A Yearly Recap 2019
Following the 2014 Occupy protests, it has been commonplace for Hong Kong football fans to boo the Chinese anthem at matches. Against this background, the Chinese government has made clear its intentions since 2017 to adopt a National Anthem Bill. Under draft legislation introduced in early January 2019, a person who misuses the March of the Volunteers for commercial advantage, or insults it publically and intentionally, could face legal consequences. Students, including those studying in international schools, will be forced to include the song in its education, with classes covering the “history and the spirit”, as well as the “etiquette for playing and singing the national anthem”.
Patrick Nip, secretary for constitutional and mainland affairs in Hong Kong, rejected accusations that the draft legislation would impede on free speech in Hong Kong, arguing that it only restricted “the format but not the content” of expression. Benedict Rogers, founder and Chairman of the Hong Kong Watch, pointed out concerns over the proportionality of punishment under the bill, and urged the UK government to take action to protect Hong Kong's freedoms.
Hong Kong’s unique political system and way of life has been stretched and strained in 2019, with the controversy over the National Anthem Bill being just the beginning. Navigating Hong Kong’s relations with China is a crucial challenge that will endure beyond this decade.
The Hong Kong security bureau proposed for the first time to allow extradition of criminals to China, amending the law that prevented extradition to China, Macau and Taiwan. Instead, extradition requests to these three jurisdictions would be assessed on a case-by-case basis. The suggested change would allow the Chief Executive to issue arrest certificates, while the final decision on the surrender of fugitives would be decided by the court as a safeguard for defendants’ legal and human rights.
This raised fears and sparked anger that Hong Kong would be losing its autonomy, and that defendants would be facing an opaque, part-driven judicial system in China. Furthermore, the proposal raised fears that extraditions to China would be politically motivated, used against those who pose a threat to Beijing's authority. The deep opposition towards the proposal would go on to intensify and dominate Hong Kong's social and political scene for the rest of the year.
On March 31st, 12,000 protesters marched from Southorn Playground to Admiralty denouncing the then-upcoming amendment to the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance, calling on the government to withdraw the proposed amendment that would allow China to extradite people from Hong Kong. This would be the first in a long series of protests and rallies surrounding the extradition bill.
According to a report by the US State Department, Beijing's increased interference in Hong Kong is hurting confidence in the international business community. The report cited, inter alia, the ban of the pro-independence Hong Kong National party and the proposed China national anthem law, as examples of mainland encroachment on Hong Kong's political autonomy. The report was submitted to the US Congress in support of the Hong Kong Policy Act 1992, which allows Hong Kong to be treated as a non-sovereign entity distinct from China for trade and economic matters under US law. The political and economic development of Hong Kong, by virtue of its importance in the international market, has implications beyond domestic political and social discourse. How Hong Kong repositions itself as a strong player in the international economy with links to China, while retaining its secure, transparent, robust financial and legal system is a key question for both businesses and the government.
Nine activists in the 2014 Occupy protests, which aimed to bring fully democratic elections to Hong Kong, were found guilty of several charges relating to public nuisance. The verdict was condemned by pro-democracy activists and human rights groups; Lord Chris Patten, the former governor of Hong Kong, called the judgement "appallingly divisive", and others commented that the courts were sending the wrong message by labelling peaceful protests as causing a public nuisance. Since the Occupy protests, several dozen other democracy activists have been imprisoned or are facing trials related to the protests.
This brings up a point of reflection regarding the role of the judiciary in Hong Kong: The rule of law, a core value of Hong Kong, stipulates adherence to and equality before the law. While courts are (supposedly) impartial administrators of the law, it is difficult to ignore the political significance of these rulings, and how the charges give a strong political appearance of the erosion of Hong Kong’s freedom of expression and right to demonstrate.
