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Why Hong Kong has become a city of protests

The latest protests differ from earlier ones in significant ways.

- July 1, 2019

On Monday, thousands of protesters turned out again in Hong Kong, a city of 7.4 million people that has seen protests of unprecedented scale in recent weeks. There were clashes with police, and a group of protesters attempted to breach the entrances of the Legislative Council building.

On June 9, 2019, an estimated 1 million people took to the streets to protest a proposed extradition bill. On June 16, the turnout was around 2 million. Police estimates tended to be much smaller, although Hong Kong’s police chief acknowledged that these estimates tallied the numbers of protesters on the approved routes on June 9 and June 16.

What’s the latest analysis of these protests? Here’s what you need to know.

1. Protesters want the government to withdraw a controversial extradition bill.

There’s widespread opposition to an extradition bill the Hong Kong government announced earlier this year – which would allow for extradition requests from authorities in mainland China, Taiwan and Macau for suspects accused of criminal wrongdoing, such as murder and rape.

Hong Kong officials claim that Hong Kong courts will have the final say in whether to grant such extradition requests – and that people accused of political and religious crimes will not be extradited.

However, many in Hong Kong worry that Beijing may overrule these promises, and they also have concerns about the fairness of China’s legal system. According to a survey of nearly 1,050 residents conducted from May 23 to June 5, about 58 percent disagreed or strongly disagreed that extradited people would receive fair trials in Chinese courts, whereas 15 percent agreed or strongly agreed that they would. More than 47 percent opposed or strongly opposed the extradition legislation, while less than 24 percent supported or strongly supported it.

Despite the public’s concerns, the Hong Kong government continued to push ahead on the extradition measure. Without other options to stop the legislation, Hong Kong residents turned to a familiar method – social protests. The first protest occurred on March 31, followed by a second on April 28. After the June 9 mass protest and the violent confrontation between the police and protesters outside the Legislative Council on June 12, Chief Executive Carrie Lam on June 18 apologized for the “anxiety” behind the extradition measure and reiterated that the legislature would postpone the measure.

2. How are these protests different?

Hong Kong’s current protests are reminiscent of 2003, when half a million people marched against national security proposals related to Article 23 of the Basic Law, and succeeded in forcing the government to table the legislation.

But the “Occupy Central” protests, which evolved into Hong Kong’s Umbrella Movement five years ago, did not result in a similar victory. On Aug. 31, 2014, Chinese central authorities refused to endorse universal suffrage of the Hong Kong chief executive. These protests lasted nearly 80 days, but ultimately failed to wrest concessions from Beijing – Hong Kong legislators and a select group of business, union, academic, and other leaders choose the chief executive.

This year’s anti-extradition protests differ from the Umbrella Movement in at least two aspects. First, the decision to reject universal suffrage in 2014 came from Beijing, while the Hong Kong legislature proposed the extradition bill, reportedly without instructions from Beijing. The 2014 movement sought broader political rights, whereas the 2019 protests aimed to defend the status quo.

Second, the Umbrella Movement involved well-known protest leaders or activists, some of whom have been put behind bars. The recent protests were initiated by the Civil Rights Front, though with the permission of the police. These protests were based on people’s voluntary participation, and they reflect the wide consensus on the need to take action among the population.

3. What happens now?

Hong Kong’s recurring protests reflect the challenges the legislature faces in accommodating local interests, as well as the interests of Beijing. Hong Kong since 1997 has been a Special Administrative Region of China, and its Basic Law provides for the special “one country two systems” rule.

Beijing retains the power to choose Hong Kong’s chief executive, which means this leader must answer to the Chinese government. But Beijing’s interests are not always in line with those of local residents. When the central government attempts to exercise stricter control over Hong Kong, the attempt is at odds with local residents’ strong will to protect their freedom.

As the indirect election system does not fully reflect the public’s preference, the people lack effective institutionalized channels of political participation. Protests remain an important way to express views and protect political rights in Hong Kong. And, importantly, protests have time and again proven to be effective – and do not require much mobilization partly because of the free flow of information.

Analysts see Beijing forced to balance between protecting Hong Kong’s role as an international financial center and maintaining Chinese political control. But Beijing has not always repressed popular demands in Hong Kong – Beijing appeared to be more compromising than Lam, who pursued the legislation unwaveringly in recent months. Lam changed her approach on June 15, reportedly after she had met with Han Zheng, a standing member of the Chinese Politburo in charge of Hong Kong matters, in Shenzhen.

Many in Hong Kong seem to find it difficult to forgive Lam for taking a hard line on the extradition issue, and for how she interacted with the resentful public. Many citizens rejected her June 18 public apology for mishandling the extradition bill – prompting calls for her to step down. An online survey of 166,000 people that week showed that 76 percent did not think that Lam should continue to be the chief executive.

This public resentment will likely persist over the next three years – if Lam stays to finish her term. For Lam, it may prove essential to maintain both goodwill and political wisdom to obtain the public’s forgiveness.

For the Chinese government, the next big worry may turn out to be Hong Kong’s 2020 legislative election. If pro-democracy legislators manage to claim a majority, there could be significant changes in the political landscape in Hong Kong.

Yongshun Cai is chair professor of social science at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. He is the author of “The Occupy Movement in Hong Kong: Sustaining Decentralized Protest” (Routledge, 2016).