Hong Kong has been in the throes of city-wide protests since June 9th, causing immense disruptions to transportation and city life. SCAD, on October 10th, addressed the protests in an email: SCAD Hong Kong will suspend evening classes and will no longer accept students set to live at Gold Coast during Winter 2020. This was the first time SCAD has responded to the protests, which have become more condensed–though more violent–in recent months. Stephanie Jackson, the Director of Study Abroad, refused to expand on the university’s response. Fall quarter has already felt the effects of the protests; it is not uncommon to dismiss students around 8 pm in accordance to the frequent MTR closings–a large proponent in cancelling evening classes for Winter. From a collection of statements from SCAD Hong Kong students, there are concerns about frequent class cancellations, transportation, and general safety.
I got stuck in the middle of a protest last weekend simply just going out to do a school project.Junior, Study Abroad Student in Hong Kong
My classes are being strongly affected by the protests.Junior, Study Abroad Student in Hong Kong
I wish they were more vocal about plans for us study abroad students if things went really south and it wasn’t safe for us anymore here.Sophomore, Study Abroad Student in Hong Kong
What Started the Protests
Although a lot of complicated factors fed the ongoing protest, the initial seed that brought people to the streets is the now-dead Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation Bill(extradition bill). Nineteen-year-old Chan Tong-kai murdered his girlfriend while on vacation in Taiwan and eluded legal recourse after returning to Hong Kong. The murder prompted the expansion of the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance to include Taiwan, but also to mainland China. The lack of a legal mechanism was deemed a loophole by authorities, conflicting with statements from Christopher Patten, the last Governor of Hong Kong: “of course the Hong Kong and UK governments intended to exclude China… To pretend that this was a ‘loophole’ is self-evidently untrue and absurd.” The Legislative Council of Hong Kong (LegCo) emphasized this concern in a brief: “Fugitives from the Mainland, Macau and Taiwan may make use of this loophole to evade legal responsibility or seek refuge in Hong Kong.” This is not the first time they proposed such a bill: In 2001, Hong Kong thought of expanding its Fugitive Offenders Ordinance to apply to Mainland China. Even then, the proposal noted that Hong Kong has a right to refuse handovers if the “offence in question is political in nature; where the request for surrender appears to be made for the purpose of punishing the person on account of his race, religion, nationality or political opinion.” Tensions have soared since the first extradition proposal; Hong Kong predictably reached its breaking point.
Before the announcement of the extradition bill in February, citizens were already fuming over an earlier proposal to implement the Chinese National Anthem Law in Annex III of Basic Law; this law threatens citizens with jail time and a heavy fine of $50,000 HKD for disrespecting the Chinese anthem, March of the Volunteers. On October 1, 2017, the National Anthem Law came into effect in China; only a month later, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) wanted to apply it to Annex III of Basic Law. LegCo immediately considered the proposed change. In March 2018, the Legislative Council Panel on Constitutional Affairs in Hong Kong discussed the nature of drafting the new bill. The “one country, two systems” policy allows for Hong Kong to ignore nationally mandated laws and is at the discretion of the local government to implement them. Demosistō, the pro-democracy group, staged a guerrilla protest and stormed the government headquarters with a black banner proclaiming “freedom not to sing praises”. The bill only widened the already growing rift between Hong Kong and China.
The extradition bill frightened journalists, bloggers, and political activists who might have opinions conflicting with Chinese principles–believing that the Hong Kong government could not object to mainland extradition requests. The Hong Kong Journalists Association in a Facebook post said that “we oppose the proposed amendments to the law that will allow the transfer of ‘fugitives’ from Hong Kong to Mainland China on a case-by-case basis. It will not only threaten the safety of journalists but also have a chilling effect on freedom of expression in Hong Kong.” Reporters Without Borders jointly signed the statement with the Hong Kong Free Press and 11 other Hong Kong-based unions, associations, and news outlets. Even some Hong Kongers have described these changes as 送中條例, translated to “deliver to China law”, a homonym for funerary rites.
