On July 21, at Yuen Long (元朗区) subway station, hundreds of people dressed in white carrying iron clubs and wooden sticks attacked citizens indiscriminately. Instantly, the subway station became chaotic and filled with the cries of hurt bleeding citizens. Two months after that affair, on October 1, police officers wearing helmets and gas masks gunned down an 18-year-old protester. This last act of brutality by the police and government has caused Hong Kong citizens to rise higher and fly US flags at the center of protests. Hong Kong looks as distressed as it once did during the 2014 Umbrella Movement. The new wave of protests began on March 31, but they soon swelled to typhoon-like winds and continue even now in November. SMT reporters will recount the days leading to the political unrest in Hong Kong and analyze the current 2019 Hong Kong protests from an international perspective. Let’s move to the eye of the typhoon.
The incomplete place
To accurately understand the disputes in Hong Kong, an understanding of Hong Kong's history and administrative system is necessary. After the Opium War, Hong Kong was ruled by the British but it was returned to China in 1997. At that time, the Chinese government promised to guarantee Hong Kong's autonomy for 50 years because its people were accustomed to a democratic system. According to the Hong Kong Return Agreement, Hong Kong would function as a special administrative district that guarantees a capitalist economic system and a democratic political system. With these guarantees, Hong Kong continued established relations with international organizations in areas such as economy, trade, telecommunications, tourism, and culture without the interference of China. However, Hong Kong’s official name was altered to Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China. In other words, Hong Kong became a self-governing district under the authority of socialist China. Since 1997 because of the differing ideas of rule for Hong Kong by Hong Kongers and Chinese, the conflicts between Hong Kong and China have continued, and in the process, Hong Kong seeks to establish its own sovereign identity. This desire for autonomy is clearly presented through Scholarism (學民思潮), which was organized by Joshua Wong and Ivan Lam and the Umbrella Movement in 2014. As a student movement organization in Hong Kong, Scholarism aims to create a new era of free thought and freedom of the press, abandoning traditional Chinese student ideology such as the May 4 Movement in China. The protests, which began with calls for the direct election of an administrative minister, spread to the world outside of Hong Kong. Although the voluntary assembly of citizens ended in failure, the call left a strong impression among people both at home and abroad.
Friction between Hong Kong and China continued even after the Umbrella Movement was abandoned, but large-scale protests didn’t start until March 31, 2019. The larger protests were centered around the extradition law, which was only fueled by fear from the “Tung Luowan Bookstore (銅鑼灣)” incident in 2015. The bookstore, renowned for selling banned books in China, sold books to Hong Kong people on topics ranging from internal power struggles within the Chinese Communist Party to books on the Xi Jinping scandal. China warned the bookstore owner several times because many of its customers were mainland Chinese who visited the bookstore while on holiday in Hong Kong. Because the bookstore refused to follow direct orders by the Chinese government, the bookstore owner and book publishers were arrested and sentenced. Moreover, anyone caught writing books on banned topics in China started to missing one by one. Citizens argued that if the bill is passed, anti-China forces would be summoned from mainland China and arrested individuals would never return to Hong Kong. In other words, the Chinese government would use the bill as a means of suppressing anti-Chinese sentiment in Hong Kong. This fear has brought about the violent protests by Hong Kong citizens who are concerned about the growing grip by China, which began on March 31 and continue to this moment.
A hidden democracy
The 2019 Hong Kong Protests focus on a mix of issues, not just the extradition bill. The protests have also become a campaign to replace and oust Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam. At the moment, the protests have led Carrie Lam to waiver temporarily the new repatriation law. Many Hong Kong people view Carrie Lam as being pro-Chinese. As the first female minister elected by the Chinese political leadership two years ago, her election is credited with the successfully quelling of the 2014 Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong. Carrie Lam, then Minister of Political Affairs, forced protesters to disperse and arrested more than a thousand citizens. She is often quoted as paying great respect to Xi Jinping, saying in an FT interview, “I respect and am more and more charmed by the remarks and actions of Xi Jinping.” While some claim this is her right as an individual to show admiration to whomever one wants, as a leader of a country, her personal admirations are likely to cloud her judgment on important decisions such as policy. In addition, the legitimacy of her power has been granted by the Chinese political leadership, so as Hong Kong's Administrative Minister, the concerns expressed by public sentiment among Hong Kong citizens are not a “Necessary Condition” for her holding power but merely a “Sufficient Condition”. Carrie Lam has called the protests “organized riots” and has said, “Parents, if you do not scold your child for bad behavior, when they become adults, they will ask why you did not steer them down the right path. Young people in Hong Kong don’t comprehend the importance of One Country, Two Systems.”1) Public outcry over the Minister’s words and what she calls citizen protests has grown. Also, because of her words, citizens are now centering on realizing a true One Country, Two Systems; i.e., this policy is now a key component of the current protests.
