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On July 1st, 1997, the United Kingdom regifted Hong Kong to China after receiving it in the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 at the end of the first Opium War. This year, instead of celebrating, protesters stormed the Legislative Council Building, graffitiing portraits of unpopular leaders, breaking windows, taking over the inner chambers, and calling for the release of demonstrators who had been arrested. Police used tear gas to expel the protestors from the building. On Monday, prior to storming the government building, there were an estimated 190,000 to 550,000 people who marched through the city, a continuation of the marches that have been occurring over the past few months. Protestors marched to demonstrate their opposition to the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill, which the legislature had introduced in February. The controversy surrounding the bill emerged because it allows suspected criminals to be sent to mainland China for trial and may limit the autonomy of Hong Kong’s legal system, a development that was cited as proof of China’s increased control of the semi-autonomous island.
After protestors stormed the legislative building and were apprehended, Beijing released a statement condemning the protestors behavior. The statement read “Their violent acts are an extreme challenge to Hong Kong’s rule of law and seriously undermined Hong Kong’s peace and stability. It is totally intolerable.” However, China may be using the event to justify their involvement in Hong Kong’s political and legal systems. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed leader, also spoke negatively about the protestors saying that “This violence and lawlessness have seriously affected the core values of Hong Kong’s legal system…I feel very indignant and saddened by this and want to strongly condemn it. I believe that the public feels the same,” she said.
On Twitter, Joshua Wong, an activist involved with the situation in Hong Kong, wrote about how the “protestors who broke into the Legislative Council were not rioters… They were not violent… They wanted to make the regime hear Hong Kong’s voice, and they had no other option” he said. Eddie Chu, a pro-democracy politician told Al Jazeera that “What the young people did yesterday inside the chamber council actually reveals an inconvenient truth to the whole world. That’s why Hong Kong citizens were so disrespectful to our own legislature is because it cannot represent us. So, it signifies clearly the reasons we need democracy” he says.
Hong Kong was established as a semi-autonomous territory in 1997, when the former British colony was given to China under the circumstances that it had political and legal autonomy. Since then, the two nations have operated under a “one country, two systems” principle that has allowed Hong Kong to operate everything except foreign relations and military defense separately from the Chinese government. This is not the first time that China has overstepped those boundaries. Historically, Hong Kong has tried to fight for the implementation of democracy and independence from Chinese oversight. In 2004, also on the anniversary of Hong Kong’s release from British rule, demonstrators marched to protest Beijing’s ruling against universal suffrage and China’s involvement in Hong Kong’s election laws. In 2006, tens of thousands of people rallied in support of the implementation of a full democracy in Hong Kong.
After many years of trying to secure a democracy, plans for developing a full democracy were finally unveiled in 2007. Beijing promised to allow Hong Kong the ability to elect their own leader in 2017 and legislators in 2020. In 2017, Carrie Lam won the electoral college and was sworn in as the new Chief Executive of Hong Kong. Despite this, Chinese President Xi Jinping visited Lam to warn against any attempt to challenge Chinese authority in the region. In January of 2017, demonstrators protested the relocation of Chinese officials to Hong Kong for oversight of the new leader.
The increased sense of democracy given to Hong Kong may have allowed them to feel comfortable with their autonomy, but it has had the opposite effect for China. Though Hong Kong may have made steps towards securing independence for themselves, China has found ways to break through their progress and assure that their influence will be secured no matter what. This new extradition bill is an example of how China can still maintain influence over Hong Kong despite their strides towards democracy.