Why Hong Kong has grown increasingly fearful of Chinese control

Police in riot gear on Harcourt Road after midnight on July 2, 2019.
Police in riot gear on Harcourt Road after midnight on July 2, 2019. ST PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI

HONG KONG (WASHINGTON POST) - After nearly a century as a British colony, Hong Kong became a "special administrative region" of China in 1997. At the time, many in the bustling city and global financial hub weren't sure what to make of their new Communist Party overseers in Beijing.

On Monday (July 1), exactly 22 years later, a crowd of protesters smashed their way into the central chambers of Hong Kong's parliament. Inside, they spray-painted graffiti critical of Hong Kong's government, and one protester placed the old colonial flag of Hong Kong over the city's official emblem.

The scenes mark a new level of intensity for protests that began this year in response to a Bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China.

The storming of the Legislative Council presents the strongest challenge to Chinese control of Hong Kong, and many have argued that it is a culmination of more than a decade of popular frustration over repeated encroachments by Beijing on Hong Kong's special status.

2003: Proposed changes to national security law spark huge protests

On the fifth anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong on July 1, 2003, an annual protest held on the day swelled to its largest number, with an estimated half a million people turning out.

Many in the crowd were motivated to protest due to proposed changes to Hong Kong's post-colonial constitution known as the Basic Law. The proposed changes, backed by Hong Kong's then-chief executive Tung Chee Hwa, focused on Article 23 of the Basic Law which deals with national security.

 
 
 
 

The Bill would have criminalised "subversion" against the Chinese government.

After mass protests, however, Hong Kong's legislature indefinitely shelved the plan.

2014: Umbrella Movement

Protesters call for democratic reform Hundreds of thousands of protesters took to the streets between September and December 2014, bringing much of the city to a standstill for 79 days in the biggest protests in years.

Demonstrations had begun in response to Beijing's announcement that the candidates to be Hong Kong's next leader, due to be selected in an election in 2017, would be vetted by Chinese authorities.

Protesters demanded instead that they should have full suffrage and direct elections in line with promises China made before the handover.

The backlash to the move marked the ascent of a new generation of young protesters in Hong Kong who borrowed the language of the Occupy movement and added their own touches such as the use of the umbrella as a symbol.

This time, however, the protests failed to lead to any concessions.

2015: Booksellers in Hong Kong targeted by Beijing

In 2015, a number of people connected with a Hong Kong publisher and shop that sold books banned in mainland China went missing.

Though the books were not sold in mainland China, tourists often snapped them up on visits to Hong Kong, eager for the unvarnished and gossipy tales of Communist Party leaders the books covered.

Only later did the Chinese government admit that five booksellers had been detained for alleged criminal activity. Notably, the apparent arrest of at least one bookseller within Hong Kong by Chinese agents violated the "one country, two systems" policy in place after the handover from Britain.

"We now have confirmation of what we always suspected," Anson Chan, a former chief secretary of Hong Kong, told The Washington Post at the time.

"We are all vulnerable to arbitrary arrest by mainland operatives, even in Hong Kong, and we cannot expect any help or protection from our own local authorities."

2017: Xi Jinping makes his first visit as Chinese leader

Chinese leader Xi Jinping visited Hong Kong in summer 2017 for the 20th anniversary of the handover.

As he was greeted by the territory's largest military parade, he gave a speech in which he emphasised that Chinese sovereignty was paramount.

"When our country does well, Hong Kong will do even better," Xi said during his visit, his first since becoming Chinese leader in 2013.

Xi also used the visit to swear in Hong Kong's new leader, Carrie Lam. Lam, who had been elected under the rules that led to the protests in 2014, had the backing of much of the city's pro-Beijing business and political elite.

The visit from the Chinese leader came amid moves that appeared designed to better connect Hong Kong with mainland China, including a high speed rail link and a new 34-mile bridge that Xi himself opened the next year.

2019: Proposed changes to extradition law lead to new protests

 
 

The most recent round of protests in Hong Kong began in June in response to a proposal that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China - an idea that led to further worries that Hong Kong's system of law and order was becoming subservient to Beijing's harsher rules.

Lam, the Hong Kong chief executive who had supported the extradition change, has put the law on hold and apologised for how the government handled its rollout.

But the protests have swelled into something bigger, and there are widespread calls for her to resign from her position.

As leader of Hong Kong, Lam had pushed for a variety of pro-Beijing laws, including one that would have criminalised mockery of the Chinese national anthem.