Hong Kong protesters defiant in face of police rubber bullets: ‘We have to do something’

Erin Hale

With surgical masks and goggles balanced on their faces, Hong Kongers Jay and Ellis Lee took a moment to rest in an underpass near the city’s Legislative Council.

Behind them, the acrid smell of pepper spray and tear gas came wafting through other protesters wiped their faces off with wet towels

"It's chaos," said Jay Lee, describing how police were gradually gaining ground from protesters.

The couple were just two of the tens of thousands of people protesting on Wednesday against a controversial legislative bill that would allow extradition from Hong Kong to China.

Early in the morning, protesters managed to block off major roads and park space outside of Legislative Council, forcing the legislature to delay the second reading on the bill, but by late afternoon police were beginning to push back.

Visibly upset, Elis Lee brushed aside questions of whether she was scared by riot police.

"Young people are protecting our Hong Kong,” she said.

“We don’t have guns, we just want to protest peacefully and not be attacked by the police,” Jay Lee added.

The extradition bill has angered Hong Kong in a way not seen in years and drawn ordinary people into the fray alongside more militant students and democracy activists.

Many Hong Kongers like the Lees fear that the bill is a sign that Hong Kong, a former British colony, has completely lost its autonomy to China despite promises it would remain quasi-independent until 2047 under the “one country, two systems” arrangement.

'We have to do something otherwise Hong Kong is going to die'

Chris Lee

On Sunday, an estimated one million people of all ages and backgrounds marched against the extradition bill, according to organisers.

But while the weekend’s protest was the largest since Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, the government has continued to push forward with the controversial bill prompting further demonstrations.

The demonstrations represent Hong Kong's biggest political crisis since pro-democracy demonstrations closed down parts of the city centre for more than three months during the Umbrella Movement protests in 2014.

The vote was set for Wednesday, but has been inexplicably postponed until 20 June.

Snacks, water bottles, face masks, eye solution and googles were stockpiled by protesters on the roadways nearby along with medical supplies.

Police presence was high, with 5,000 officers dispatched on the street, many in full riot gear with batons and masks pushing back media and protesters alike.

A protester throws back a tear gas during clashes with police outside the government headquarters in Hong Kong on June 12, 2019 (AFP/Getty Images)

Ordinary Hong Kongers showed up to show their support for protesters on the front lines.

Chris Lee shuttered his bakery on one of the state’s outlying islands to participate, although he describes himself as apolitical, like so many residents.

Anger at the bill, however, led him to join nearly one thousand other small business owners who shut their doors on Wednesday in support of the protest.

“We have to do something otherwise Hong Kong is going to die,” he said. “The government should have cared about their residents but I feel that they are totally wrong,” Lee said.

He said many Hong Kongers like himself have watched as the Chinese government attacked its own citizens in 1989 at the Tiananmen Square protests and they fear what bringing Hong Kong even closer to China will mean.

The bill has also prompted international business groups and foreign governments, including the UK and the European Union, to voice their concerns. In late May, the UK and Canada issued a joint statement that the bill could impact “rights and freedoms” promised to Hong Kong at reunification.

“It’s not right - they destroy one county, two systems literally,” said Blanche Chan, who works in life sciences.

Chan was also worried about how the extradition bill would impact Hong Kong’s international reputation and business environment, with hundreds of multinationals having made the city their Asia headquarters.

“It won’t only affect our future but international companies will move to other countries,” Chan said. “Millions of people are working for multinationals and could lose their jobs.”

The legislative bill will allow Hong Kong to extradite to countries where it lacks a long term extradition treaty, including China, on a case by case basis. It was prompted by a murder case last year in Taiwan, which does not have a permanent extradition deal with Hong Kong.

Hong Kong did not sign an extradition agreement with China at the time of reunification, according to the Hong Kong Bar Association, due to concerns at the time about the Chinese legal system.

While the protest felt similar to 2014’s mass democracy protests, Antony Daparin, author of City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong, said in many ways they were more unified this time.

“This is a much easier sell for the protesters because in politics there is a truism it’s much easier to oppose than propose, so here all they have to say is ‘We don’t want this law.’”