NEW DELHI: The ongoing protests in Hong Kong have gained the global limelight. Over the preceding weeks, some two million Hong Kongers have taken to the streets of the city in protest against a proposed extradition bill. Beijing has given the Hong Kong government until July 1 to make a final decision on the bill.

The bill introduced by the city’s Legislative Council would mandate the extradition of those suspected of any crime to mainland China to face trial. It would apply to everyone accused of a crime, with no exceptions for tourists or non-residents.

The trigger was a Hong Kong resident’s murder last year by her boyfriend in Taiwan. Hong Kong police could neither charge the suspect with a crime nor extradite him. In February therefore, an extradition treaty was introduced applicable to Chinese provinces like Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau, as well as mainland China.

Although Hong Kongers initiated these protests in March, the June rallies have earned worldwide attention. The protests have largely been peaceful garnering widespread support. Anglo-US organisations such as Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch have actively supported the protestors’ cause.

Timeline of the June Protests

June 9 - A protest is organised to express dissatisfaction with the proposed extradition bill before its second reading on June 12. Thousands come out in solidarity wearing white t-shirts as a symbol of freedom and justice. The protest extends to cities like Tokyo, Seoul, Frankfurt and London, with many more extending their support on social media.

By midnight the number of protestors in Hong Kong soars to over a million. The police retaliates, designating the protest as a riot.

“The police fired rubber bullets and released tear gas on us protesters. That move by the cops was appalling because the protest was peaceful and it is our right as citizens to assemble and protest,” Oz Choi, 23, a member of pressure group Demosisto told The Citizen.


Hong Kong Police using tear gas to disperse the protestors / AP

June 12 - The following protest largely focuses on brutality by Hong Kong police and against their Chief Executive Carrie Lam. The police is accused of arresting innocent protestors and turning a peaceful protest violent through suppression. Their characterisation of the protest as a riot is contested. This time the protesters wear black to demonstrate their pain.

The protestors surround the Legislative Council building and block the main roads of the city like Harcourt Road and Lung Wu Road.

The protest gains international support. US President Donald Trump expresses support. British Prime Minister Theresa May puts emphasis on upholding the Sino-British treaty of 1984 and respecting the autonomy “given” to Hong Kong.

A violent grapple breaks out between protestors and the police, who arrest 33 people, injuring several. Policemen are suspected of patrolling the hospitals to discover anyone with injuries, and arresting them arbitrarily on charges of “rioting” – five protestors are so charged.

Allegations also emerge about a surveillance system being used by police to hack through phones in order to locate protestors and arrest them.

The Hong Kong police is criticised for using excessive and unnecessary force against a peaceful protest, in what many protestors see as a violation of international law.

Hong Kongers protest against brutalities by the police on June 12 / Bloomberg, Reuters

June 16 - During the second reading of the bill on June 15 the Legislative Council suspends its consideration without withdrawing the bill completely. This fuels widespread rage and as many as two million Hong Kongers storm through the streets.

After weeks of protests, Chief Executive Lam makes her first public comment about the issue and apologises for the chaos in the city. She promises to “sincerely and humbly accept all criticism and to improve and serve the public.”

The apology is condemned as insubstantial and offering false sympathy to citizens. It is speculated to have been staged by China to appease Hong Kongers and the international press.

Protestors demand that Lam scrap the bill and step down instead.

Many protestors say they view Lam as a mouthpiece of the Chinese government and is widely unpopular among the citizenry. “She is hypocritical, pro-China and we do not trust her as a leader. There are high chances of her reintroducing the extradition bill any time, which is the last thing we want,” Choi, a protestor, told The Citizen.


Hong Kongers call for Lam’s resignation / The Standard Hong Kong

June 21 - Protestors encircle the Police Headquarters to demand the release of arrested protestors. They demonstrate their disappointment towards the police and the overlooking of a deadline set by protestors to withdraw the extradition bill.

As many as 24 protestors are reported to be in the custody of the Hong Kong police.

Protestors see the bill as jeopardising their legal rights, but also as China’s instrument to extend its dominance over Hong Kong. They believe the bill is being used as leverage for a hidden political agenda.

Willy, a protestor expressed his suspicion towards the Chinese government and judiciary: “The main underlying reason is the distrust of China’s judiciary. There is a track record of political crime packaged as business or criminal crimes. Instead of having a case-by-case extradition bill, the government opted for a general extradition bill that also includes China.”

Mark Musette, who participated in the protests, told The Citizen that “China is known for being unfair and they tend to abuse their power to protect the government. That’s why if suspects are extradited to China, we’re afraid they’ll face unfair trials. It could also be used as a weapon against political dissidents and even foreign nationals.”

The Current Mood in Hong Kong

The city is no stranger to protests and dissent. Protests here see enormous participation by students and youngsters. In fact, most of the protests are organised by university students’ unions and mobilised by young activists.

Hong Kong youth are the first generation of adult citizens since the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ deal was implemented in 1997 for fifty years. They are set to formally be under Chinese rule within 28 years.

Expressing her anxiety, 23-year-old Becky told The Citizen that “Hong Kong will become just another city in China, once the extradition bill is passed. Hong Kongers won’t have any rights. We are now standing up for our rights. If the bill is passed, Hong Kong will not be the same.”

The current mood in the city is an amalgam of anger and fear. Protestors we spoke with say there is great uncertainty and bitterness among Hong Kongers.

“Hong Kong is my home. This is where I grew up and I am accustomed to the freedom and rights that we have. The extradition bill is one way China’s presence in Hong Kong is growing. I fear that they are slowly taking over our city and we’re losing the rights and freedoms that we once used to enjoy,” 19-year-old Mark Musette told The Citizen.

“People are stressed, they are scared of police brutality. This has already started impacting us mentally. There has already been a case of suicide because of this bill. At times we don’t know know what the next step will be,” said Choi.

On Tuesday July 25, British Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt urged the Hong Kong government to investigate the actions of its police forces, to whom the UK government sells “crowd-control” weaponry like rubber bullets and tear gas.

“Right now the people of Hong Kong are upset, they feel like they haven’t been heard. We joined the protest in support of withdrawing the extradition bill altogether. As photographers we wanted to be there to capture this historic moment and spread the message to those abroad,” said Sarah and Eric.

But Hong Kongers are hopeful and far from giving up. According to some the protests will not die out.

“The protests keep getting bigger and bigger, more and more people are becoming aware. Which is why the numbers of participants is growing. I hope the government listens to our views and that by being outspoken, whether by protesting or simply posting on social media, we can change their course and help our fellow citizens,” said Musette.

One Country, Two Systems

Hong Kong was led into political semi-autonomy after gaining independence from the British in 1997. Under the deal known as ‘One Country, Two Systems’ its citizens have greater political rights and freedom than mainland Chinese.

The city enjoys rights such as freedom of speech and expression and freedom of assembly which is not extended to mainland China.

However, this system is not permanent, and the deal with Britain is set to expire in 2047.

With 28 years to go for the formal integration of Hong Kong into China, the Chinese government has over the years tried to encroach upon the autonomy of the city. Alleged interference in the Hong Kong elections in 2014 was met with the massive Umbrella Protest that year.

The arrest of pro-democracy activists in 2017 and the abduction of five booksellers in 2015 have been perceived as threats to Hong Kongers’ free expression.

The opening of a Hong Kong–Zhuhai–Macau bridge in 2018 which links mainland China to Hong Kong, and the transfer of policemen from the mainland to Hong Kong have been seen as instances of Beijing’s growing domination.

Cover photo: Two million protestors swarm the streets of Hong Kong for the June 16 protest / Reuters