Hong Kong protests: What's going on and what's the impact

VIDEO: REUTERS
Police officers clash with anti-government protesters at Hong Kong International Airport, on Aug 13, 2019.
Police officers clash with anti-government protesters at Hong Kong International Airport, on Aug 13, 2019.PHOTO: REUTERS

HONG KONG - Millions of Hong Kongers have taken to the streets since early June in the largest and most violent protests to rock the city in decades.

The demonstrations have paralysed some of the city's major transport hubs while Beijing's responses have become increasingly heated.

Background on Hong Kong's special status

Hong Kong was a British colony for more than 150 years. When the British handed the city back to China in 1997, the two sides agreed that Hong Kong was to be governed as part of  "one country, two systems"  for 50 years.  Hong Kong was granted a high degree of autonomy including having its own legal system and freedom of speech and assembly.

Over the years,  critics of China in Hong Kong have accused Beijing of trying to integrate Hong Kong into China and destroying Hong Kong's identity. Some issues which became flashpoints included the detention of five Hong Kong booksellers who had published books that were unflattering of the Chinese leadership and attempts to change the school curriculm in praise of China's communist government.

Pro-democracy activists have also become more vociferous in their demands for democratic reforms, including the direct election of the chief executive. The chief executive is now elected by a 1,200-member pro-Beijing body.

HOW DID THE PROTESTS START?

Protests and acts of civil disobedience began in March when Hong Kong's government mooted a controversial Bill that would have allowed the transfer of fugitives to several jurisdictions, including mainland China.

Opponents of the Bill see it as a threat to the rule of law in the former British colony that would put Hong Kong at the mercy of China's justice system and allow Beijing to have more direct control of the city. They believe that the Chinese legal system is  not transparent and is used to target Beijing's political opponents. 

The protests reached a peak when millions marched on the streets for two weekends in June against the Bill, forcing Chief Executive Carrie Lam to declare that the proposed legislation was "dead" and indefinitely shelved.

The suspension of the Bill infuriated protesters, who had wanted it to be scrapped completely. This drew them out to the streets in even greater numbers, and the demonstrations have increasingly descended into violence, with police firing tear gas and rubber bullets and protesters hurling bricks and bottles. Protesters also vandalised the Legislative Council building and attacked police stations. 

Anger shifted to the police, whom many have accused of using excessive force to disperse protesters.

More than 600 people have been arrested so far.

WHAT ARE THE PROTESTERS' DEMANDS?

The protests have morphed into a broader movement seeking greater democratic freedoms in the international financial hub.

The demonstrators are now calling for:

* Complete withdrawal of the extradition Bill;

 
 

* Withdrawal of the use of the word "riot" to describe the protests;

* Amnesty for all arrested protesters;

* An independent inquiry into alleged police brutality

* Universal suffrage for the Chief Executive and Legislative Council elections;

* Resignation of Mrs Lam, whom some accuse of being a puppet of Beijing.

WHAT IS HAPPENING AT THE AIRPORT?

The protesters have brought their message to the Hong Kong International Airport in the hope of garnering support from international arrivals.

The protests at the airport started peacefully but have descended into a series of violent confrontations over the last few days as protesters scuffled with  police and passengers desperate to get on flights.

 
 

The rallies paralysed one of the world's busiest travel hubs, forcing the airport to suspend check-ins, creating long delays for passengers and cancellation of hundreds of flights over the past two days.

Mrs Lam on Tuesday (Aug 13) said the city was in danger of "sliding into an abyss" and warned that it could be "smashed to pieces".

On Wednesday morning, the city's airport authority said it had obtained a court injunction to prevent unlawful demonstrations there.

IMPACT ON THE ECONOMY

The short-term worry is that Hong Kong's economy is headed for a recession as local unrest combined with the United States-China trade war pummel retail sales, weigh on real estate prices and sink the city's US$4.9 trillion (S$6.8 trillion) stock market.

The private sector, in particular the tourism industry, has begun counting the cost of more than three months of demonstrations, and the results are stark: hotel occupancy rates are down double-digit percentages, as were visitor arrivals in July. Group tour bookings from the short-haul market have plunged by up to 50 per cent.

The retail sector has also been hit by the drop in visitors hunting for bargains, shops often forced to shutter during the sometimes daily protests.

 
 

Experts say the crisis is compounding the economic downturn that Hong Kong was already experiencing as a result of being caught up in the US-China trade war.

Hong Kong Financial Secretary Paul Chan warned on Sunday that the Asian financial hub was entering "a very difficult economic environment" as trade declined and growth slowed.

"Industries like retail, catering and transportation have taken a hit because of the recent violent unrest, with significant revenue drops," Mr Chan wrote on his official blog.

WHAT HAS CHINA SAID?

China has condemned some protesters for using dangerous tools to attack police, saying the clashes showed "sprouts of terrorism", while China's civil aviation regulator has demanded that Hong Kong's carrier, Cathay Pacific, suspend staff who joined or backed the protests from flights in its airspace.

Chinese state media has gone from near silence to ramping up the rhetoric, calling the protesters "mobsters", warning they must never be appeased and raising the spectre of mainland security forces intervening to quash them.

 
 

In an ominous warning, China's official People's Daily said in a front-page commentary on Wednesday that using the "sword of the law to stop violence and restore order is overwhelmingly the most important and urgent task for Hong Kong".

The Global Times and the People's Daily have run a minute-long video compiling clips of armoured personnel carriers and troop carriers purportedly driving to Shenzhen, which borders Hong Kong.

The video shows roughly two dozen armoured carriers apparently driving through the southern city of Guangzhou and other troop carriers leaving eastern Fujian province.

WHAT IS THE REACTION FROM THE INTERNATIONAL COMMUNITY?

US President Donald Trump has described the developments in Hong Kong as a "very tough situation".

"I hope it works out for everybody, including China, by the way," Mr Trump told reporters on Tuesday. "I hope nobody gets hurt. I hope nobody gets killed."

However, prominent US senator Ben Cardin told Reuters that Hong Kong could lose the special trade status it has enjoyed under US law if Beijing intervenes directly to crack down on pro-democracy protests in the territory.

 
 

British, Canadian and Australian leaders have all expressed their concerns over the ongoing protests.

Britain Foreign Minister Dominic Raab encouraged police and protesters to sit down for a dialogue in order to resolve the crisis.

"Concerning to see what's happening in Hong Kong and the worrying pictures of clashes between police and protesters at the airport," he said on Twitter. "We condemn the violence and encourage constructive dialogue to find a peaceful way forward," he said.

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called for a "de-escalation of tensions" while his Australian counterpart Scott Morrison rejected the description of the protests as "riots".

Sources: Reuters, BBC, Guardian, Bloomberg