On January 29, the Hong Kong governent announced potential amendments to its extradition laws that would allow suspects to be extradited to countries with which the city has no formal extradition agreements. According to Chief Executive Carrie Lam, the bill was a response to a murder case in Taiwan, where the suspect had fled back to Hong Kong and now could not be called to face justice. In Lam’s mind, plugging this legal loophole would also fulfill a longtime wish of Beijing: that political dissidents and corrupt officials alike could now be tried in the mainland’s own courts.
Underpinning the events of the past month has been a recurring pattern of government indecision and inertia fueling the momentum of the movement. Demand after demand went unacknowledged; scenes of police brutality shocked a city whose police force had until then been considered “Asia’s finest”; and demonstrators’ slogans have evolved from calling for the extradition bill’s withdrawal to asking for universal suffrage and democracy. Most recently, protests have moved on to explicitly attract the attention of Chinese from the mainland, as on July 7 a march of 230,000 was held at the West Kowloon station that connects the mainland to Hong Kong, and many slogans were shouted in Mandarin instead of Cantonese. Protesters are no longer simply demanding the bill’s withdrawal, although even that demand alone has yet to be granted, but for fundamental reform. Here’s how it all happened.
Hong Kong in Protest
June 9: Over 1 million people took to the streets protesting the extradition law (1 in 7 of the city’s population). Backlash to the bill came not only from traditional opposition stakeholders but also from the likes of judges and businesses; the crowds that turned up on June 9 reflected this diverse set of converging interests.
June 12: Tens of thousands of protesters began occupying the roads to the point that lawmakers were unable to gain access to the legislative complex, forcing the debate on the bill to be postponed. Shortly after 3:00—the deadline protesters had set for the government to withdraw the extradition bill—some protesters tried storming LegCo headquarters.
June 15: Lam announced the suspension of the extradition law, stating that no date had been set for the “next step forward.” Protesters remained unhappy Lam ignored their other core demands, and argued that since suspension did not mean withdrawal, the bill could still be reintroduced at any time.
June 16: Two million people packed the streets, more than a quarter of the city’s population, demanding a full withdrawal of the bill, the retraction of the “riot” characterization, the release of all arrested protesters, an investigation of police brutality, and Lam’s resignation.
The Anti-Extradition Protests in a Hong Kong Perspective
The anti-extradition protests have been about far more than extradition. This specific topic may have proven the most perfectly calibrated to the frequencies of public anger, yet crowd sizes, breaking record after record, point to a far deeper wellspring of outrage long fomented by cumulative years of misgovernance—and, most recently, of sharply escalating repression.
Millions of people in Hong Kong marched in recognition that the extradition bill was simply the latest of many attempts at suppression—and that, should the law pass and vastly expand the reach of China’s retribution, this act of protest could very well be their last.
Yet, in a city that has been both a bridge to and a refuge from the mainland, political space has long been defined by a continuous push-and-pull between authoritarian pressures from Beijing and civic freedoms in Hong Kong: free Internet, tenacious independent journalists, industrious activists, prominent dissidents, and, perhaps most importantly of all, an entire generation of young people who in 2014 came to maturity on the picket lines of protest. The 2003 sedition law was withdrawn, followed by the then-Chief Executive’s resignation after crowds of over 500,000 marched against its implementation. The 2011 national education law was also shelved, having drawn protests of 90,000 in July and 120,000 in September. Members of the 2014 Umbrella Movement might not have brought about the change in the system they dreamed of, but they lefta legacynonetheless. In this city of “liberty without democracy,” described as such (and fittingly so) by Hong Kong’s last colonial governor, citizens have long been voting with their feet. To protest in the streets of Hong Kong is to partake in, and add to, this shared inheritance of civil protest.
Demonstrators this time around knew what to be afraid of. Throughout the week, departing protesters formed unusually long lines at subway stations’ single-use ticket machines, because cash is less easily tracked. Demonstrators turned off location tracking on their phones, and deleted conversations and photos on social media and messaging apps; switching, in the latter case, from the typically most popular WhatsApp to the better encrypted Telegram, which became the #1 most downloaded app in the city. Yet, for all its encryption, protesters may not be fully safe, as police have reportedly collected identification information from protest group chats with tens of thousands of members; on June 11, authorities arrested the administrator of a group chat of 20,000, Ivan Ip, despite Ip being at his home miles away from the protest site. One day later, Telegram reported experiencing powerful distributed denial of service (DDoS) attacks from “IP addresses coming mostly from China.” Gas masks, goggles, caps, and helmets helped protect protesters against tear gas and pepper spray—and they also helped hide their faces. Following major demonstrations, police have been searching vehicles and hospital rooms for protesters, with one driver arrested on July 2 for possessing “offensive weapons”—a pair of scissors and his asthma drugs. As of July 7, 61 have been arrested on protest-related charges. One of them is 14 years old.
What comes of the anti-extradition movement is of paramount importance; at the same time, it almost doesn’t matter. If the protests succeed, they should inspire the world. If the protests fail, they should still inspire the world. Governed by a system where the ballot is largely meaningless, people are voting with their bodies instead. Hong Kongers are more afraid, and more determined, than ever before.