LittleLaw looks at… The Protests in Hong Kong

An examination of the civil unrest in Hong Kong

November 12, 2019

9 min read

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Since early June there have been protests in Hong Kong in response to a proposed bill which would allow extradition to China for crimes such as murder and rape. Extradition is the act of sending an individual  back to the country or state in which a crime was committed. This is especially controversial due to the “special status” of Hong Kong which is a result of the “One Country, Two Systems” framework; a framework which gives Hong Kong an element of autonomy from China.1 Whilst the bill has now been formally withdrawn, it is unlikely to quell the anger of the protesters.2

The protesters were originally united by their opposition to the extradition bill. However, through the course of the protests, further grievances were voiced. What began as a revolt against a proposed bill turned into a plea for greater democratic freedom by the disillusioned. 

In examining the unrest in Hong Kong, an event-specific approach will be taken to highlight the destruction caused by the protests themselves, as well as the various responses to the protests.

The human chain protest (August 2019) and the response to it

In an effort to raise publicity and bring attention to the issues they are fighting for, protesters formed a human chain which covered pavements, roads and subway entrances. It was inspired by the 1989 protests across the Baltic States which opposed Soviet domination of the region. The chain in Hong Kong coincided with the 30th anniversary of the Baltic Way which took place August 23rd 1989.

Moreover, other protesters climbed Lion Rock and shone lights across the city in order to show their collective defiance.3 Joshua Wong (a key leader of the protests) tweeted that “HKers are facing what Baltic were facing from USSR 30 yrs ago, we must win in this battle!”, pleading with the world to support them.4

More than 200,000 people took part and the chain is said to have covered nearly 35 miles in total.5 The purpose of the peaceful protest was to “be a show of solidarity… and a plea for international support” organisers claimed.6

This is in stark contrast to the violence that occurred during other protests such as the mass sit in at Hong Kong Airport  (see our article on the airport protests here)7. Organisers have apologised for the chaos and argued that “what happened [at the airport was] … not perfect but it does not mean that the sit-in is officially terminated”.8

The response from the Chinese government has been particularly stern.  Indeed, China’s Hong Kong Affairs Office has likened the mayhem to “near-terrorist acts”.9 However, Hong Kong Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, has stated that “I and my principal officials are committed to listen to what the people have to tell us, and we want to reach out to the community as soon as possible”.10 It could be argued that, had the officials been as “committed to listen” from the beginning, the overall destruction following the various protests would have been greatly mitigated.

Response from the citizens of Hong Kong to ongoing protests: Yuen Long MTR station (July 2019)

On 21 July, a group of men wearing white t-shirts attacked returning protesters at the station. However, only two men have been charged with rioting, despite the fact that 28 suspects have been related to the attack.11 The two men could face up to 10 years in prison if convicted. At least 45 people were injured in the attack, which lasted over 30 minutes, after the men used wooden poles and iron pipes. Unfortunately, this is not the only incident of violence against the protesters, with organiser Max Chung being attacked by 4 individuals in the Tai Po area of Hong Kong.12 

There is further controversy surrounding this event as it took the police nearly 40 minutes to arrive after multiple calls from terrified passengers. Further, once the police did arrive, they failed to actively intervene and make arrests. It has been suggested that some officers had been colluding with the mobs. Nevertheless, police themselves argued that they could not make arrests because they were simply unable to tell whether the white clad men were actually the perpetrators. 13

Furthermore, pro-Beijing lawmaker Junius Ho has argued that the response of these citizens to the returning protesters was “normal”. This is because it is a result of the violence the protesters had inflicted on Hong Kong and he argues these citizens were merely “defending their home”.14 

A month later, in August, demonstrators returned to the same spot and further clashes with the police ensued. This resulted in fire extinguishers being sprayed at the police  and others smearing the floor with cooking oil to prevent the police advancing.15

All of this suggests that the protesters are not only attracting the ire of officials, but also the rage of their fellow citizens – the very citizens whose rights they are fighting for.

Response from officials in Hong Kong and China to the protests

As alluded to above, China has taken a very stern approach to the protests. It has stripped Lawyer Li Jinxing of his licence due to his social media comments which were deemed “improper”. Li Jinxing is said to have infringed the lawyers’ code by commenting on two cases. Firstly, the case of Lawyer Wen Donghai who was disbarred after he was investigated for “disrupting court order” and secondly, Li made comments about how he himself was prevented from meeting with his  client at a detention centre in Fujian province.16 Furthermore, Beijing-based lawyer Chen Qiushi also faced pressure from officials which resulted in him returning home early. Chen arrived as a tourist and posted video diaries about several of the protests that were taking place during his time there. Chen still maintains that his accounts were objective portrayals, however he faced disqualification from practice due to his visit.17 It is likely that these are not the only cases of individuals being targeted as a result of a perceived involvement in the Hong Kong protests; Doriane Lau (researcher at Amnesty International Hong Kong) has stated that “in the past there have been cases of mainlanders harassed or taken away by the authorities after attending protests in Hong Kong”.18

This emphasises that no-one, not even lawyers who know what protections they are entitled to, are safe from the wrath of officials in Hong Kong and China. It highlights the lengths they will go to silence those who speak out.

International response to the protests and financial repercussions

Whilst US President Donald Trump stated that he will not officially choose a side, he has also warned China that they must deal with these protesters “humanely” if they wish the trade war with the US to end.19 Furthermore, as China and the US are still engaged in a trade war (read our article on that here), it would indicate that the financial impact will also be felt by China if they do not extend an olive branch to Hong Kong.