In other news, ten of thousands marched to LegCo to protest against the extradition bill, with some protestors wearing yellow and carrying umbrellas, calling for Carrie Lam to resign. Protestors vowed to step up demonstrations by surrounding LegCo. Organisers estimated a 130,000 turnout while the police reported the number at around 22,800. Senior US lawmakers issued warnings about the bill, flagging Hong Kong's "diminished" autonomy. British foreign secretary Jeremy Hunt also raised similar concerns to Parliament. The role of the international community in Hong Kong is something that Hong Kong people should think deeply about - While cries to the international community can rally support, many of Hong Kong’s problems can only truly be solved from within - Without an effective government that the people trust, Hong Kong is going nowhere.
Activists Ray Wong and Alan Li publicly announced that they were granted refugee status by Germany. They are the first two dissenters from Hong Kong who have been accepted as political refugees. Wong and Li lead Hong Kong Indigenous, a group that fights for Hong Kong independence, and were charged with rioting offences relating to the 2016 protests. Carrie Lam criticised Germany for granting asylum to the duo, describing the decision as undermining Hong Kong's reputation for upholding the rule of law, and expressed doubt over whether the decision was based in fact, highlighting that the two had "jeopardised public order".
Joshua Wong was sent back to jail after a failed appeal against a three-month sentence for defying a court order to clear a protest site in 2014. Young people have clearly taken on an increasingly large role in the pro-democracy movements. How this will transform the voice of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong and how the change they hope to bring will translate into policy will be key in the coming years.
Also in May, the pro-democratic camp engaged in filibustering to prevent the election of a committee chairman for the Bill Committee on the extradition bill amendments. Upon controversy about the election of a chairperson, Democratic Party’s James To and Civic Party’s Dennis Kwok were finally elected as chair and vice chair. However, conflicts did not end there, when attempts to hold meetings descended into chaos. A number of legislators, in the midst of chaos, fell to the ground. Near the end of the month, the House Committee of the Legislative Council dominated by the pro-Beijing camp passed a motion enabling the Bill to bypass the usual practice of scrutinising the bill in the Bills Committee and go straight to a second reading in the full Legislative Council.
On the 9th of June, over a million people participated in a rally protesting against the extradition bill. Despite this, the government insisted that a second reading of the bill would resume. On the 12th, the day of the planned resumption of the reading of the bill, clashes erupted. Commissioner of Police Stephen Lo declared the clashes a “riot”, leading to demands for this characterisation to be retracted, as well as calls for the establishment of an independent commission of inquiry into police brutality.
On the 15th of June, Carrie Lam announced that the extradition bill was to be suspended, and her government would seek to reintroduce it when the time was right. Protestors, however, maintained their push for Lam's resignation, for her refusal to withdraw the bill completely, and for the government's incompetence and failure to apologize for police brutality.
Lam's decision to suspend the bill was welcomed by some, with many considering it a sensible move that would lead to the protests cooling down; Hong Kong stocks rose after the announcement, outperforming other Asian indices. What some saw as progress, many more saw it as an ingenuine attempt to appease the people. The following day, despite her announcement, 2 million joined another anti-extradition bill march.
Despite having apologized for her handling of the bill, Lam defended the police for their use of tear gas, bean bag rounds, rubber bullets and batons. The police commissioner said the police acted in self-defence after some protesters threw bricks at the police and armed themselves with metal poles and wooden boards. Several protesters were arrested for illegal assembly, assault and rioting. Protesters called for their release, as one of the five demands that framed the months of protests.
Beyond just expressing dissatisfaction and lack of confidence in the local government, protesters increasingly focused on targets with links to China, such as the Liaison Office for Hong Kong, Beijing's representative office in Hong Kong. Protesters sprayed graffiti insults against China on the walls, defaced lettering on the gate and threw an egg at a glass door. Riot police fired several rounds of tear gas and rubber bullets at protesters at the scene. The government called these protests completely unacceptable. These events bring a deeper contradiction to the fore: Not just a clash between government and people, but also a clash of systems between the “us” in Hong Kong and the perceived authoritarian, oppressive “they” in China. This contradiction is particularly significant, with Hong Kong being a city embedded within the Chinese system. It is worth contemplating how the pro-democracy movement should proceed. The pro-democracy movement is essentially unified by a very loose ideology - how can democratic ideals be translated into a workable political solution?
