Weekend Open Thread — Hong Kong: A Timeline


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Pro-democracy voters celebrate victory on election night.

Hong Kong is in the news again, but this time the news is a bit more inspiring. At its District Council elections this week, a whooping 71% of registered voters – nearly 3 million and over 20% more than four years ago – turned out to vote, and the pro-democracy camp won a landslide victory.

Yellow seats are won by the pro-democracy camp, among which the ones with red triangles are flipped from the pro-Beijing camp. Source: The Stand News

But how did we get here? Let’s go back in history first.

Hong Kong, which literally means Port of Fragrance, is an island on the southern tip of the Cantonese speaking province of Canton (or more commonly known as Guangdong, its Mandarin Chinese pronunciation). Positioned at the end of the Pearl River where it meets the South China Sea, it is naturally a strategic location for trading, and western seafarers established a presence there as early as the sixteenth century.

Source: Wikipedia

While China stagnated under its imperial rule, the western world went through the Industrial Revolution, and invented steam-powered ships. In 1840, after China’s “War on Drugs” – instead of jailing its own people, the government burned opium imported by British merchants – the British government, along with France, responded by invading with their modernized navies, and China lost quickly due to its inferior technology.

As part of the surrender, Hong Kong was ceded to the British.

Fast forward to 1898. After losing a few more wars and undergoing some “gunboat diplomacy” from Britain, China surrendered more land to the British territory of Hong Kong, and a 99-year lease was signed.

99 years feel like forever, the British diplomat thought. And when it’s over, we’ll just do this with China again.

The twentieth century saw great turmoil in China, but as a British colony, Hong Kong enjoyed peace and prosperity, apart from the short time when it was taken over by Japan during World War Two. When the Communists took over China, they left the lease as-is, not wanting to draw the ire of western powers. During the Cold War, Hong Kong served as an unofficial hub for economic activities and intellectual exchanges between China and the western world, which further boosted its prosperity.

Japanese occupation of Hong Kong. Source: grs.gov.hk

And then it was 1997. The lease was coming to an end. China was a different China.

99 years have passed, the Chinese leaders said. And China will never do this again.

Along with the handover was the famous One Country, Two Systems – Hong Kong will retain its political, legal and economic systems after the handover – and the promise that Hong Kong will keep its autonomy for 50 years, until 2047.

2047 is a long time away, people thought.

At the time of the handover, Hong Kong contributed more than 20% of China’s GDP, and the Communists kept tightly to its promise. But as the mainland developed its own economy, coming to the 2010s, that figure dropped to 3%, and the Chinese Communists, as all authoritarian regimes do, started flexing its muscles.

In 2014, a bill was proposed in Hong Kong’s legislative body, LegCo, that will allow China to directly interfere in Hong Kong’s elections. Tens of thousands of Hongkongers took it to the streets, in what is known as the Umbrella Movement, to protest. The bill did not pass the chamber. Almost 20 years after the handover, Hong Kong had its first taste of authoritarianism, while China, on the other hand, had its first taste of democracy.

The Umbrella Movement.

If protesters learned anything from the Umbrella Movement,, it’s that umbrellas are good tools to use against police crackdowns. China however learned the wrong lesson.

In 2018, two tourists from Taiwan, a young couple, went into a hotel in Hong Kong. A few days later, only one left and went back to Taiwan. The other one was found murdered. But since there is no extradition agreement between Hong Kong and Taiwan, the person could not be tried.

In February 2019, a bill was introduced in LegCo to allow extradition between Hong Kong and Taiwan. But since China considers Taiwan “part of China”, the Chinese overlord could not simply have that. Instead, China took the opportunity to try to do something sneaky – instead of extradition between Hong Kong and Taiwan, the bill was phrased as between Hong Kong and “the rest of China.”  It’s all good, right?

In case anyone isn’t clear how extradition works: when a person is charged with a crime in one jurisdiction but flees to another, the other jurisdiction will arrest the person and send the person back. Such agreements are bilateral, which means, for example, the US will extradite to the UK, and the UK will extradite to the US. Also, such agreements are often made between jurisdictions that have similar legal systems, so if the UK wants to send a person to the US, it knows that the person will enjoy a fair trial.

And that’s the problem – China and Hong Kong do not have the same legal systems. Hong Kong’s legal system, under One Country, Two Systems, is inherited from the British, with many concepts familiar to the democratic world – independent courts, rule of law, due process, right to legal counsel, etc. But the Chinese legal system has none of those. An extradition agreement between Hong Kong and mainland China will mean that Hong Kong’s independent legal system will be completely compromised.

The people of Hong Kong did not want that. So, once again they did what had worked 4 years ago. They went to the streets and demanded the bill to be withdrawn.

But this time it was different. Having failed to push its agenda in 2014, the Chinese overlord is more adamant this time to assert its influence. And although the 2014 bill failed, China was still able to secure a pro-Beijing politician, Carrie Lam, on the seat of Chief Executive, the head of Hong Kong government, simply because that position is not elected by universal suffrage.

Carrie Lam.

Instead of listening to protesters’ demand, Carrie Lam tried her best to just force the bill through, expecting LegCo, also not fully elected by universal suffrage and predominantly pro-Beijing, to go along.

What did they get? More people on the streets. And as the numbers grow, the crowd started to clash with the police, and violence started to occur.

But things were not yet out of control. The majority of the protesters were peaceful, and they had a coherent voice. As weeks dragged on and no compromise made, the demands grew from one to five, known as the Five Demands:

  • Withdraw the bill
  • Stop using the word “riot” to describe protests
  • Release arrestees
  • Independent investigation into police misconduct
  • Implement universal suffrage

Protesters use this hand gesture for Five Demands.

Pretty sensible demands, I’d say. At least some compromise can be made, and the city could return to peace. But Carrie Lam and her Chinese overlord had different ideas. They thought they could quell the protests with force.

Face masks were declared illegal. The police started to take over the streets and occupy the city. They started to use more and more excessive force. They started to break into private property without warrants. They started to use force indiscriminatelyat people that didn’t participate in protests. They started to target journalists and medical staff.

And as a response, what was once a peaceful protest was forced into becoming an actual riot. Looting and arson started happening in commercial districts. The city became a war zone.

But the protesters could not win a war. They didn’t want a war. They had neither training nor equipment to hold their lines.

A few days before the election, all protesters retreated to the campus of The Hong Kong Polytechnic University, or PolyU, where they are still under siege to this day (as of the day of writing, 11/27).

So this is the tragic ending, right? No. China learned the wrong lesson. It is so used to using propaganda and fear to manipulate its people on the mainland, that it thinks it can do the same in Hong Kong. It was so confident that the election would go its way that the propaganda machine even prepared scripts for a pro-Beijing victory.

But where protesters clashed with the police, the people of Hong Kong took it to the streets again. This time, to wait in line for hours to vote. And their voice was heard by the world.

[Ed. Note: Making this our Weekend Open Thread will likely get more people to read it, so that’s what we’ll do. You know the drill.]


About Michael the Bunny

Orange County resident. Immigrant from China. Activist. Bunny parent.