Starting in March 2019, the most recent wave of Hong Kong Protests began in response to a new extradition bill which would have allowed for Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to the Chinese mainland, which was seen as an encroachment on Hong Kong’s freedoms. While this movement has had widespread public and international support and early successes, its long-term consequences appear far more dire.
18 months since the first protests started on 15 May 2019, only one of the protesters’ demands were met – the withdrawal of the extradition amendment. Since the withdrawal of that bill, which was seen as a great success for the movement, clashes between protesters and law enforcement grew more violent, law enforcement crackdowns have become stricter, and the protesters now seem further away than ever at achieving their primary underlying goal: full democracy in Hong Kong.
In May 2020, the National People’s Congress passed a new national security law which gave law enforcement in Hong Kong the power to arrest those whom the Chinese state deems as threats to national security in committing acts of secession, subversion, terrorism, treason, or inciting hatred against the government. This law has been widely regarded as the end of Hong Kong.
The law has already been used to supress democracy movements, with multiple arrests of students for inciting secession on the streets and on social media, as well as pro-democracy media tycoon Jimmy Lai. These arrests, ranging from unknown protestors to well-known businessmen, highlight the extent to which Beijing is prepared to use this law in putting down dissent in Hong Kong, despite popular wishes.
Hong Kong’s democracy: What’s going wrong?
So why have the Hong Kong protests, which at times drew nearly two million people or roughly a quarter of Hong Kong’s population to the streets, resulted in a situation worse than before?
Firstly, the increasingly violent tactics used by some protestors in the latter half of 2019 has led to some Hong Kongers becoming less supportive of the protests as they see their city burn. The most notable examples of this violence were the university sieges at Chinese University and Polytechnic University in November 2019. While these events are regarded as victories for the protestors as they held of law enforcement, the violence displayed here had led to some becoming less supportive.[i]
Moreover, the violence has also made it easier to justify the use of force in putting down protests. This violence was used to support the mainland’s narrative that national security laws were needed in Hong Kong as a protective measure.
Secondly, the COVID-19 pandemic, which first reached Hong Kong in February 2020, all but put a stop to large scale protests in the city. While the protestors have actively flaunted government regulations in the past, such as the mask ban in the latter half of 2019, recent memories of the SARS epidemic in 2002-2003 have encouraged people to stay off the streets out of fear of illness.
Furthermore, police have used gathering restrictions to disperse protests, further empowering them to suppress the movement. However, these restrictions have only worked to temporarily stop the protests. With the passing of the national security laws in late May, large scale protests have returned to the city, ignoring government restrictions. While the on-ground protests have returned, the spread of COVID-19 throughout the world has drawn media attention away from the Hong Kong protests, which have led to less grassroots international pressure on China regarding Hong Kong. This has allowed China to continue to increase its influence in Hong Kong, without major popular backlash.
Finally, Xi Jinping’s determination to reintegrate Hong Kong have left the Hong Kong protestors alone against a rising superpower. While officially still supporting the ‘one country, two systems’ model, critics say that recent actions suggest otherwise. These actions undermine the 1997 handover agreement, which guaranteed it fifty years of autonomy, continued democratic values and rule of law.
The passing of new national security laws, which have sparked the most recent rise in protests, are the most direct violation of this international agreement to date. In response, the UK has offered to grant British(Overseas) status to all Hong Kong citizens born before the handover if the security law passed. However, China has threatened to block the move, and suggesting it may take ‘corresponding actions’ in response to ensure the offer cannot come to fruition. Though the treaty is binding at international law, its practical enforcement is difficult; at present, China’s stance is that the treaty ‘no longer has any practical significance’[ii]. As such, with one party refusing to recognise the terms of the treaty, and the other having no real ability to attempt to enforce it, the UK’s efforts appear in vain.
Is there a future for democracy in Hong Kong?
Currently, the hope of democracy in Hong Kong looks increasing dire. While popular support for democracy in Hong Kong is incredibly high, which current approval ratings for the CCP supported leadership of Hong Kong are historically low[iii], it appears that the wishes of the Hong Kong people will be ignored in the face of China’s vision.
While western states have supported the protests, suspended their extradition treaties, and offered refuge for pro-democracy supporters, significant widespread action against China such as sanctions appears very unlikely due to China’s dominance as a regional power and trade partner. Consequently, many protestors are committing to more extreme measures following the passage of the national security laws, being prepared and willing to die to fight for Hong Kong’s freedom[iv], as well as increasing calls for full independence from the mainland, a fringe position up until this point.
Although Hong Kong has never been truly democratic, over 100 years of British rule has instilled the ideal of democracy into the people, and since the handover, has transitioned into something worth fighting for. While Hong Kong’s 2019 protests began as a popular movement to ensure the survival of its autonomy and relative democracy in the face of an overstretching law, they have instead resulted in an even more authoritative, encompassing law, leaving the people more desperate than ever to protect their freedoms.
[i] Yeung, T, ‘Hong Kong Kong protests: Does violence work?’, Hong Kong Free Press, 16 February 2020, https://hongkongfp.com/2020/02/16/hong-kong-protests-violence-work/
[ii] Connor, N, ‘China says legally binding Hong Kong handover treaty with Britain has ‘no practical significance’’, The Telegraph, 30 June 2017, https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2017/06/30/china-says-legally-binding-hong-kong-handover-treaty-britain/
[iii] Lung, N, ‚Hong Kong Leader’s Approval Rating Plunges to New Low Amid Virus’, Bloomberg, 25 February 2020, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2020-02-25/hong-kong-leader-s-approval-rating-plunges-to-new-low-amid-virus
[iv] Branigan, T, & Kuo, L, ‘How Hong Kong caught fire: the story of a radical uprising’, The Guardian, 9 June 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/jun/09/how-hong-kong-caught-fire-radical-uprising-protest-china