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A nation must think before it acts.
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.
When Lam subsequently fast-tracked the bill through the legislature, confident that rising concerns were either misguided or sure to eventually be assuaged, she could not have foreseen the oncoming storm: that resistance to the bill, to her leadership, and eventually to the entire political system altogether would spiral into marches of millions and an opposition movement that shows no signs of going away. After all, hadn’t the pro-democracy movement largely splintered and faded away in the wake of the 2014 Umbrella Movement, having failed to achieve its political goals and suffered decisive losses at the polls in 2018? Wasn’t the populace as a whole widely apathetic, cynical, and disillusioned with civil disobedience?
Yet for over a month and counting, protest after protest has been staged in the city, with a cumulative participation of 4,228,900. Carrie Lam has been forced to declare the bill first “suspended” and now “dead”—though even this most recent announcement still stops short of full withdrawal, and has failed to appease her critics. Opponents of the bill have decried sending fugitives to a justice system that boasts a 99.9% conviction rate and argued that extradition would violate the autonomy promised to Hong Kong under the “one country, two systems” policy, which was designed in the lead-up to the 1997 handover of the former British colony back to China and which granted Hong Kong its own separate judiciary, legislative system, and free Internet and press. More than being a simple change of law, the bill was seen as a fundamental challenge to the rights and freedoms that have made Hong Kong more than just another Chinese city.
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.
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 10: Chief Executive Carrie Lam refused to withdraw the bill and instead doubled down on her commitment to push the amendments forward. In response, organisers called on protesters to reconvene around the Legislative Council (LegCo) building at 10:00 on June 12.
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.
At this point, police began using tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets to disperse the crowds. Video footage documents police violence against largely unarmed crowds of mostly young people; at least 72 protesters were injured, and two were arrested while in the hospital. In response, Lam reaffirmed her support for the police, described the protests as an “organised riot,” and continued to stand by the extradition amendment.
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.
June 21-June 30: A series of road occupations were staged after authorities failed to answer protesters’ demands. Protesters occupied the area around government and police headquarters, key thoroughfares, and other government buildings.
July 1: Ahead of the flag-raising ceremony commemorating the 1997 handover, police deployed pepper spray and batons against demonstrators who occupied roads around the venue early in the morning. In the afternoon, 550,000 protesters attended the annual July 1 democracy march, the highest ever turnout.
In a separate demonstration, protesters stormed the legislative building, smashing through glass walls and vandalizing the inner chamber. Demonstrators tore down portraits of past LegCo presidents and spray-painted pro-democracy slogans on the main chamber’s walls, including one that said, “It was you who told me peaceful marches did not work”. At the same time, they barricaded off books and cultural artifacts for protection, and left cash behind for the drinks they helped themselves to.
July 7: In attempts to reach mainland audiences, and to breach China’s extensive censorship of the protests, 230,000 marched to the West Kowloon high-speed rail terminal located in a popular tourist district. The peaceful demonstration ended in baton charges by riot police in a bid to disperse protesters.
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.
In 2003, a law known as “Article 23” was proposed that would criminalize acts of sedition and subversion against mainland China; in 2014, a “Moral and National Education” civics course was announced for all Hong Kong schools in response to Chinese senior leaders’ observations that the city’s youth needed to better “love the motherland”; in 2014, long-awaited constitutional reforms that would have allowed for general elections for the Chief Executive were revealed to only permit voting on a limited number of pre-approved candidates. The next year saw five people, all linked to a Hong Kong bookshop that published books banned in China, disappear. Hong Kong dropped to 70th in the world on the global press freedom index, from 18th best in 2002. In July 2017, Carrie Lam became the Chief Executive despite not being the most popular candidate—she was, of course, favored by Beijing. In October 2018, the government issued its first-ever visa denial to a foreign journalist, after he moderated a Foreign Correspondents’ Club event in August that featured a talk by the convenor of the pro-independence National Party, Andy Chan Ho-tin. The National Party was banned on national security grounds in September that year. In April 2019, shortly after introducing the extradition amendments, nine leaders of the 2014 Umbrella Movement were convicted for “public nuisance.”
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 left a legacy nonetheless. 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.