Crisis in Hong Kong: Commentary on Protest Clashes, Democratic Freedom and Political Activism

by Kong Lui
Opinion, 24 September 2019 

Hong Kong’s extradition bill may have been withdrawn but that has not stopped protesters from hosting more peaceful marches and campaigns. These activities speak against human rights issues stemming from violent arrests and the government’s authoritarian way of keeping public order over more than 100 days of the protest movement.

This article highlights Hong Kong journalist Kong Lui’s month-long reflection on the events led by protesters based on their five demands: complete withdrawal of the extradition-bill, a commission of inquiry into alleged police brutality, retract the classification of protesters as rioters, amnesty for arrested protesters and dual universal suffrage. She brings up avoidant attitudes of the government during the protests, the efficacy of activism in democratic countries and the indisputable need for increased understanding of international politics.

Photo: The Nation (left) & Los Angeles Times (right) 

12 weeks into the protest

There is no sign that protests will stop. Police brutality and passive attitudes of the government continue to backfire and affect Hong Kong’s reputation as a city known for peaceful protests. Violent clashes are making international headlines on a weekly basis. In late August, police fired a gunshot and used water cannon for the first time. Footage also showed other officers pointing guns at protesters charging at them with sticks and poles.

The extradition bill – which would allow fugitives to be transferred to the mainland upon Beijing’s request – has already been pronounced “dead”. Protesters wanted a “complete withdrawal”, not suspension. The contentious bill is seen as even more detrimental to the city’s freedom than the national security law, which was scrapped after half a million people marched in 2003. There were fears that Beijing – which holds a poor human rights track record – would use it to send political opponents of the Chinese communist party to the mainland without any safeguard for fair trial. They also feared Beijing would further curtail freedom of speech in the semi-autonomous regions for the general public.

Recent developments prove that these worries are not unfounded. According to the latest report by Amnesty International, the Hong Kong police allegedly beat up pro-democracy protesters in custody and committed acts that amount to ‘torture’. A Chinese Defence Ministry spokesman implied that the Hong Kong government could seek military support from Beijing, citing Article 14 of the Hong Kong garrison laws. Troop carriers have also been found on the border. British Consulate employee Simon Cheng was detained for over two weeks by mainland authorities following a business trip in Shenzhen for “soliticiting prostitution”. Hong Kong’s flag carrier, Cathay Pacific, sacked their pilots for participating in the protests and other related conduct. Other Hong Kong residents also reported being questioned and having their phones searched by mainland officers when crossing the border.

In Singapore, where public assemblies are illegal without approval and discussions on the efficacy of public demonstrations are minimal, the protests in Hong Kong are largely perceived as rioting or troublemaking, severely reducing the credibility of the campaign against the extradition bill. The government emphasises harmonious living and social stability. With state-owned media often playing along with its agenda, many Singaporeans have internalised self-censorship and repercussions of protesting or rallying to a large extent. This is unsurprising as previous organisers of street activations and online activists have been dealt with through investigations, conditional warnings and jail terms.

Until recently, state media reports in Singapore have only focused on the obstructions faced by the public, government and travellers from the actions of protests or rioters. The latter term has been condemned as it paints a biased view that protesters are inciting violence without giving their intentions against the extradition bill due credit. These articles, along with the statement made by the Minister for Home Affairs and Law, did not fully acknowledge and educate the public on the dangers of Hong Kong governance mirroring that of China’s and the human rights implications arising from the crisis.

Radical acts by protesters, such as road blocking, hurling of bricks and firebombs, seem to be receiving a much higher level of tolerance and understanding from the Hong Kong public. Seeing the level of authority bias and use of triad violence to beat down demonstrators, it became clear that the government failed to respond effectively to peaceful mass protests.

Photo courtesy of Los Angeles Times

In the past two months, protesters have called for foreign media and government interventions as the city slowly turns into a police state – leaving the people of Hong Kong to fend for themselves.

Recent demonstrations in Hong Kong

Peaceful demonstrations are an established culture in Hong Kong, dating back to the British colonial era. Although not fully democratic, Hong Kong takes pride in the high degree of freedom it enjoys, including the freedom of assembly. Although, like Singapore, public assemblies require the approval of authorities, applications are rarely turned down.

Notably, half a million people marched in 2003 against a proposed national security law which criminalises treason, secession and subversion against Beijing. Under the accountability system, Hong Kong officials were supposed to take ultimate responsibility if things went wrong under their watch, including resignation. The then administration was quick to shelve the controversial law. Two ministers stepped down and former leader Tung Chee-wah eventually resigned a year later.

In 2014, pro-democracy protesters launched Occupy Central, a 79-day sit-in at the central business district demanding political reforms and universal suffrage, enshrined by the city’s mini-constitution. It was still largely peaceful, but leaders were later prosecuted and found guilty of certain charges. Cracks in police-community relations  began to surface.

At the beginning of the extradition bill row, people of Hong Kong were shocked to find Chief Executive Carrie Lam refusing to answer calls to withdraw the bill after a march on 9 June by the Civil Human Rights Front that saw a turnout of over 1 million people. Public questioning of the government’s decisions in Hong Kong have seen success in many ways. Previously, the objectives of Article 23 were held back after a massive public backlash. This time round, Lam only suspended the bill after a besiege of the parliament building. She continually avoids the outcome that protesters are urging for: complete withdrawal of the extradition bill.

Without formally withdrawing the bill in the legislature, people fear what they deem as the ‘evil bill’ may return anytime the system deems. People are sceptical about the ability of the Legislative Council (also known as the LegCo) to provide checks and balances. Only 35 of the 70 seats in the Legislative Council were elected through popular vote. Even though pro-democracy lawmakers won more votes through elections, the pro-Beijing camp still holds the majority of the seats.

