For the past two weeks, the whole world had its eyes on Hong Kong. The proposed changes to the Extradition Ordinance sparked serious controversies. On June 9, more than 1 million people marched from Victoria Park in Causeway Bay to the government headquarters in Admiralty to protest against the proposed amendment. As there were no signs that the bill would be withdrawn, actions escalated. On June 12, thousands took part in a “picnic” near the Tamar Park, part of an anti-extradition bill rally. Protesters blocked the streets outside the Legislative Council, preventing councilors from entering the building to resume the second reading of the bill.
Violent clashes broke out when a group of protesters attempted to storm the government offices. Police fired several rubber bullets, 20 beanbag shots, and 150 rounds of tear gases, resulting in 72 injuries, two of which are serious. The police have been heavily criticized, interpreted as abusing their power. Stephen Lo, the police commissioner, defended the police use of force and classified the protest as a riot. Chief Executive Carrie Lam echoed this declaration. This official response galvanized the public. On June 16, 2 million people took to the street for a protest on an unprecedented scale, involving nearly one-third of Hong Kong’s population.
Why did the government propose the controversial amendment in the first place? What are the underlying causes of these protests? And how did the bureaucrats respond to public discontent?
In February, Hong Kong national Poon Hiu-wing traveled to Taiwan with her boyfriend Chan Tong-kai. Chan is alleged to have murdered her and then returned to Hong Kong to escape justice. Lacking a formal extradition agreement with Republic of China on Taiwan, the Special Administrative Region government is unable to extradite Chan for trial. Instead, he was imprisoned in Hong Kong for money-laundering. The Hong Kong government therefore proposed to amend the law to allow extraditions of suspects to Taiwan and, more problematically, mainland China. The Chinese government does not recognize the government of Taiwan and has a judiciary system that, many Hong Kong people argue, does not allow suspects a fair trial. Concern over the possibility of Hong Kongers being extradited to the mainland to stand trial is the immediate cause of the protests, but the roots go far deeper.
The current protests are the result of an accumulation of distrust between the Hong Kong people and the governments in Hong Kong and Beijing. Tensions between the public and the governments can be traced back to the 1980s. Under the Sino-British Joint Declaration reached in 1984, British sovereignty in Hong Kong ended in 1997 but Hong Kong was to retain a “high degree of autonomy” under the principle of “one country, two systems” for 50 years. Until 2047, Hong Kong theoretically should retain legislative and judiciary independence, as well as freedom of speech and of assembly.
Since the handover in 1997, however, these rights have been eroded. There have been a number of high-profile incidents highlighting these tensions. In 2003, the government proposed changes to the National Security Law, which would prohibit sedition, treason, and subversion against the Chinese government. The Article 23 legislation was widely interpreted as a check on the freedom of speech. In 2012, the government planned to introduce “Moral and National Education” as a new curriculum in primary and secondary schools, which was heavily criticized as a scheme of political indoctrination. In 2014, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress declared that each candidate running for the chief executive election must receive support from more than half of the members of the 1,200-people nominating committee. The elected chief executive also must be appointed by the central Chinese government. This decision was viewed as political interference by Beijing, effectively allowing for the pre-screening of candidates for the chief executive. In 2015, the disappearance of five booksellers of the Causeway Bay Bookstore was perceived as evidence that the freedom of the press and speech were being curtailed. With pro-democracy legislative councilors being disqualified in 2016 and 2017, the government’s credibility was further undermined, intensifying distrust and discontentment.
Compared to previous cases outlined above, the Hong Kong government took a more hard-line stance on the extradition bill. Under normal circumstances, the government would spend about three months on public consultations. However, it only conducted a 20-day public consultation for this bill, given the “urgency” to return Chan to Taiwan before his release from jail. Even with 1 million protesters on street demanding a halt, the government declared that the second reading of the bill would be resumed on June 12. This uncompromising response added fuel to the fire. In a television interview, Lam compared the relationship between herself and the protesters to that of a mother and son. She explained that giving in to every demand her “son” made would simply spoil him and make him fail to distinguish between right and wrong. The “mother” analogy used by Lam and the “riots” rhetoric employed by the police force enraged the public.
Finally, on June 15, it was announced that the extradition bill would be “suspended indefinitely,” but not withdrawn as the protesters had demanded. After 2 million people participated in the march on June 16, Lam made a public apology. For many Hong Kong people, this apology came too late; protesters have added her resignation to their list of demands. Another protest was held on June 21, with demands for the withdrawal of the extradition bill and for the resignation of Lam. It seems likely the protest will continue.
The inconsistent and uncoordinated statements from high-ranking bureaucrats exacerbated the crisis. Before June 17, the commissioner of police and chief executive repeatedly stated that the unrest on June 12 should be categorized as “riots” that “disregarded law and order.” Two days after the 2 million people protest, Stephen Lo softened his stand, withdrawing his previous “riot” description. He claimed that his speech had been misunderstood by the media, and that only five people were arrested for riot-related crimes. Yet, from the perspective of the public, the deployment of 150 rounds of tear gas against five “rioters” was not proportionate, and arguably provocative.
Although China’s ambassador to Britain, Liu Xiaoming, asserted that Beijing had never ordered Hong Kong to amend the ordinance, many Hong Kong people remained unconvinced. Protests evidently reached a “tipping point” and the government had to respond, leading to the suspension of legislative change. This is part of a longer-term pattern. In 2003, the National Security Bill was shelved after half a million people participated in a march. In 2012, the national education curriculum was retracted after a series of mass protests. But in 2014, the Umbrella Movement did not achieve its aims. The root causes of standoff between the Hong Kong government and some of the protesters are unresolved and this will lead to further instability and protest in the future.
Dr. Florence Mok holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of York. Her doctoral research examined state-society relations in colonial Hong Kong in the 1970s. Her current project investigates Chinese Communist cultural activities in British Hong Kong during the Cold War.