In April, tens of thousands of anti-extradition protesters took to the streets, and some called for Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, to step down after she pushed for the bill’s rushed July deadline. The organizers, including Demosistō, said that 130,000 people took part, while the police it was only 22,800 at the march’s peak. The protest became the largest Hong Kong has seen since the 2014 umbrella protests–a major demonstration that caused disruptions across the city over China swaying Hong Kong’s political system. Concerns over China’s influence carried over into following years: In November 2016, China has exercised its authority to ban Sixtus Leung and Yau Wai-ching, both advocates for Hong Kong’s independence, from serving in the local legislature. The political vetting happened again with Angus Chow, from the pro-democracy party, Demosistō, in 2018. More recently, Joshua Wong, the Secretary General of Demosistō, has been barred from running in this year’s November’s District Council Election.
I asked a Standing Committee Member of Demosistō on the political vetting in Hong Kong: “[The goal of the People’s Republic of China] was to scare citizens and demotivate them from social activism and participation through disqualifications of lawmakers and candidates in addition to political prosecutions”. The UK, in its latest six-monthly report on Hong Kong, expressed growing concern about the “extent of freedom of speech in Hong Kong, particularly in the context of the discussion of independence.” The Hong Kong Bar Association also commented that they were concerned “about the disqualification of a candidate to stand for election on the basis of his or her association with a political party or the holding of certain political beliefs.” The resentment towards Chinese interference in Hong Kong politics further fueled the protests to come. June 9th’s protests, starting with over a million people, dwarfed April’s demonstrations, but was quickly preceded by over two million on the 16th. After two weeks of intense protests, Carrie Lam suspended the bill but never withdrew completely, angering protestors. According to the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute (PORI), Carrie Lam’s approval rating steeply dropped after the first major protest in April to 22% as of October.
Carrie Lam’s reluctance to withdraw the bill after weeks of massive demonstrations built a mixture of irritation and desperation, leading to more dramatic physical actions from protestors. On July 1st–the establishment of Hong Kong as a Chinese administrative region–a hundred protestors broke in and vandalized the LegCo building while a thousand officers in riot gear stool idly inside for 8 hours, waiting until protestors trashed the building before making a move. The event caused an uproar on all sides and marked a dark turning point for the movement.
The protests have caught the attention of the Chinese Communist Party; on August 1st, the People’s Liberation Army on Weibo by a surreal three-minute video with English subtitles of the Hong Kong garrison unit practicing anti-riot drills–heightening the fear Chinese military intervention. In late August, more PLA troops rotated into Hong Kong, but is now speculated to be reinforcements–doubling the current amount of troops typically in the territory. This October, Xi Jinping, during a visit to Nepal, said that, “Anyone attempting to split China in any part of the country will end in crushed bodies and shattered bones”–not mentioning, but clearly referring to the pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. The aggressive stance from China only heightened the urge to continue protesting.
Why Are Protestors Against the Police?
Tensions between protestors and the police have become irreparable. The early jump to tear gas and excessive force have escalated tensions and encouraged violent pushback from the protestors. Excessive force can be seen as early as June 12th when police fired tear gas into a crowd on in front of Citic Tower in Admiralty and inside of the LegCo building. Police used batons and pepper spray on the 9th, but only after protesters threw metal barricades and overwhelmed officers. Thousands of footage exist of police haphazardly shooting tear gas canisters directly at protestors, civilians, and journalists, causing blunt force injury. Police have fired tear gas from the tops of buildings, which can be deadly, and frequently in enclosed spaces like the MTR, causing mass panic. The police have dressed as protestors to apprehend people, including the Special Tactical Squad–known as “Raptors”. The police have also used expired teargas canisters, permanently blinded an Indonesian journalist shot at close range, and obstructed the reporting of journalists through pepper spray, strobe lights, rubber bullets, and bean bag rounds.
Excessive use of tear gas has been a concern for protestors, civilians, and reporters. Tear gas does not choose its target; the gas has inadvertently affected unprotected civilians and has lingered in the streets for longer from poor ventilation. A Hong Konger shared a photo with me of a protestor with his arms bandaged in Saran wrap–a material often used in burn relief. In a self-reporting survey of 170 reporters, 96.2 percent stated difficulty breathing, coughing up blood, and second-degree burns due to tear gas exposure in Sheung Wan on July 29th. Whampoa District Councilor Kwong Po-yin, a former member of the political party Youngspiration–the party of Sixtus Leung and Yau Wai-ching–led the survey. In the People’s Daily, the CCP’s mouthpiece, the aggressive police behavior is welcomed, mentioning that the Hong Kong police can no longer be “gentle nannies,” and called the protestors “Western anti-China forces”.
