Hong Kong in Protest: what is happening and where do we go from here?

27th November 2019.

The ongoing Hong Kong protests began in opposition to the Fugitive Offenders (Amendment) Bill – known informally as the Extradition Bill, which was first proposed on 29 March 2019. The protests have raised international concern, turning violent after beginning peacefully on 31 March and eventually evolving into a pro-democracy movement.

Purported use of unlawful force by the police has only fuelled the fire, with the largest march of Hong Kong’s history taking place four days after the first use of tear gas canisters by law enforcement, which in some cases contained expired tear gas, potentially exposing protesters to toxic gases such as phosgene and cyanide.

Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, suggested on October 15th that further measures may be taken in order to suppress the ongoing protests

Previously taken measures, such as the banning of face masks, have backfired on the government, with thousands of protesters defying the ban, claiming that the law and the regime that passed it were “unjust”.This stems from the government’s use of the Emergency Regulations Ordinance.

By invoking ‘emergency powers’, the Chief Executive has the power to make “any regulations whatsoever which [she] may consider desirable in the public interest”. The implications of such a power are far reaching. Powers like this often do not appear in constitutional instruments without controls to prevent the making of anti-democratic regulations or regulations which will have effect after the end of the ‘emergency’ they are intended to address. However, this is not the case with Hong Kong Basic Law.

The use of this power has highlighted concerns held by many citizens of Hong Kong, symbolising “the beginning of authoritarianism” and causing the goals of the protests to shift. By August, protesters had five demands, including the withdrawal of the Extradition Bill. However, the protests have continued after the bill was formally withdrawn from the legislative process on the 23rd October.

This is the second, large scale pro-democracy protest in five years

Previously, the “Umbrella Movement” lasted 79 days in late 2014. This movement was triggered following a decision of China’s national legislature to not allow universal suffrage for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive elections, nor allow candidates not vetted by a panel in Beijing to run for election.  Moreover, “the bitterness that festered on all sides… [during the Umbrella Movement] is still with us today” says Mike Rowse, writing for South China Morning Post. In light of this, it is evident that by taking measures that simply suppress the protests, the underlying cause of the protests will not be dealt with. Therefore, it remains likely that future protests will occur long after the ongoing protests have ended.

By taking measures that simply suppress the protests, the underlying cause of the protests will not be dealt with.

To overcome this bitterness, “all parties must act with pragmatic moderation and compassionate sensitivity in overcoming fundamental, yet not intractable, communicative differences between the city and the mainland” and ultimately, electoral reform that is less gradual than Beijing had anticipated may be required to quash the discontent that has existed in Hong Kong for longer than the government cares to admit.

However, such a concession is unthinkable to Beijing and the likelihood of a result that resolves the issue permanently is admittedly low, for now.

By Kieran Sewell

Image by: Jonathan van Smit