On June 11, hundreds of thousands of protesters surrounded and attempted to storm the legislative building in Hong Kong to delay conversations about a controversial extradition bill. Protesters felt the bill would interrupt the “one China, two systems” arrangement with the United Kingdom that has been in place since 1997. The system gives Hong Kong many freedoms as a separate and largely autonomous part of China. Citizens feel that the passing of the extradition bill, which would allow for the extradition of criminals from Hong Kong to mainland China, is another way for lawmakers on the mainland to exert power over the city by limiting the judicial system. Also, since China’s current President Xi Jinping has demonstrated an increasing intolerance for dissent against the government, the new bill could mean that a politically-motivated and strict judicial system could distribute greater punishment for those who speak out against the government. Hong Kong Chief Executive, Carrie Lam maintained that it was still necessary for her to try and pass the extradition bill. According to Lam, despite protests, as an executive, sometimes difficult decisions must be made for the good of Hong Kong’s future. Despite these remarks, protests continued to grow in their influence and magnitude. In response to the protests, police have arrested participants and used tear gas, rubber-coated bullets, and pepper spray to attempt to control the demonstrations. In an effort to relieve tension, on June 18, Lam announced that discussions about the bill would be indefinitely delayed. However, protesters demanded that the bill be completely withdrawn, that Lam apologizes for the police violence against protesters, and that she resign from her position. As their needs have not been met, the actions of protesters have intensified since they began in June. On July 1, protesters broke into and vandalized the Legislative Council Building in Hong Kong. The protesters have maintained that their demonstrations will not stop until their demands are answered.
Officials in mainland China have responded with support for Lam and for the Hong Kong police, but they have largely denied having any influence in the extradition bill’s consideration. The government in Beijing has indicated support for the bill but denied that the bill’s passing was part of an effort to exert greater control over Hong Kong and threaten the autonomy it currently enjoys. Officials in mainland China have also condemned Western influence and criticism over the protests in Hong Kong. In response to the United Kingdom and Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, in particular, the Chinese government has said to “back off” from commenting on and supporting the protests. After Hunt expressed support for the protesters in Hong Kong and warned mainland officials against violating the “one country, two systems” arrangement, officials in China maintained that Hong Kong is a part of China now and questioned where this focus on and concern for democracy in Hong Kong was when the United Kingdom controlled the territory. Though the realities of the arrangement with the United Kingdom have important implications, they stray from the problem at hand and distract attention that should be given to the protesters. While some say that protesters should try and compromise with authorities and government supporters as their tactics during demonstrations have become more violent, the protesters remain strong in their demands and refuse to accept anything less than what they’ve asked for. In response to police violence and claims that the demonstrations are not to be taken seriously, the protesters have made it clear that they are not participating in “riots” just for the purpose of destruction or unrest and that the police must be held accountable for their actions. They have demanded the release of those who have been arrested at the demonstrations and have asked for an apology from Lam for the use of police violence. This response from protesters clearly shows the elements of the cause they support and outlines the conditions under which they will stop holding demonstrations. Their response to both the violence against them and the lack of action on the part of the government to meet their demands is clearly defined and continues to build in strength as the injustices against them mount in number. In order to adequately address their demands and respect their efforts to improve the situation in Hong Kong, outside actors and those with the power to influence decision-making in China must listen to their voices and recognize the demonstrations as evidence of needed change in the country.
In response to the extradition bill’s likelihood to threaten those who dissent, those who speak out against the government should never be punished. That sort of speech is essential for a healthy country. Thus, the efforts of the protesters speaking out against their government should be treated with urgency, especially in a situation where those who dissent are likely to be endangered by the bill in question, and especially in a place where dissent against the government is treated with the utmost severity. It is essential that the voices of the protesters are heard and that outside actors help to amplify their message. In a country where, especially on the mainland, information can be withheld through censorship, the voices of the protesters are important, deserving of respect, and vulnerable.
In terms of outside influence and commentary on the protests, at this point, it seems that any awareness is good. Yes, the situation in which the United Kingdom controlled Hong Kong was undoubtedly problematic. The implications of that reality are an issue and should be discussed. However, the issue at hand right now is the protesters in the streets of Hong Kong. The issue right now is that the protesters have a set amount of autonomy that they cherish and that they feel is being threatened. Support for the people of Hong Kong from anyone in any country is crucial at this time. The people of Hong Kong are fighting for their freedoms, fighting to be heard. At this moment, nothing should get in the way of their voices being lifted up.
The protesters also demand a certain amount of respect, and it is important that they receive it. The protests in Hong Kong are not “riots” organized for the sake of violence and destruction. They are not “lawless.” They are motivated by concerns that the law is not good enough, that the law is in danger of becoming inadequate to administer protection of its people’s rights. If it becomes considered “lawless” to voice one’s opinion and assemble to create change for the better, then the laws in place are flawed. The protests are made up of people who are serious about the change they want to see in their country. Despite the prevalence of police violence at the protests, they are willing to put themselves in danger for the sake of their city’s future. That sort of dedication and sacrifice deserves respect.
Violence is not admirable in any form, but especially in this case, it will not help. Violence against protesters only provides them with more to say. It only strengthens their cause and validates the claims behind their efforts. The arrests of protesters and the violence exerted at demonstrations have only allowed the protesters to gain ground. More injustice will only give the protesters more to hold the government accountable for. Violence in the face of demonstrations only multiplies and paints a terrible image of the government responsible. In terms of violence on the part of protesters, the switch from peaceful demonstrations to vandalism of the legislative building is likely a response to not being heard or to not being taken seriously. While resorting to violence is not constructive, protesters are likely doing it to send a louder message after feeling like their message up to this point has been ignored. The government’s willingness to listen to its people could help to quell violence on the part of protesters.
The motivations of the protesters in Hong Kong are largely driven by a concern for the future. The “one country, two systems” agreement with Britain will run out in 2047. While facing the inevitable end of 50 years of autonomy, many protesters feel they should fight to retain it because they have “nothing to lose.” While those in mainland China are often shielded from information, the people of Hong Kong have seen uprisings around the world through the years and know that it is possible to overthrow authoritarian regimes. The demonstration effect that these events have likely had on protesters in Hong Kong explains why there are no plans to stop protesting until the outlined needs are met. Change needs to happen and protesters have signalled that it needs to happen now. People are fed up with having their freedoms threatened and afraid for the future. This is a chance to show what they have learned from other uprisings around the world and to make the future of Hong Kong into something built by its citizens. This is an opportunity to build a future in which the freedoms they cherish are present and protected.