Throughout the protests, five main demands have emerged: complete withdrawal of the extradition-bill, a commission of inquiry into alleged police brutality, retract the classification of protesters as rioters, amnesty for arrested protesters, dual universal suffrage and greater democratic freedom. Many protesters see the crisis as a form of structural violence by the government, calling for wider political reforms. It doesn’t help that the city’s leader, Lam, was not largely elected by the people but by a panel of 1,200 elites, mostly Beijing loyalists.

Chinese nationalist views threatening the stability of democracy in Hong Kong

China’s booming weight on the protest, however, is unsurprising given the support from  nationalists. People who have voiced their support for the Hong Kong police include Chinese-American actress Liu Yifei (playing Mulan in the film to be released in 2020), rappers Higher Brothers, VaVa and CD Rev. These personalities have gained widespread fame in the Western worlds in recent years, making their actions questionable as they condemn the protesters in Hong Kong. Why are they pledging their allegiance to the system even after possibly being exposed to the criminal, forceful ways of ruling by China and the freedom to rally from their time in the West?

More violence amidst protests

Protesters now alternate between massive peaceful marches and acts of civil disobedience such as shutting down the underground, major roads and the airport. Hong Kong police have responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and arrests. On August 13, protesters beat up Chinese mainlanders during an airport seige following worries that Beijing may have sent over Chinese agents to infiltrate protests – an act that is detrimental to the city’s ‘one country, two systems’ model if proven.

Some weapons used by protesters that are considered offensive include laser pointers and petrol bombs. It is on the authorities to manage the crowd, especially when violence breaks out, but it does not justify breaching guidelines and the law to harm the protesters. There have been numerous accusations of police brutality, including one by the International Human Rights Groups against the authorities in Hong Kong.

The escalation of the protest dug up further evidence of political imbalance and structural flaws in the country. Amongst the chaos are widespread police brutality involving pro-Beijing triad and undercover operations to intimidate and plant the blame of excessive violence on protesters.

People who were arrested were also found to have been locked up in Sun Uk Ling Holding Centre, a remote prison near the border, tortured by the police, causing worry and widespread anxiety towards the plight of activists and members of the public. We wonder, with protesters as young as a 12-year-old being arrested, are the people of Hong Kong still protected by law?

The city’s leader, Carrie Lam, insisted riot police had used “minimal level force” necessary to control the situation despite released footage showing evidence of acts of torture from the police. Pointing of guns at protesters, the use of tear gas, pepper spray and beanbag rounds amongst other weapons have not stopped. Shots and tear gas have been targeted directly at journalists, paramedics and peaceful crowds gathering at areas where a protest permit was approved. More examples include tear gas being used at close range in confined spaces such as the subway station and the arrest of a journalism student.

Photo courtesy of Hong Kong Free Press

A female medic became a symbol of violent police brutality toward protesters after she was allegedly blinded in one eye after a bean bag was shot in her direction on August 11, giving rise to a mass seeking justice and more transparency from the authorities and government.

If it’s true that violence should be condemned in the eyes of the authorities in Hong Kong, why isn’t the government putting an immediate stop to the use of weapons, if at all? As of 1 September, reports on police charging into carriages along Mong Kok and Prince Edward MTR Stations attacking passengers surfaced – continuing what seems to be a series of tactical violence carried out, endangering the lives of citizens in Hong Kong. Critics saw it as a tactic to prolong the impact and meddle with public opinion, and to wear out the protesters. The police also started banning protests. Between 27 July and 17 August, 10 out of 17 protest applications were rejected. If citizens’ freedom is being exploited and reduced to an authoritarian control, will exhaustion alone stop the protesters?

Though society remains divided, people still seem to agree that the ball is in Lam’s court. She is trying to build a platform for dialogue, yet she remains firm on not entertaining protesters’ remaining four cornerstone demands. A leaked recording revealed that Lam might have considered quitting if given a choice. Is she still in control or has it been proven that she is merely a spokesperson pandering to Beijing’s wishes? Regardless, her government allowed the situation to loom.

The stakes are rising in Hong Kong as the level of violence continues to escalate. Gone were the days when international pressure, if any, could make a difference on the fate of activists fighting for rights in China. The statement by G7 World Leaders backing Hong Kong this week was mildly worded. Beijing has also openly attacked foreign intervention by warning Taipei against accepting asylum seekers from Hong Kong, calling them a threat to the safety of Taiwan. At this point, the humanitarian crisis in Hong Kong worsens by the minute. Disappearing pressure over China’s rights record could embolden Beijing to turn the screws further on dissident voices.

Withdrawal of extradition bill and further actions

On September 4, Carrie Lam announced the withdrawal of the extradition bill. By this point, major public sentiments have shifted from the bill to abuse of authority power – demanding for an independent investigation panel. The past weeks have seen peaceful marches quickly turning into a series of arrests, tear gas and baton charges. These actions did not deter the public from continuing their rallies.

Crowd dispersal through violent means remains at the crux of how authorities are managing widespread dissent stemming from human rights issues displayed throughout the course of the Hong Kong protests. Diminishing voices and turnout from the rallies, mostly from fear that their participation would be exposed by colleagues and acquaintances, are starting to worry concerned citizens.

On 26 September, Lam will launch the first community dialogue session for the public to express their views to the government. How open and inclusive will this dialogue prove to be, and what further discussions can we afford since the people have long made their demands known?

Kong Lui is a journalist who reports on political and legal issues in Hong Kong. 

© 2020 sand magazine and the author