Further afield, the Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, Marise Payne, has stated that “there is intense public interest and international community concern at events in Hong Kong”.20 

The Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau, has also stated that they “are extremely concerned about the situation…[and] we need to see the local authorities listening to the very serious concerns brought forward by Chinese citizens”.21

Hong Kong is on the verge of recession due to the drop-in tourism and retail spending.22 For example, due to the protest at the airport, the aviation industry is expected to lose more than US$76 million following flight cancellations.23 Moreover, companies are no longer choosing Hong Kong as their headquarters when seeking to do business with China, threatening its status as a “hub” for international commerce.[24]

LittleLaw’s verdict: Change is unlikely to happen soon

The violence has significantly increased since the peaceful sit-ins earlier this summer. Riot-police have been accused, and recorded, of shooting at protesters and citizens with real ammunition, not only with rubber bullets. Troublingly, there are also serious allegations of sexual and physical abuse by the  police against detainees in detention centres. For example, a teenage girl accused the police of gang-raping her and she was forced to get an abortion. She has now lodged legal proceedings against the Police and Government.25 

It is difficult to expect any significant progress to be made after so many months of violence, both caused by the protesters and against them. Furthermore, the inability of Hong Kong officials to quell the chaos in a peaceful and effective manner is ravaging both Hong Kong and China. Moreover, whilst there are accusations against both sides of this dispute,  it is hard not to sympathise with the protesters who so desperately want their voices heard by a government who appear deaf to them.

Report written by Natasha Dawes

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Footnotes

  1. The Economist, ‘A proposed extradition law triggers unrest in Hong Kong’ (The Economist, 13 June 2019).
  2. Stuart Heaver, ‘Opinion: Carrie Lam’s Days Are Numbered, But Hong Kong’s Fight Is Not Over Yet’ (The Independent, 5 June 2019).
  3. Holmes Chan and others, ‘In Pictures: Hongkongers Form Pro-Democracy Human Chain Across City On 30Th Anniversary Of Baltic Way | Hong Kong Free Press HKFP’ (Hong Kong Free Press HKFP, 23 August 2019).
  4. Joel Gehrke, ‘Hong Kong Protesters Tie Xi’S Hands With Baltic Anti-Soviet Human Chain’ (Washington Examiner, 23 August 2019).
  5. Austin Ramzy, ‘Hong Kong Protesters Join Hands To Form Human Chains Across The City’ (Nytimes.com, 23 August 2019).
  6. Alexa Lardieri, ‘Protesters Form 28 Mile Human Chain in Hong Kong’ (usnews.com, 23 August 2019).
  7. NEWS WIRES, ‘Hong Kong Airport Reopens After Clashes Between Protesters And Police’ (France 24, 14 August 2019).
  8. Jeffie Lam, Sum Lok-kei and Kimmy Chung, ‘Hong Kong Airport Protesters Apologise For Disruption, ‘Overreaction’’ (South China Morning Post, 14 August 2019).
  9. Paul Goldman and Linda Givetash, ‘Hong Kong Protesters Form 28-Mile Human Chain Demanding Democracy’ (NBC News, 23 August 2019).
  10. Ramy Inocencio, ‘Hong Kong Protesters Form Human Chains Across The City’ (Cbsnews.com, 24 August 2019).
  11. Brian Wong, ‘Two Men Appear In Court On Rioting Charges In Relation To Yuen Long Attack’ (South China Morning Post, 23 August 2019).
  12. Holmes Chan, ‘Hong Kong Protest Organiser Max Chung Beaten Up In Tai Po, Shortly After Police Grant Him Unconditional Release | Hong Kong Free Press HKFP’ (Hong Kong Free Press HKFP, 29 August 2019).
  13. Kris Cheng, ‘Hong Kong Police Made No Arrests After Mob Assaulted Commuters, Protesters, Journalists In Yuen Long | Hong Kong Free Press HKFP’ (Hong Kong Free Press HKFP, 22 July 2019).
  14. Sum Lok-kei and Su Xinqi, ‘Yuen Long Attackers Were Defending Their Home, Says Lawmaker’ (South China Morning Post, 22 July 2019).
  15. Almen Chui, ‘Two men face charges over Yuen Long MTR clashes’ (asiatimes.com, 22 August 2019).
  16. Echo Xie, ‘China Strips Rights Lawyer Of Licence Over Social Media Comments’ (South China Morning Post, 7 August 2019).
  17. Laurie Chen, ‘Chinese Rights Lawyer ‘Safe’ After Return From Hong Kong Protests Trip’ (South China Morning Post, 21 August 2019).
  18. Laurie Chen, ‘Chinese Rights Lawyer ‘Safe’ After Return From Hong Kong Protests Trip’ (South China Morning Post, 21 August 2019).
  19. Vivian Salama and Alex Leary, ‘Trump Ties Trade Deal To China Action In Hong Kong, Suggests Meeting With Xi’ (WSJ, 14 August 2019).
  20. Marise Payne, ‘Statement On Protests In Hong Kong’ (Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 12 June 2019).
  21. Thomson Reuters, ‘Trudeau ‘Extremely Concerned’ About Hong Kong, Urges China To Be Careful | CBC News’ (CBC, 12 August 2019).
  22. Ramy Inocencio, ‘Hong Kong Protesters Form Human Chains Across The City’ (Cbsnews.com, 24 August 2019.
  23. Cannix Yau, ‘Airport Protests To Cost Aviation Industry More Than US$76 Million’ (South China Morning Post, 14 August 2019).
  24. Allen Morrison, ‘How Hong Kong’s Protests Are Affecting Its Economy’ (The Conversation, 22 August 2019).
  25. Chris Lau, ‘Hong Kong student who accused police of sexual violence against protesters has taken legal advice and plans further action’ (South China Morning Post, 11 October 2019).

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