The protestors have demanded for an independent commission inquiry into police conduct. The Complaints Against Police Office (CAPO) is still part of the Hong Kong Police Force and people do not trust that an internal investigation will bring honest and thorough results.
The first major erosion in trust in the police started on the night of July 21st regarding the police’s inaction to protect civilians from a confirmed pro-Beijing triad mob in the Yuen Long Western Rail Line. Around 9 pm, hundreds of people dressed in white t-shirts gathered in the streets in Yuen Long; their union was to oppose the Extradition Law Amendment Bill (#antiELAB) protestors. Seen on the street with them, a pro-Beijing lawmaker, Junius Ho, shook hands with the group of weapon-wielding, white-clad people. One man said to Ho, “you are my idol,” and he replied, “all of you are my heroes.” That night, the people in white viciously beat people in the station–the mob targeted those wearing black, emblematic of the anti-extradition protestors. Throughout the station, they thrashed civilians, protestors, and journalists, sending 36 people to the hospital. It would take until 11:30 pm before the police arrived, hours after the first call when violence erupted. The 999-emergency hotline was unavailable that night, opening the police to extreme criticism issued through a joint statement from 24 pro-democracy lawmakers: “[it] would not connect for a long time and the police station was closed. There were even officers who pretended they didn’t see the actions of those in white shirts and red ribbons and turned around to leave.” Carrie Lam condemned the violence.
On August 31st in the Prince Edward MTR the police were under more scrutiny for indiscriminately beating commuters; riot police and Raptors burst into the MTR to address a call for police assistance from the Operations Control Centre (OCC). The OCC reported passenger disputes on the Kwun Tong Line train. The police used batons and pepper spray to beat and arrest suspected protestors. A police spokesperson later stated that the police knew how to differentiate protestors who changed into civilian clothing and only used excessive force after being assaulted with umbrellas. The individuals in the train car who were beaten and pepper sprayed were not arrested. Juliana Liu, an editor for Inkstone revealed an email she received from the police asking for news outlets to broadcast that “radical protestors vandalized the custom service center and damaged the ticket issuing machines inside MTR Mong Kok Station. Protestors also assaulted members of the public and damaged properties inside MTR Prince Edward Station. Upon receiving reports, Police entered the MTR station to stop all violent acts and arrest offenders.” The “members of the public” was referring to alleged protestors fighting with a group of elderly passengers “beating them with umbrellas and setting off a fire extinguisher in the compartment”. No footage or any press release from the MTR has backed that claim. The MTR denied journalists and first aiders entry after the station closed. To protestors, the MTR is a conduit for the police and has since fallen victim to Molotov cocktail attacks; destabilizing the train service and challenging the ability for SCAD students to get to class. On October 31st between 7 pm and 1 pm a sit-in assembly in Prince Edward was held for the two-month anniversary of the attack.
The Bill is Dead. Why Are People Still on the Streets?
Even after the complete withdrawal of the bill on September 4th, the protestors continued recalcitrance has wrought ire among the police, the Chinese Communist Party, and the Hong Kong government. Protestors have now set their sight on five demands, such as an independent commission inquiry into police conduct and dropping charges against protesters. Demonstrations will continue until the government meets all five demands, hence the popular phrase among protestors, “five demands, not one less.” Even among supporters, the goals are quixotic, and Carrie Lam has stated that some demands go against the Hong Kong Basic Law.
The increased use of Molotov cocktails, petrol bombs, and physical confrontations with police have complicated the matter to those who support the movement but condemn the violence. Protestors scheduled demonstrations through June 2020 and will probably interfere with studying students in Hong Kong for the remainder of the year. The effects of the protests provided a major blow to the Hong Kong economy, resulting in its first recession in 10 years. Hong Kong is still safe, however, those who plan on studying abroad must take the necessary precautions: Try not to use the MTR at night, avoid black clothing, do not wear face masks, check the news for recent protests, and if possible, avoid high traffic spots like Causeway Bay, Admiralty and Mong Kok. SCAD Hong Kong continues to attract hundreds of students each quarter and is worth visiting. For those who are in Hong Kong now or plan on visiting, understand the situation and stay safe.