The Hong Kong protests: a comprehensive study

By Jonathan van Smit

1997: The Joint Declaration comes into force

At midnight on 1 July 1997, 156 years of British colonial rule ended in Hong Kong. This date also marked the end of the British Empire, and Hong Kong was returned to China. The Sino-British Joint Declaration, signed in 1984 in Beijing, stipulated the conditions around Hong Kong’s administration following its return to Chinese sovereignty. China agreed that for fifty years, until 2047, life in Hong Kong would largely resemble life under British sovereignty through a ‘mini-constitution’ called the Basic Law; the established social and economic systems would remain unchanged. This form of administration made up the so-called ‘one country, two systems’ rule. It bound Hong Kong to the rights they gained under British rule; rights which include supposed freedom of assembly and speech, and independent judiciary and, in contrast to mainland China, some democratic rights.

Despite these assurances in the Joint Declaration, in the 23 years since the transferral of Hong Kong to Chinese sovereignty, long seated antagonism in Hong Kong against China has been building since 1997 caused mainly by doubts around the integrity of the ‘one country, two systems’ policy. In 2003 approximately 500,000, of a population of around 6 million, attended protests against national security reform, responding to concerns that anti-subversion legislation would infringe on their freedoms. The protests were successful, the bill was shelved, and the chairman of the Liberal Party resigned from the government’s Executive Council. A 2012 protest against attempts to include topics on China’s history and national cultural identity resulted in the Chief Executive allowing schools discretion as to whether to enforce the changes to the curriculum. In 2014 the Umbrella Movement called for reforms to the Hong Kong electoral system with calls for genuine democracy. Its 17-year-old student leader, Joshua Wong (a prominent figure also in the 2012 protests), was arrested and Beijing offered no concessions to the movement. The Umbrella Movement marked a shift in the nature of anti-Chinese antagonism expressed in demonstrations, as it actively sought an extension of democratic rights for the citizens of Hong Kong. In 2016 the first pro-independence protest in Hong Kong’s history was held in response to the electoral commission banning six pro-independence candidates for the city’s legislature. This protest was matched by a harsher response from the Hong Kong government; in 2018, they declared the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party an illegal society.

An annual vigil commemorating the Tiananmen Square Massacre is held in Hong Kong, although any news coverage of the vigil is heavily censored in China. Baggio Leung, a pro-independence activist, has said that Hong Kong is “now at the frontline between the freedom world and the greatest dictatorship right now in the world”. Since 2003, protestors have questioned the authenticity of China’s commitment to the Joint Declaration. They have sought further assurances of their rights in what has historically been seen as China’s ever-increasing encroachment upon the ‘one country, two systems’ policy and upon Hong Kong’s distinct cultural and national identity.    

2019- 2020: Extradition law and the Fugitive Offenders amendment bill  

March 2019 saw a chain of protests in response to the introduction of the Fugitive Offenders amendment bill which would have allowed extradition to jurisdictions with which Hong Kong did not have extradition agreements, including mainland China and Taiwan. Critics expressed concern that this was a direct infringement of the Joint Declaration. The bill would lead to Hong Kong residents being subject to the legal system of mainland China, subverting the assurance in the Joint Declaration that Hong Kong would have a separate judiciary from mainland China.

The introduction of the act set off protests which have continued to the present day. Pro-independence protestors have asked for the protests not to be characterised as a ‘riot’. They demand amnesty for arrested demonstrators, an independent inquiry into police brutality, and implementation of complete universal suffrage. On 4 September 2019, Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, suspended the bill in question following months of protests, rejecting the rest of the protestors’ demands. In November, local council elections indicated that public opinion was definitively aligned with the protestors as 17 out of the 18 councils voted in pro-democracy councillors. The protests sparked in March 2019 marked a watershed for their violence. Tactics employed by the protestors include using petrol bombs and fighting police officers with poles. In October, an 18-year-old was shot, a policeman shot a demonstrator at close range, and on the same day, another man was set on fire by anti-government protestors. During the following month, a siege of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University marked the first of its kind. The response of the Chinese state was definitive; Chinese President Xi Jinping threatened that any attempt to divide China would result in “bodies smashed and bones ground to power”.