The 2019 Hong Kong Protests are another means of protecting citizens’ autonomy and identity, deepening anti-China sentiment. As mentioned earlier, when Hong Kong was returned in 1997, China promised to guarantee its autonomy. Therefore, the Chinese constitution isn’t applied to Hong Kong. However, despite the declaration, there is no direct election of Hong Kong’s Executive Minister, so no real degree of autonomy is guaranteed, and with the rise in anti-Chinese politicians being extradited to China, life in Hong Kong is becoming increasingly Chinalization. Ms. Frances Yau, a resident of Hong Kong, said, “In Hong Kong, there is a saying, while some houses are empty, there are people who don’t have house to live. One reason for the housing price crisis in Hong Kong is the purchase of house by mainland Chinese, but the Hong Kong government refuses to create policy that intervenes in the housing price. Therefore, the younger generation, myself included, knows that it will be impossible to purchase a home in the future in Hong Kong. In Hong Kong, anyone wishing to buy a typical size home needs to deposit at least 20 years without any consumption.” After the return of Hong Kong to China, housing prices have skyrocketed as many mainland Chinese purchased housing in Hong Kong. Moreover, Hong Kong people are facing high unemployment because their jobs are being taken by mainlanders commuting or now living in Hong Kong. The situation only worsens because China’s wealthiest are now intervening in the Hong Kong real estate market. Hong Kongers themselves identify with being Hong Kong people, not Chinese. Even now the conflict between Hong Kong and China over the implementation of the One Country, Two Systems continues. On September 25, Yu Jinseog, Professor of Department of Political Science & International Relations at Sookmyung Women’s University, said, “The protests now in Hong Kong are the result of several previous objections by Hong Kongers to such situations as the mandatory Chinese-style national education, the opening of high-speed trains between China and Hong Kong, and the financial opposition of the National Security Law. All of these oppositions by the Hong Kong are as an extension of the democratic reform trend.” China is gradually tightening its grip on Hong Kong, so the demonstrations are becoming more violent, yet the gap between protester wants and China orders is not narrowing.
The bell ringing around the world
The ongoing demonstrations in Hong Kong are significant. The 2019 Protests, from an international perspective, may be compared to a litmus test in science. Professor Yu, also said in the interview, “The world will have to wait and see if China will recognize a different political system from the mainland and ensure Hong Kong’s autonomy by law. However, it’s just my opinion, but China is not flexible on the ideas of freedom of speech and does little to protect human rights. I do not think China will change its direction or attitude and allow Hong Kong to govern itself without influence of the mainland.” China is expected to see greater growth in the future both in terms of population and economy. Unconditionally accepting Hong Kong’s demands is not expected to happen because China could lose face in the eyes of the global community. The conflict in Hong Kong is a battle between China and the U.S. for hegemony. Since 2018 the two countries have been locked in a trade war. They are also competing for supremacy in areas other than economic such as 5G technology and the battle in those technical fields is fierce. As a result, the protests are significant concerns for both China and the U.S. From the U.S. point of view, the protests could be the chance it is looking for a victory in the hegemonic competition. Ms. Frances Yau, said, “Throughout the movement, Hong Kong people have kept the slogan of “Five Demands, Not One Less” strong. The slogan refers to the withdrawal of the extradition bill—an independent probe into the use of force by police, amnesty for arrested protesters, a halt to categorizing the protests as riots, and the implementation of universal suffrage. Currently, the number of pro-Beijing members in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council is greater than the number of pro-democracy members. Personally, I hope that these members were authentically voted in directly by the Hong Kong citizens. Implementation of suffrage is our universal right.” As such, it can be confirmed once again that the protests have various meanings at home and abroad.
Finally, possible outcomes of the protests are being predicted everywhere, especially with the demonstrations becoming more and more violent. Some argue that intervention by China is justified because if the protests continue, the West will likely intervene. However, direct intervention by the West is not expected to occur because Xi Jinping warned media platforms “not to interfere in internal affairs”. Nevertheless, indirect intervention is a possibility with the U.S. on September 25, stating the “Hong Kong Bill on Human Rights and Democracy” was unanimously passed and a plenary session was held in October. Such action by the outside world is expected to continue as a means of pressure and appeal by the international community to China is now affirmed by U.S. domestic law. There is ample probability that it will be used as a means of politics, but only time will tell. For China, it is focusing on suppressing the unrest, demobilization of Hong Kong’s masses, and will only accept partial democratic reforms. The U.S. is also still engaged in an invisible war of nerves regarding the Tiananmen Massacre, but since it is not something China wishes to discuss, the possibility of forced suppression seems likely. Also, with the international community resisting China to have huge economic side effects to Hong Kong’s economy, the possibility of resistance is relatively low. However, if Hong Kong tries to establish itself as a separate country, the outcome could be worst for China, the situation could be change. Currently, across Hong Kong people can see banners with the words “Trump, help Hong Kong”. The protests have started attracting international attention, so it is necessary to look at both China’s and the international community’s stance, especially bigger world powers.
An umbrella to preserve identity
Lyrics to the Korean song “March for Our Beloved” resonate in downtown Hong Kong. Protesters shout out, “While working for the new day, don’t ever be swayed. Though the years pass by, streams and mountains remember. Passionate shouts which awakened spirits were crying out. As we are marching on. The living, your way to march is here.” Although the language differs, the image of citizens uniting with the same objective in mind reminds Koreans of the bitter struggle Korea went through to achieve democracy. For many years Hong Kong citizens suffered an identity crisis, but now they are banding together in massive protest and are on the way to finding out who they are. The recent “Hong Konger” identity represents their values and the way of life they wish to preserve. Moreover, it is the youth of Hong Kong that are its future, and they are at the center of the protests to preserve their values and way of life. Last, Hong Kong needs the attention of the world so that what occurs today in Hong Kong is remembered in history. Also, the world needs to keep an eye on how future will come to Hong Kong.
1) Jo Mina, “Carrie Lam, a Former “Dirt Spoon” who Respects Xi Jinping, Losing the Respect of Hong Kong due to Her Management of the 2 Million People Protests”, The Kukmin Daily, June 17, 2019
Kim Shin Hyerin / Society Section Editor
Oh Hwang Junhee / Reporter