A long way to go in the struggle for Hong Kong

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The Umbrella Revolution began in 2014 when thousands of students hit the streets in protest (Image via Flickr)

The democracy protests in Hong Kong are now in their second month and show no signs of slowing down despite China’s warnings and “get tough” approach, writes Dr Martin Hirst.

THE PROTESTS in Hong Kong have now been in full swing since late June and show no signs of slowing down. The levels of anger and militancy are outstripping previous protests against the increasingly tight grip that Beijing exercises over the former British colony.

As protests escalate on the streets of the city-state, the Australian Government has issued a travel warning and the dispute is spilling over into Chinese ex-pat communities abroad.

A pro-Hong Kong rally at the University of Queensland was attacked by supporters of the Beijing Government and tensions on the campus remain high.

What started against a simple expression of anger over a fairly minor legislative change have ballooned into a full-scale assault on Beijing’s control over the “special administrative region” of Hong Kong city.

It’s not the first time that residents of Hong Kong have launched an “umbrella revolution” against authoritarian rule from Beijing.

2014 – the start of the umbrella revolution

In 2014, the first umbrella revolutionaries took to the streets of Hong Kong in protests that lasted for three months. The central demands at the time were for free and fair elections amid well-founded fears that the Beijing Government wanted to install a group of compliant puppets to head the Hong Kong local Government. Umbrellas were deployed to shield protestors from police pepper spray and baton charges and quickly became a potent symbol of resistance.

The 2014 protests were led by groups of university students and a loose confederation of activists called Occupy Central with Peace and Love (OCLP) which is still active on Twitter and Facebook.

Another leading group from 2014, the Hong Kong Federation of Students, seems to have collapsed in 2015 following a backlash against the leading role its members played in the umbrella revolution. The Federation’s website is closed and its Twitter account has not been active since 2015.

In 2014, protestors called for the resignation of chief executive (effectively Beijing’s puppet) CY Leung. Leung survived and is still a key figure in the pro-China faction of the Hong Kong leadership. Five years later, a similar demand is being made for Leung’s successor and current chief, Carrie Lam, to step down. So far, she’s refused to do so.

Carrie Lam was a leading member of the cabinet in 2014 and participated in talks with leaders of the rebellion. However, the talks went nowhere after officials refused to concede any demands from the protestors.

Occupations of several key intersections in the centre of the city were eventually broken up by brutal police attacks. The police were also helped by shadowy pro-Beijing groups who, many suspect, were either foot soldiers for Triad gangs or Chinese soldiers out of uniform.

There have been several similar incidents during this year’s demonstrations, including several attacks by men dressed in white t-shirts wielding sticks and metal bars.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam is again a target in the 2019 protests because she is seen as a key figure in the pro-China leadership and is regarded as being committed to doing Beijing’s bidding in relation to the internal affairs of Hong Kong, including disqualifying pro-independence candidates from electoral contests.

Whatever the outcome this time around, the 2019 protest is unlikely to be the last before Hong Kong comes under final and complete control from Beijing in 2047.

The long tail of the Hong Kong crisis

The roots of this crisis extend all the way back to Britain’s decision to “return” Hong Kong to Chinese Government control in 1997.

The deal for the “handover” was struck in 1985 while Margaret Thatcher was the UK Prime Minister and Zhao Zhiyang was the leader of the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

However, the handover agreement was also a poison chalice for the PRC. It contained a clause which committed the Beijing Government to give Hong Kong the status of a special administrative zone for a period of 50 years. This agreement does not expire until 2047, so it has another 28 years to run.

For many Hong Kong residents who are worried about full integration with China, there is a sense that the central government has been steadily chipping away at the autonomy protections afforded to the city state under the terms of the 1997 handover agreement.

Extradition laws – the spark that lit the fuse

The spark that lit the fuse three weeks ago might seem relatively minor to outsiders, but to Hong Kong locals sensitive to the machinations of the Chinese State, it was a big issue.

The PRC wanted the right to extradite Hong Kong citizens to China to face criminal trial. The fear was that the law could be used to disappear political activists, some of whom have already been gaoled for their part in the 2014 and subsequent protest movements. There were also fears that those arrested during the 2019 protests might also be extradited and face long sentences in mainland gaols.

The extradition law might have been the straw that broke the camel’s back, but it is really only a symbol of the erosion of local democracy in Hong Kong at the hands of Lam and other key pro-Beijing leaders.

While there is a veneer of formal democracy in the special administrative region, the reality is that local people have almost no voice. The Hong Kong legislature – the Legislative Council – is dominated by pro-China politicians who have proven their loyalty to the PRC regime. Only half of the LC is directly elected. The other 50 per cent of members are nominated by special interest groups who are carefully vetted by the Beijing authorities.

Since the protests began in early June, there have been several very large marches and the militancy of the crowds has also been growing.

Unlike in the relatively peaceful occupations of public space in 2014, this time the protestors have targeted Government buildings and even police stations. On 1 July, the Legislative Council building was ransacked by masked demonstrators.

In the last few days, the street fighting has intensified. Police and protestors have been fighting running battles in several parts of the city for nearly a week.

Strikes in the transport sector have added to the chaos and other groups of workers are now joining in the political protest movement. There have been disruptions to international flights in and out of Hong Kong airport and many retailers, including global brands like TopShop and Zara, are closed across the city.

The response from authorities is as predictable as it is violent.

Protestors have been labelled as criminals and traitors and Carrie Lam has labelled the leadership of the protest movement as anarchists who want to destroy Hong Kong.

In a media conference this week, Chief Executive Carrie Lam was clear about the regime’s characterisation of the protests:

“We continue to allow these violent protesters to make use of the [extradition] bill to conceal their ulterior motives, [and] those ulterior motives are going to destroy Hong Kong.”

According to on the ground reports from Hong Kong, everyone knows that this time there is a greater sense of urgency and determination in the protests. The issues are certainly more pressing and in clear focus.

The current protests have five central demands:

  1. fully withdraw the now-shelved extradition bill;
  2. launch an independent inquiry into the police’s use of force;
  3. reform the chief executive and Legislative Council elections;
  4. grant amnesty to all arrested protesters; and
  5. retract the riot categorisation of extradition bill protests.

However, it’s clear that the push for democratic change is broader than these five immediate concerns. A crackdown on freedom of expression has already led to street-level booksellers being extradited to the PRC and forced to admit to ridiculous charges because they were distributing pamphlets satirically criticising the Chinese party leadership.

The enforced singing of the Chinese national anthem has also become an unlikely issue this time. That something so seemingly trivial could generate enough anger and passion to motivate tens of thousands of ordinary people to take to the streets and set fire to police stations indicates that the umbrella revolution has a long way to go.

Even if this rebellion eventually fizzles out without major reforms – the extradition law has already been sidelined, but not fully withdrawn – the future of Hong Kong remains uncertain and the Beijing Government will have to negotiate a lot more civil unrest over the next 30 years.

You can follow Dr Martin Hirst on Twitter @ethicalmartini.

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