30 June 2020: The national security law comes into force

An hour before midnight on 30 June, an hour before the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s separation from British rule and return to the Chinese state, the national security law came into force, marking Beijing’s most controversial infringement upon Hong Kong’s autonomy. The national security laws were introduced by decree, bypassing the city’s parliament. Included in the laws are the provisions that crimes of secession, subversion, terrorism, and collusion with foreign forces are punishable by a maximum sentence of life in prison. The act of damaging public transport facilities is considered to be terrorism, and Beijing established a new security office in Hong Kong. With its law enforcement personnel, Beijing will have the power over how the law should be interpreted with some trials to be behind closed doors. Hong Kong’s chief executive will have the ability to appoint judges to hear national security cases. Hours after the passing of the law, ten people were accused of violating its provisions.

Beijing has argued that the law is essential to restore order in Hong Kong after the prolonged pro-independence protests. Others have claimed that it is a blatant attempt to subvert the independence of the judiciary, erode Hong Kong’s status as the only common law jurisdiction in China, and suppress protestors. Professor Chan, a legal scholar at the University of Hong Kong, expressed in a BBC interview that “effectively, they are imposing the People’s Republic of China’s criminal system onto the Hong Kong common law system, leaving them with complete discretion to decide who should fall into which system”. Furthermore, the new security agents from China will be empowered to investigate a wider variety of crimes and extradite people for trial in China, where Chinese courts have a close to 100% conviction rate. This has led to the accusation that the new security laws mark the end of the ‘one country, two systems’ principle.

The international response to the imposition of the new security laws has been divided by questions of China’s sovereignty and whether it has international obligations to uphold in its territories. On 1 July, a senior Chinese official stated that Hong Kong’s affairs were “none of your business”, similarly at the UN earlier this week more than 50 countries, led by Cuba, supported China. Cuba stated that “non- interference in internal affairs of sovereign states is an essential principle in the Charter of the United Nations”. In contrast, Dominic Raab has stated that “China has broken its promise to the people of Hong Kong under its own laws […] China has breached its international obligations to the United Kingdom under the joint declaration […] it is precisely because we respect China as a leading member of the international community, that we expect the Chinese government to meet its international obligations to live up to its international responsibilities”. Raab directly contradicted Cuba’s assertion in the UN, arguing that China has international responsibilities which it has subverted by the introduction of the national security law.

While the international response has been divided over interpretations of sovereignty, the countries condemning China’s actions have taken decisive action; on 2 July the US lawmakers approved and sent Donald Trump Hong- Kong related sanctions. Furthermore, the US has begun eliminating Hong Kong’s special status with Secretary of State Mike Pompeo asserting Hong Kong was no longer autonomous from China and should be considered the same country in trade and other such matters. The United Kingdom has offered up to 3 million Hong Kong residents British citizenship. As of 11 July, Australia has suspended its extradition treaty with Hong Kong. Many leading pro-democracy activists have fled Hong Kong in response to the national security law.

Similarly, Demosistō, a pro-democracy activist group disbanded in response to the law. In a pinned tweet at the top of its Twitter page, they describe how “after much internal deliberation, we have decided to disband and cease all operation as a group given the circumstances”. Instead, Hong Kong pro-democracy activists have called for a decisive response from the international community. Nathan Law, who left Hong Kong in response to the law, issued an open letter to Australia, Finland, Germany, the Netherlands, New Zealand, the UK, and the US appealing for a suspension of extradition treaties with Hong Kong as “Hong Kong no longer enjoys the rule of law”.       

A former leader of Demosistō and long term pro-democracy activist, Joshua Wong, published a post on 30 June on his Twitter page with the phrase, “end of Hong Kong, beginning of Reign of Terror”. He expressed the view amongst pro-independence activists that the new national security law is a landmark watershed in China’s involvement in Hong Kong. This Tweet is supported by reports beginning on 8 July that students in Hong Kong are now banned from any political activity in schools, following the arrest of 1600 students for involvement in protests in 2019. Several social media companies have said that they will stop cooperating with the Hong Kong police on requests for user data over concerns how it might be used. As companies and international governments scramble to respond to the changes, the international student community from the University of Oxford is also responding to the changes. An anonymous student living in Hong Kong told The Oxford Blue that the mood is “weird” and that people are panicking over their social media presence, concerned over the Chinese state’s access to their data. Furthermore, a shift can be sensed from anger and protest to fear as many people are looking for ways to leave Hong Kong.

As the national security law breaches the terms of the 1984 Joint Declaration, ending the ‘one country, two systems’ principle, many Hong Kong residents and members of the international community regard the law as an end to Hong Kong’s autonomy and a representation of the Chinese State’s increasing boldness on the international stage.