On the 1st of July, the annual pro-democracy march claimed a turnout of 550,000. Separately, hundreds of protestors stormed the Legislative Council building, spray painting graffiti on walls and defaced anything with pro-Chinese elements. The police then arrived, sweeping the surrounding streets using tear gas. Some protesters defended their acts, calling the demonstration at the LegCo a 'necessary evil', frustrated that the government's continued failure to listen to the people despite peaceful protests earlier on. Carrie Lam held an impromptu press conference in early hours following the LegCo demonstration, condemning the protesters and argued that the police had exercised restraint. Protesters also targeted the Hong Kong airport, bringing activity to a standstill.
A major event was on the 21st of July, where white-clothed men attacked passengers at Yuen Long station. This led to accusations that the government and police were conspiring with triads to allow the attack on pro-democracy protesters. Other clashes include chaos in Shatin mall that led an officer to lose a finger, as well as multiple arrests and hospitalisations.
A key source of anger that was beginning to take centre stage was the issue of accountability. While many have been arrested, and will no doubt face legal consequences for their actions, many were beginning to question why legal accountability had not been seen, and at the end of 2019 still continues to not be seen on the police’s side. When the government appears to condone and endorse the police in the face of serious allegations of abuse and malpractice, violence employed by the police begins to have a far larger impact than violence used by protesters. A deeper contemplation of accountability and commitment to the true spirit of the rule of law is necessary for the government to take the necessary steps to mend fractures in society.
Joshua Wong and Agnes Chow were arrested for unlawful assembly outside police headquarters in June, and were later released on bail. The two were part of a series of high-profile arrests of pro-democracy activists, such as that of Andy Chan, founder of the Hong Kong National Party, who was arrested at the Hong Kong airport. In the same month, leader of the Civil Human Rights Front Jimmy Sham and Max Chung Kin Ping were attacked by thugs. The assaults was evidence of escalation in political violence; and Chung said that the attacks signified a loss of 'freedom to live without terror' in Hong Kong.
Demonstrations have led to pressure on businesses by Beijing, most notably on Cathay Pacific, who replaced its chief executive after Beijing criticised it for failing to rein in employees that participated in the protests. The airport also obtained an injunction to stop protests following mass cancellations caused by sit-ins that crippled the airport's operation, which were followed by violent clashes between demonstrators and the police. In one incident at the airport, protesters grabbed two men they claimed to be undercover agents for China, and beat and tied them up. The two men were in fact reporters, and were hailed as 'heroes' in Chinese media. Subsequently, some protesters published apologies for the incident.
After months of protests, Carrie Lam formally withdrew the extradition bill. However, many protestors saw this as 'too little, too late', and continued to insist on the fulfilment of their Five Demands.
As the school year began, tens of thousands of students from secondary schools and universities boycotted class, while some workers decided to boycott work as well. The MTR faces a crisis of its own - the company, of which 75 percent is owned by the Hong Kong government, was targeted by protestors. Protestors set fire to one station, and smashed windows. There had also been demonstrations where protestors blocked train doors and called for passengers to join in their general strike. The MTR had been shutting off certain services and stations in response to Chinese allegations that it was helping facilitate violent protests, and has since become a proxy target for the government, with many protesters associating the MTR with the government and China.
In a carefully planned event, Carrie Lam spoke to a 150-persons audience in order to pacify the increasingly violence and large-scale protests, attempting to answer questions from members of the public directly. Outside the venue, protesters shouted at the CE, as well as at the riot police stationed. The questions covered a range of issues, and many were about the police's excessive use of force. Lam failed to answer, repeating empty, well-rehearsed lines she had used time and time again at press conferences. She had nothing new to say, and she will not say what the protesters are demanding to hear from her - Carrie Lam has much to lose if she admits to police malpractice and turns her back to Beijing.
