from mainland China. They're tired of pushing back against a regime that doesn't respect their freedoms. They're tired of dealing with shady government officials who are mainland China puppets. They're tired of China getting away with it all.
This growing resentment toward mainland China is EXACTLY why the protests in Hong Kong have been so enormous.
When the protests began in the summer of 2019 attendance was estimated at roughly two million people. For reference, Hong Kong's entire population is seven million.
Unfortunately, as the protests have continued so have clashes with the police. Carrie Lam, (the Chief Executive of Hong Kong) quickly dispatched Hong Kong police to control the protests. But this "controlling" has quickly turned into regularly-occurring violence (and has been largely one-sided). Under this police response, both protestors and members of the press have been beaten and arrested (one woman even lost an eye from a rubber bullet)
Eventually, Carrie Lam and other legislative officials offered a meager concession by tabling the bill. But, to the protesters dissatisfaction, tabling the bill isn't the same as scrapping the bill.
In response, the protesters expanded their scope to address Lam's refusal to scrap the bill. They came up with a list of five demands bearing the motto: “Five demands, not one less!”.
The protesters started using hand signs to represent the five demands: holding up one hand with five fingers and the other hand with one finger (to represent "not one less").
In response to these five demands, Lam and co. decided to withdraw and scrap the extradition bill, but they refused to meet any of the other five demands. And so the protests continued.
The international response to the protests hasn't been great, either. At its best, the response has been lackluster. At its worst, the response has been downright critical of Hong Kong.
The U.S. levied a series of sanctions against the Chinese officials responsible for cracking down on Hong Kong, but it didn't have much of an effect on anything.
And the rest of the world? Let’s just say Germany and the rest of the EU aren’t ready to stick their economic necks on the line for a city they have no real connection to. Plus, it’s not like things are super-chill domestically for everyone right now.
For many, unfortunately, mainland China is just too important to mess with. Mainland China is an economic powerhouse. And their population is ENORMOUS.
Many businesses, governments, and people rely on mainland China for their economic well-being. Hell, even celebrities who often lead the charge on social issues have been critical of Hong Kong. In fall 2019, Daryl Morey, a manager for the Houston Rockets, tweeted a photo in support of Hong Kong.
But here's the thing: the NBA has a LARGE audience in China (over 300-million people, to be exact).
So, NBA did everything in their power to distance themselves from Morey and his offensive tweet, but it was too late.
The Houston Rockets were pulled from all Chinese broadcasts and online vendors stopped listing their merchandise within China.
LeBron James even chimed in (and eventually called for Morey to be fired!).
And it’s not just the NBA who has responded like this.
Blizzard, a well known video-game publisher (World of Warcraft, Overwatch), also threw Hong Kong under the bus in hopes of maintaining access to that sweet, sweet Chinese market.
During a Blizzard streaming event in October 2019, a player with the gamertag Blitzchung stated, on air, "Liberate Hong Kong, the revolution of our times". Blizzard immediately banned the player for a full year to cover their asses (though it was eventually reduced to six months).
So, with little support from international leaders, thought-leaders, and multinational corporations, the champions of Hong Kong’s democratic system may not be able to save their city.
But there ARE countries who will be happy to have them. Britain, who probably feels a fair bit of kinship with Hong Kong, has stated that they will offer citizenship to three million Hong Kong defectors. Other countries may extend an offer similar to Britain's. Australia, Germany, Taiwan (the rogue province), and even the United States all seem open to the idea of ALSO extending citizenship.
As of today the protests are STILL ongoing. And recent events haven't done much to fix the issue.
This past June a new security law came into effect, just in time for the 23rd anniversary of the handover. The security law has multiple provisions, but the most alarming provision is its restrictive and coercive nature. A particularly concerning line reads, “crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces are punishable by a maximum sentence of life in prison”.
Oh yeah, and some of those found guilty under this new law can STILL be extradited to mainland China for trial (so much for scrapping the extradition bill, right?).
Plenty of pro-democracy activists and politicians in Hong Kong have already fled the city and others, like media mogul and billionaire Jimmy Lai, who has been an outspoken supporter of the protests, have been arrested.
Unfortunately, it doesn't seem like much can be done to fix this new security law or temper the protests. The extradition bill that initially kicked off the protests has already been scrapped...but the camel's back has been broken, and Hong Kong is upset.
At the end of the day, however, Hong Kong ultimately belongs to China. And the rest of the world isn't really going to do anything about it. Even IF foreign powers pushed mainland China to treat Hong Kong fairly, it's not likely that any measure of pushback will change things. Mainland China is dead-set on controlling Hong Kong. And if history is any indication, mainland China will eventually get their way.
All in all, the best response for many Hong Kong citizens is to leave Hong Kong. Whether it’s 2047 or 2020, it doesn't matter. Hong Kong will submit to mainland China one way or another.
Matt H. attended the University of Virginia and, following graduation, lived in China for a few years. He is currently based in Arlington, VA and works for the federal government. His interests include reading, writing, sudoku, and taking Settlers of Catan too seriously.
Eric Prince is the creator and operator of howwegottonow.com, a platform designed to provide content and context on the most important events happening today. Eric enjoys the daily NYT crossword puzzle, underlining entire paragraphs in books, and beating Matt in Settlers of Catan.
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