Why have protests hit Hong Kong and where will they end?

Sophia Yan
A demonstrator throws back a tear gas canister towards riot police on July 28 - Bloomberg

Hong Kong has this summer faced the worst political turmoil since its handover to China in 1997.

Residents first poured onto the streets to protest an extradition proposal that would send suspects to face trial in China, where the Communist Party controls the courts.

When city leaders failed to defuse tensions, police sought to curtail the largely peaceful rallies by shooting tear gas, rubber bullets and foam rounds – a serious escalation in a city long known for being one of the safest places in the world.

Protesters believe that because the extradition proposal has only been suspended, and not formally withdrawn, lawmakers could still quickly table and pass the legislation.

Their demands have since grown to include the resignation of Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam, an independent commission to investigate police brutality, and wider political reforms to allow for residents to directly elect its leader.

Britain's response

During the leadership race, Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt called on Beijing to uphold the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which guaranteed freedoms for at least 50 years in the territory after its handover.

But many residents say liberties have sharply eroded, especially since Xi Jinping took power as the head of the Communist Party in 2012.

The agreement is a legally binding treaty registered at the United Nations, and places responsibility on both signatories to ensure rights in Hong Kong, which means the UK could raise the issue at the UN.

However, Britain’s willingness to take on China as the Brexit process calls for new trade links outside the EU could be limited. 

Lord Chris Patten, the last colonial governor, has called on the British government to do more to support the protesters, saying “We shouldn’t forget there is such a thing as honour, and we’re honour-bound to stand up for freedom in Hong Kong, the freedoms we promised people for years.”

In late June, the UK halted further export licenses for crowd control equipment indefinitely until human rights concerns were “thoroughly addressed,” said then-Foreign Secretary Mr Hunt.

Some of the tear gas canisters fired appeared to have been made by British defence contractor PW Defence, according to Amnesty International, a human rights group.

In an interview with a Chinese language broadcaster in July, Mr Johnson said his government would be “very pro-China.”

Where the protests stand

Hong Kong is now in its third month of mass demonstrations. The leaderless movement has used social media and mass Airdrops to spread the word, with many groups organising rallies in several neighbourhoods.

Despite lacking a figurehead, the protesters show no sign of splintering and appear to only have become more determined.

 

Chants of “Reclaim Hong Kong, it’s time for revolution!” have overtaken the slogans that defined the early days of the movement, when people were shouting, “No extradition to China!”

It’s a shift that reflects how upset Hong Kongers have become with Beijing’s creeping influence in the region, and could prompt a greater crackdown by the government.

While the rallies begin peacefully during the day, they now end in pandemonium as police and protesters - often clad in black with hiking sticks and yellow hard hats - engage in tense standoffs as the sky darkens.

The stakes were raised when protesters first descended on Hong Kong's lone airport a week ago, threatening the city's reputation as a global transport and business hub. On Monday and Tuesday, hundreds of flights were cancelled as demonstrators blocked tourists' access to the departure lounge. 

 

Where they could go

Anger at police brutality has risen and demonstrators are increasingly frustrated that city leaders have ignored their demands. 

Ms Lam has given few public remarks since the unrest began.

Protesters are becoming increasingly unruly, hurling insults at the police and preparing defences – erecting barriers and gathering items, from bricks to street signs – to throw at the charging officers.

Rallies are planned through the end of August, and people say they will take to the streets until demands are met – even though police have begun rejecting applications to hold marches.

Police are also preparing to escalate their response. 

Riot police fire tear gas to disperse protesters taking part in a rally on 28 July Credit: Rex

Three anti-riot vehicles armed with water cannons are on stand-by. Authorities are reportedly mulling plans to use the armoured trucks to shoot water mixed with tear agents or liquid dye to disperse crowds - and make it easier to identify suspects. 

For now, the unrest has galvanised more supporters rather than split public opinion. People are offering free rides and shelter to protesters running away from tear gas. Trained medics are also volunteering their time, making the rounds during mass demonstrations to treat injuries.

But how long city residents will put up with such disturbances remains to be seen as the protests take an increasing toll on daily life. 

Police now conduct random bag and ID checks in subway stations, trains have been delayed as workers go on strike, tear gas fogs up streets even hours after the rallies have been disbanded.

China's options

Beijing at first appeared to ignore the protests, later giving brief comments that stated support for Ms Lam and the Hong Kong police to handle the situation. 

The government also issued stern warnings to Western nations, including the US and UK, to keep out of Chinese domestic affairs, decrying foreign interference as the reason for unrest. 

Foreign ministry officials condemned protesters for engaging in violent acts without addressing the issue of police brutality.

Carrie Lam has rarely spoken in public since the unrest began Credit: Bloomberg

Lately, however, the rhetoric has ramped up, with China's top diplomat in Hong Kong speaking publicly for the first time since the territory's handover in 1997 and calling the protests akin to 'terrorism'.

Chinese state media videos of military and police engaging in aggressive anti-riot drills serve as a warning that reinforcements for the Hong Kong authorities are ready to deploy at a moment's notice.

For now, city officials and the leading authority - the Chinese Communist Party - have refrained from unleashing extreme measures, such as shooting live rounds and sending in the military.

That "would be a major threshold for Beijing to cross," says Steve Tsang, director of the University of London's SOAS China Institute.

Yet experts say there's no telling what the government might do next, especially as Beijing officials accuse protesters of fomenting a "colour revolution" with help from foreign forces - an anti-Communist uprising that would be its worst nightmare.

The fear, for many, is a crackdown with a bitter end. Many of those out on the streets now are too young to remember the military tanks rolling into Tiananmen Square in 1989. But Beijing's memory is long.