So what now? The frustrations and demands of the Hong Kong people are clear, and the government is yet to deliver, and at the very least show that it has listened. Unpleasant as it sounds, compromise is the answer. We must pave the way forward by understanding the realities of our system and the constraints it comes with, striving towards a society that will allow Hong Kong to continue to prosper. As we step into a new decade, soul-searching among Hong Kong people will not be easy.
The Hong Kong government passed an anti-mask legislation, fast-tracking the process by invoking the Emergency Regulations Ordinance. The legislation would ban protesters from covering their faces partially or fully during demonstrations, with offenders facing jail time and a fine. Carrie Lam called the measure a 'necessary' one; Secretary for Justice Teresa Cheng said the legislation has taken into account human rights concerns, and struck a balance between protesters' rights and the need to assist law enforcement. Critics called the law draconian, and that it would threaten protesters' personal safety and their freedom of expression. Many also pointed out that the police should be the first to stop covering their faces so they can be held accountable for using excessive force. The use of the ERO shows that the government is uncommitted to democratic decision-making, and is determined to crack down on protesters rather than listen to them. It is a step backwards rather than forward, deepening the distrust the Hong Kong people have in the government.
The US House of Representatives passed the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, alongside other measures to assert pressure on the Hong Kong government and on China in relation to human rights issues. While this was celebrated by many in the pro-democracy movement, it is worth thinking more carefully about the implications of the Act: what the US is willing and capable of doing is unclear, and the wording of the legislation itself leaves much in the air. The Act is probably nothing more than symbolic, and the cynic might even go further to suggest that it is simply a foreign policy tactic - only time will tell the Act’s substance and true effect. The Hong Kong government needs to realise that it is in the best position to give the Hong Kong people what they want, and that no other body, not even the 'land of the free', can deliver a democracy that works for Hong Kong.
In other news, Joshua Wong was disqualified from running in local elections. Authorities said that this was because Wong's group, Demosisto, advocated self-determination of Hong Kong, which was in contradiction to One Country, Two Systems. Wong argued that self-determination did not equate to independence, but rather was a call for Hong Kong to make its own democratic decisions without being in China's shadow. Wong had been active in the overseas representation of the pro-democracy movement, meeting leaders in Germany and the US. There were a record number of candidates standing for the 2019 election, and a record number of registered voters. Elections are the basis of democratic leadership, and to pull candidates out because of their political stance is a clear violation of political freedom, and a blatant disregard for democracy. Wong is clearly a pain in the government's eyes, and a target of Beijing. But to disqualify 'inconvenient' people from the political arena is the wrong approach, and the government's failure to reflect is disappointing.
Chow Tze-lok, a student at HKUST, passed away. While the events leading up to Chow's fall are unclear, many believed his death was linked to the protests, and that the police had been using excessive force that led to Chow's fall. Hundreds of office workers marched through Central, and thousands more wearing masks and white flowers showed up in flash-mob rallies and vigils around Hong Kong to mourn Chow. After his death, protesters planned a city-wide strike.
Stand-offs between demonstrators and the police continued, seemingly without end, where violence seemed to have become a regular occurrence. Junius Ho, a pro-Beijing lawmaker, was stabbed early in the month. Martin Liao, another pro-establishment lawmaker, said he doubted whether there could be a fair District Council election after the attack on Ho. Other notable attacks include an assault where pro-democracy district councillor Andrew Chiu had an ear bitten off as he tried to stop an attack; and earlier in an attack in which Roy Kwong, a lawmaker who acted as a mediator between the police and protesters, was beaten up. Footage also arose showing some protesters dousing a Chinese man in petrol and setting him on fire. The man was seen stumbling to put the fire out, and suffered severe second-degree burns on his face, chest, stomach and arms.
