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If you have been paying any attention to the news, you may have heard of the ongoing unrest in Hong Kong. Since June 2019, pro-democracy protestors have brought large areas of the bustling Chinese territory to a standstill with weekly demonstrations and sit-ins. Among the most disruptive was the August 12 protest at the Hong Kong International Airport. Thousands of dissenters barricaded the airport's passageways with luggage trolleys, metal barriers, and other objects, blocking passengers from boarding and forcing the cancellation of outbound flights for two consecutive days. So what has triggered the widespread discontent against the Beijing government? Read on . . .
China's "one country, two systems" policy
Hong Kong's rocky relationship with the Beijing government began in 1997, when the former British colony was handed back to China. To ease the democratic territory's transition, Hong Kong, labeled a "special administrative region" (SAR), was granted a higher degree of autonomy than that afforded to the residents of mainland China. Under the deal, which expires in 2047, China promised not to impose its communist policies on Hong Kong, enabling its residents to continue with the capitalist system and lifestyles to which they had been accustomed. The arrangement also allows Hong Kong its own judicial, executive, and legislative powers, and guarantees residents civil liberties, such as freedom of speech and freedom of assembly. Despite the agreement, the Chinese government has repeatedly attempted to force its authoritarian policies upon the fiercely independent Hongkongers, leading to a deep mistrust of the regime.
What led to the June protests?
The recent pro-democracy uprising can be traced to an extradition bill introduced by some members of Hong Kong's government in February. It proposed giving Hong Kong's chief executive, Carrie Lam, the discretion to send suspected offenders back to countries with which Hong Kong has no mutual extradition treaties. The bill was purportedly instigated by a resident who allegedly killed his girlfriend while on vacation in Taiwan in February 2018, and fled back to Hong Kong. Passing the bill would enable Hong Kong to send the 19-year-old to Taiwan to stand trial for the murder despite there being no mutual extradition agreement. However, Hong Kong residents feared that if passed, the bill would give mainland China the power to arbitrarily detain people who openly disagree with its policies or stand up for human rights.
To appease the pro-democracy lawmakers, who rejected the proposal, the bill's advocates made some modifications, including limiting the extraditable offenses. However, critics wanted the bill to be withdrawn altogether. On June 9, almost a million people staged a peaceful protest in Hong Kong's streets to persuade Lam not to push it through Hong Kong's legislature. Unable to convince her, they staged a second demonstration near the government offices on June 12 to delay the debate that would have fast-tracked the bill's approval. Unfortunately, the protest turned violent, with the police firing rubber bullets, tear gas, and beanbags at the dissenters, and even arresting a few under Hong Kong's "riot" law. Defined as an unlawful meeting of three or more people where any person "commits a breach of peace," the offense carries a 10-year prison sentence.
Soon after, Lam announced her decision to "indefinitely suspend" the proposal. However, the announcement, viewed by most as a delay tactic, only led to more unrest, prompting another protest, involving almost 2 million residents, on June 17. Since then, there have been weekly demonstrations of varying sizes across Hong Kong.
What do the protestors currently want?
While the retraction of the extradition bill remains a priority, the violent June 12 encounter with the police has led to additional demands. First and foremost, the residents want officials to stop labeling the demonstrators as "rioters." They are also seeking amnesty for the over 700 residents who have been arrested under the law since the unrest began in June and want the government to start an investigation into police abuse. Most importantly, they want Lam, an appointee of the Chinese government to resign, and have the right to choose Hong Kong's leader in a democratic election.
How is the Chinese government reacting to the unrest?
While mainland China initially ignored the protests, that's changed as the demonstrations continue to intensify. Since, August 13, thousands of paramilitary police have been positioned in the city of Shenzhen, just across Hong Kong's border, ready to silence the protestors' actions, which the Chinese officials classify as "near terrorism."
Experts are divided about whether the Beijing government will take the drastic measure of sending the troops across the border. Some believe they will do so to show their power before October 1, 2019, which marks the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China. Others believe the officials will show restraint, given the world's attention to the unrest and Hong Kong's status as an international financial hub. President Xi “wants increasing prestige and [to] show the world he’s achieving the Chinese dream; using force would show the Chinese dream is a nightmare,” Jared Cohen, at the Council on Foreign Relations, told reporters. Hopefully, Cohen is right, and the two sides will be able to resolve the issues peacefully.
Resources: Vox.com, CNN.com, NPR.com,theguardian.com