Guest contributor Chris Wong on the ongoing protests in Hong Kong and what the protesters need to accomplish to ensure their victory.
It has been one year and a pandemic since the initial outcry against Hong Kong’s extradition bill, and the city has certainly seen better days. However, just because voices around the world have gone quiet about the happenings of this coastal city does not mean that its struggle for freedom has stopped. Even today, resistance continues silently – perhaps not as violent but certainly no less persistent than they were this time last year. Why do protesters insist on fighting, and where should their next steps take them?
The proposed extradition bill seeks to allow the Hong Kong government to extradite persons wanted for crimes committed on non-Hong Kong soil to a prosecuting country. This would include China, which has been previously not been allowed extradition rights. Its introduction effectively erodes the promise of having “One Country, Two Systems”, as proposed in 1997 during the UK’s handover of Hong Kong and which allows the city to retain the economic and legal systems it developed under British rule until 2047.
One of the central critiques of the bill is that, by allowing China to prosecute persons on Hong Kong soil, the Chinese concept of “inciting subversion of state power” can take effect. Under Chinese law, “inciting subversion” has been used as a tool of suppression against human rights activists, political dissidents and, notably, 2010 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Liu Xiaobo, raising notable concerns over Hong Kong’s ability to maintain its freedom of speech.
Even without this proposed legal channel, the 2015 “disappearing” of Hong Kong bookstore employees found guilty for selling books banned in China but legal in Hong Kong suggests that the city’s legal autonomy has long since been intruded upon – and this extradition bill seems to do nothing but hand what is left to the Chinese on a silver platter. It is this history of suppression and silencing that drives Hong Kong to resist and fight for what little remaining freedoms they have.
Potential damage aside, focus should also be put on the actions of the Hong Kong Police Force during the conflict. They have intentionally used violence against peaceful protesters, their use of excessive force is well documented, and their inhumane treatment of detainees may breach basic human rights as well as the UN’s convention against torture. The Yuen Long attack on July 21, 2019, has also been reported by the police as a clash between two “evenly matched” rival groups despite contradicting evidence; the police force denies any allegation of late response, again despite existing proof. While this may not be surprising given the police’s record of abusing protesters 5 years prior, Amnesty International’s report further sheds light on these acts of police brutality and shows why the Hong Kong struggle has evolved beyond its initial roots of stopping the extradition bill.
However, this does not mean the protesters are clear of any blame. Their chief concerns were the “five demands: withdrawing the extradition bill, inquiry into police brutality allegations, retracting the classification of protesters as “rioters”, amnesty for all arrested protesters, and universal suffrage. To date, only the first demand has been met. While the police’s actions are inexcusable and warrant independent investigation, the remaining demands deserve closer inspection.
Although it is true that the police were largely responsible for the escalation of protests, arguing the semantics of “violent protests” and “riots” against an enemy that actively seeks to antagonise you accomplishes little towards the goal of dismantling an oppressive system. Similarly, calling for the opposing government to exonerate arrested protesters seems unproductive at best, as the government in question has done far more to dissenters for far less.
Lastly, although a call for universal suffrage has existed since the 2014 Umbrella Movement, the government has stood firm in rejecting electoral reform in the wake of said movement – and it is unlikely that anything short of a successful coup will change this Beijing-backed decision. Furthermore, despite popular calls to “be water” and the adoption of pseudo-guerrilla tactics since the conflict escalated, the typical advantages of guerrilla warfare such as “rapid attacks with lightning results” and “preserving forces” are empirically absent. Skirmishes are stretched into defensive standoffs and an increasing number of arrests are made, resulting in a war of attrition where only the numerically disadvantaged protesters are bleeding manpower.
Without better organization and leadership, the results of the protesters’ resistance will remain limited, their actions more akin to random urban violence rather than targeted attacks to cripple the opposition. The lack of an ideological leader like Sun Yat-sen and the Tongmenghui in the 1911 Revolution further hampers protestors, as no concrete plan beyond achieving the “five demands” currently exists – including who candidates in the democratic system once the pro-Chinese politicians leave would be. With their questionable tactics, the democratic movement is, in its current state, less a revolution and more a short-sighted uprising that fails to see past the idea of a democracy.
The Chinese government and its blatantly oppressive rule deserves more attention These cries for help the Chinese silence – not just from Hong Kong, but from everyone – should not be ignored on the international stage. But if the protesters fail to restructure their movement and evolve beyond aimless attacks, things are unlikely to change past the pre-Covid stalemate.