November was also the month where protests were taken to university campuses. Confrontations at the Chinese University of Hong Kong lasted for two days, where the police fired tear gas, sponge grenades and rubber bullets into the campus while the protesters returned fire with bricks and petrol bombs. The siege of Polytechnic University was a cause of massive concern, with the campus put under complete lockdown by the police. Over 1,000 were arrested in and around the university over the course of the siege. Many saw the police's actions as impeding on what universities should stand for - the truth, knowledge, and freedom.
The District Council Elections were long awaited by Hong Kong people, with it being the first electoral test of public opinion since the start of anti-government protests in June. A record number of Hong Kong people came out to vote on the day, and ultimately, pan-democrats took 17 out of the 18 districts in a landslide victory, while the establishment camp suffered heavy losses. This was a clear victory for the pro-democratic movement, which is a sign that public opinion is leaning towards their side. How the pro-democracy camp can keep up the momentum and bolster public support ahead of next year’s Legislative Council elections is very important for its influence from within the system.
The High Court ruled that the mask ban, which was passed using the Emergency Regulations Ordinance, was unconstitutional, saying that it failed the proportionality test for the restriction of fundamental rights. The court also ruled that parts of the ERO that allowed the chief executive to make laws "on any occasion of public danger" unconstitutional. A section of the mask ban that allowed police officers to remove a person's mask attracted particularly strong criticism from the court, as it was so wide it practically had no restriction on a police officer's exercise of power. Pro-democracy lawmakers and protesters welcomed the judgement, and the judgement was seen as a victory for the anti-government movement. A spokesperson of the National People's Congress attacked the judgement in a statement, and while the statement did not constitute a formal rejection of the High Court ruling, its opposition speaks loud and clear, and adds to the belief that freedoms in Hong Kong are under threat of Beijing's crackdown. It is another sign that China's heavy-handed approach is not well-received in Hong Kong.
In the first demonstration approved by the police since mid-August, a massive crowd marched through central Hong Kong while riot police watched from the sides. Throughout the month, the police force had found weapons on several occasions, and froze HK$70m raised by Spark Alliance, alleging that the funds have been used for personal gains and for luring teens into taking part in protests. The government issued a statement, saying that the government had learned its lesson and would listen to the people. Whether the government will deliver on its promise will be for all to see in the coming year, and the people will not be lenient judges.
The retail and leisure sectors in Hong Kong have suffered since the protests began, and over the holiday season demonstrations over the Christmas days to disrupt festive shopping had led to devastating declines for many businesses. The value of monthly sales has fallen dramatically since protests began, with the most recent data showing monthly sales down roughly 25 percent year on year; many businesses reported plans to lay off employees. Hong Kong is entering the new year in the deepest recession it has been in since 2008, and the government's relief measures are unlikely to prop up struggling businesses for much longer. The economic implications of the protests are great . As Hong Kong people made clear, businesses affiliated with China are unwelcome for political reasons, but the consequences are far-reaching. Hong Kong has a great challenge ahead: repositioning itself in the era of a strong China that needs Hong Kong less and less to reach the rest of the world. Hong Kong's robust market, now more than ever, needs an effective political leadership to restore confidence in it. Dissatisfaction in the economy is a breeding ground for political upheaval - and Hong Kong has shown that for one, the economy must work for the many, not the few; and that ideology and a way of life is just as important as livelihoods.
Change is needed from all ends. China needs to find a new way to pitch itself, both to Hong Kong and the world; the government needs to listen; the police needs the courage to be held accountable; and we the people need to speak eruditely to find a way forward, listen where it is due, and hold on to the determination and unity this movement has brought out in us.
2019 was not an easy year, and the difficulty is not stopping anytime soon. It has been a year filled with negativity, and it seems like a vision is yet to be found to bring us forward. Here is to a fruitful year ahead of finding solutions, healing and constructive dialogue. It takes all of us to build not only a politically democratic system, but a democratic culture where we are willing to accept differences and accountability for all. In the meantime, we can celebrate the strength Hong Kong people have shown this year, and be hopeful that we are working towards the better.
1st January 2020