Millions have marched the streets of Hong Kong sporting masks to hide their identities and using umbrellas to shield themselves from pepper spray. Protests have been ongoing since March of this year and show no signs of slowing down, even in the face of the full might of the Chinese government.
The political unrest can trace its roots back to 1999 when the United Kingdom transferred control of the city to China.
As stipulated by the treaty, the people of Hong Kong have retained many of the democratic freedoms they had under British rule, such as being able to elect political leaders, maintaining their own economy and passing local laws freely.
However, over the past two decades, those rights have slowly been picked away as China has sought to fully incorporate the city-state.
In the latest attempt at removing rights, an extradition bill was introduced, sparking the protests.
“It was the straw that broke the camel’s back,” said Derwin Munroe, a professor of political science at UM-Flint. “It was a clear sign that Beijing is conspiring to fully integrate people in Hong Kong into China, and that includes removing rights.”
An extradition bill would have allowed the Chinese government to arrest and deport criminal suspects in Hong Kong back to mainland China to face trial. The bill was seen as one of the last steps needed to incorporate Hong Kong into the Chinese system, combing a traditionally democratic system into a historically authoritarian and abusive one.
Carrie Lam, the Chinese government-appointed governor of Hong Kong, offered concessions to try and get the bill passed, but the protesters refused.
Finally, on Sept. 4, Lam removed the bill entirely. However, the protests continued, devolving into increasingly violent confrontations between protesters and Hong Kong police. Video evidence has shown protesters being maced, tear gassed and even shot.
One protestor, 22-year-old student Chow Tsz-lok, died when he fell from the third floor of a parking garage during a nearby police operation.
Security cameras were turned away during the operation and no recording of what exactly happened has been seen. He has become a martyr for the movement as protestors believe it highlights the use of police brutality.
There is also fear among protestors that the Chinese government will eventually send in the military to crush the movement. China has a history of crushing student-led protests, such as the Tiananmen Square Massacre in 1989.
In fact, references to the massacre are heavily censored in China with threats of arrest and imprisonment. China has taken the same route for the protests in Hong Kong, censoring the spread of videos and social media posts referencing Hong Kong.
The movement is also suffering from an unclear direction now that the bill has been revoked. “It’s a rebellion that doesn’t really have a clear, unified leadership or a kind of political strategy for what the end goal is,” said Munroe.
After all, why are the protests still going if the original purpose–the removal of the extradition bill–has been accomplished?
The protestors have been split on what their goals are. Some want their former rights reinstated, while others are calling for the more radical action of declaring full independence from China.
Munroe also talks about how if the protestors want to accomplish their goals, they may need international recognition and support.
Notably, the United States has remained largely quiet on the issue. In the middle of contentious trade negotiations, the last thing the U.S. government wants to do is upset the economic superpower that is China. Many other countries in the West have taken much tougher stances, calling for the preservation of Hong Kong’s rights as agreed to in 1999.