A wave of black-clad figures wearing gas masks and hard hats cascade through the city streets. Through the cloud of pepper spray and tear gas, a young face is illuminated by fires burning at a nearby barricade. A look of fright washes over their eyes as the crack of rubber bullets and bean bag rounds echoes from a few blocks away. A swell of angry voices chant in unison: “Reclaim Hong Kong! Revolution of our time!” as the wave of black crashes against a wall of shields and truncheons. Laser beams cut through the dense smoke as the cries of people being beaten by riot police progress into a dull roar.
This is today’s Hong Kong.
Hong Kong is an island city in the People’s Republic of China that was a commonwealth of the United Kingdom until 1997, when the city was handed back to China after 150 years of colonial rule. Because of this, Hong Kong maintains a large degree of autonomy from the Chinese government. The city has its own de-facto constitution called the Basic Law which grants Hong Kongers rights that Chinese people in the mainland don’t have, such as the right to protest, freedom of press, freedom of speech, and the right to develop their own democracy, separate from the government in Beijing. The Basic Law states that it will protect these freedoms for 50 years after the handover. Many Hong Kongers say that the mainland has already been encroaching on these fundamental rights.
The protests started in March when a bill was proposed in the Hong Kong legislature that would allow Hong Kong to extradite its citizens who are wanted in mainland China back to the mainland for trial and detention. This means that virtually anyone in Hong Kong can be picked up and taken to China for detention for any crime made against the Chinese government. The original demand of the protests was that this bill needed to be withdrawn, because it completely and totally subverts Hong Kong’s rule of law and the freedoms granted to Hong Kongers in their Basic Law. Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, declared in June that the extradition bill was “dead in water” after a group of 2 million people, nearly one third of Hong Kong’s population, shut down city streets in peaceful demonstration against the bill. However, the bill was not fully withdrawn, and protests escalated over the summer with increased demonstrations, which included Hong Kong’s first general strike since 1967. Protests took on a more combative tone this August during a two-day shutdown of Hong Kong International Airport, when a small group of protesters attacked two men that were believed to be deliberate infiltrators. This attack fueled the Beijing propaganda machine, which labels all of the protesters as “rioters” and “terrorists,” despite the fact that the majority of them demonstrate peacefully and refuse to incite violence. The events at the airport also provided fuel for the protest movement, when a young medic was shot in the eye with a bean bag round. A bloody eye patch worn over one eye has now become one of many symbols for the pro-democracy movement.
Now, five clear demands have arisen from the movement: Complete withdrawal of the proposed extradition bill, the resignation of Carrie Lam, an independent inquiry into the brutal police response to the demonstrations, the release of all those who have been arrested during demonstrations, and for greater democratic freedoms for Hong Kongers, such as universal suffrage in the election of their governor. So far, only one of these demands has been met. Lam finally announced the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill on Sept. 4, but the protests will not cease until “all of the demands are met, not one less.”
The pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong is one of the most important of our generation. The police response to protests has shown just how far a government will go when it feels that it is losing its power to its people. The oppressive police response includes the indiscriminate brutalization of demonstrators, arbitrary detention of people arrested during protests, violating Hong Kong law by firing tear gas canisters from the tops of buildings, and the holding of an unconscious man in need of immediate medical attention for more than 20 minutes until Hong Kong firefighters had to force the police to let the man go.
Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement also serves to demonstrate the power of popular protest in the face of increased Statist oppression and the restriction of fundamental human rights. Instead of listening to their people’s demands and allowing them more democratic freedoms, the government labels them as terrorists who only want to cause chaos. While there are multiple factions in the leaderless movement, the majority agree on the mutual human need for freedom and security of thought and speech. The government’s labels could not be further from the truth. The hysterical response of the Hong Kong and Chinese governments to the pro-democracy movement proves the idea that when a mass of human beings come together to achieve a goal, nothing is impossible.
The summer of popular protest in Hong Kong has begged the question: Of the two sides – the government and the people – who are the real terrorists? This question has been answered brilliantly, when a banner was hung in Hong Kong’s seat of government during a peaceful demonstration. The banner read “There’s no rioters, there’s only tyranny.”