While the Black Lives Matter movement highlights structural racism in US law enforcement in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, the people of Hong Kong continue to lobby against police brutality and the encroachment of mainland China.
Skyscrapers silhouette the horizon, neon signs blanket the streets, and Cantopop music blares from everywhere. The streets are full of noisy chatter, in a city that never sleeps.
Boasting about how safe Hong Kong is, has always been my go-to when promoting the city I grew up in during my younger years.
Late night shopping followed by gratifying foot massages, while snacking on street food such as fish balls or egg waffles/tarts, is what many would call a typical night spent in Hong Kong as one of the safest places to wander, even up to the wee hours of the morning.
Long before a new virus from Wuhan in mainland China caused cataclysmic changes to the planet, around this time last year images coming out of Hong Kong gripped the world’s attention.
Over a two week period in June 2019, out of a population of 7.4 million, estimates of up to 2 million Hong Kong residents were taking to the streets opposing a controversial extradition bill (the region’s police say less than four hundred thousand demonstrated).
While the international media has moved on to COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests, the issues Hong Kongers were battling last year – police brutality and the encroachment of China – remain unresolved.
The 2019 protests were among the largest in Hong Kong’s history, and opposed a bill which would have allowed extradition to mainland China, where the legal system significantly differs to that of the democratically-run Hong Kong.
Questions often arise if Hong Kong is part of China and the response isn’t always straightforward without delving into a bit of history.
Hong Kong was a colony of the United Kingdom regime until 1997, which was when the UK returned the Special Administrative Region or SAR back to China.
As a SAR some autonomy was granted by Beijing to Hong Kong, governed under the “one country, two system” principle.
This means, while Hong Kong is technically under China, it operates independently retaining its own currency, parliamentary system, and legal system which – in contrast to China’s – is based on British common law.
That’s in theory.
In practice Hong Kong’s autonomy has taken some hits in a situation that’s been brewing over time.
While Hong Kong was guaranteed special autonomy for fifty years (up to 2047) China has since gradually encroached on Hong Kong, applying pressure to succumb to various demands.
Hong Kong legislative council member Jeremy Tam from the SAR’s fourth largest party, the Civic Party, believes around a million people marched in the streets of Hong Kong protesting the extradition bill on 9 June 2019.
When the SAR’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam proceeded to pass the bill as scheduled on 12 June, things got violent.
“I’ve never seen anything like it before, there were so many people,” he said.
“Back in 2003 there were half a million people on the street, compared to what we’ve seen in June, it was just amazing.”
Mr Tam is referring to the 2003 movement against ‘Article 23’, a National Security bill prohibiting treason, secession, sedition and subversion against the Chinese government and outlawing the theft of state secrets.
The 2003 protests also took place against the backdrop of a public health scare – the SARS epidemic.
More than 500,000 locals took to the streets saying Article 23 was an invasion of their rights, and succeeded in shelving the bill, causing a ripple effect – a senior official in favour of the bill resigned followed shortly by the-then chief executive of Hong Kong, Tung Chee-hwa, stepping down.
Mr Tam said the 2003 demonstrations stemmed from a strong dislike of the Tung government.
“There were a lot of things happening during that time, SARS and also Article 23, the National Security Law…People were mobilised because of that and dissatisfaction with Tung’s administration,” he said.
But, he said, it was a one-off demonstration unlike the on-going protests from 2019, which haven’t been deterred even with the presence of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“If you look at the extradition bill, there’s still no end [to it] – it’s still happening, people have just shifted their focus but that’s still unsolved,” Mr Tam said.
Hong Kong has a significant expat population, and it isn’t uncommon for foreigners – particularly from the surrounding region, or British citizens – to have resided in the SAR for decades or their entire lifespan.
Some, like Philippines-born Miguel Capistrano, work as Native Speaking English Teachers or NETs.
Mr Capistrano said locals are frustrated at soaring property prices and increased unemployment rates, and are facing a “boiling point from when things exploded” back in June 2019.
“The energy is mainly fuelled by secondary and university students who have a more dire perspective of their future unlike older generations who’ve gone through a British Colonial era,” he said.
“They (younger generation) don’t have much going on for them inthe next 15 or 20 years – they really need to voice out their frustrations.”
The extradition bill was suspended months later following the blanket opposition it received and Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam apologised.
But opposition to the bill was just one of “five key demands” made by the protesters fearing heightened influence from Beijing, with the aim of protecting Hong Kong’s democracy:
To withdraw the extradition bill – which has been achieved
2. To stop labelling protesters as “rioters”
3. To drop charges against protesters
4. To conduct an independent inquiry into police behaviour
5. To implement genuine universal suffrage for both the Legislative Council and the Chief Executive
According to Mr Tam, these demands are still being sought but the government seems to look the other way.
“We still urge for the five demands, we still talk about it…The five demands, I still believe, are the most concerning, particularly the police brutality, that is absolutely unacceptable in any measure, and the government continues to ignore it,” he said.
“Police brutality is no longer restricted to the anti-extradition movement, they (Hong Kong police) see it as a normal way to deal with any protest – police using the batons and hitting peoples’ heads, shedding blood everywhere, you hardly see that in the past.”
Kathy Wong is a receptionist with an education centre in Hong Kong.
She says her police constable partner is in charge of protesters brought to his police station, and deals with these young people by speaking to them practically and sensibly about the consequences around their actions.
“My boyfriend will talk to them [and ask] ‘do you really want to be that way?’ and ‘what do your parents think?’,” she said.
But Ms Wong sees the other side of it as well.
“Of course, I can see real footage of policemen stepping on the protester’s head when he has already been caught, I can see the police violence.”
In 2012, to gain support from the younger generation, the government tried to change Hong Kong’s curriculum to include Chinese historical and cultural subjects.
This was rejected outright by students, parents and teachers as an attempt at “brainwashing of Hong Kong’s youth”, Hong Kong based lawyer Antony Dapiran told TIME.
Thousands attended a protest against the curriculum changes in July that year. The then Chief Executive, C.Y. Leung, left it to the discretion of Hong Kong’s schools to implement the changes in curriculum.
Two years later the Umbrella Movement in 2014 called for universal suffrage to elect the leader of the former British colony, without Beijing’s inference in vetting candidates for the position.
Protesters took to the streets and occupied three major tourist hot spots for 79 days.
Mr Tam said people were starting to “wake up” to the realisation that there was no accountability and no real democracy.
“The Chinese government never honoured what we’ve been promised, in the Basic Law, about universal suffrage – as long as the Beijing government wants to, then Carrie Lam can be re-elected again,” he said.
The movement got its name when police and young demonstrators clashed over a protest location which was cordoned off.
The police then used pepper spray against the demonstrators who were only able to shield themselves using umbrellas.
With a lack of an alternative agreed to by all parties involved, the occupation of the tourist hotspots was abandoned – Beijing stood unruffled, and the call to be able to vote freely for Hong Kong’s leaders remains a demand of protestors to this day.
Comparing the Umbrella Movement to the 2019 protests, Ms Wong sees them as having different ideals because of the marked levels of violence in the protest movement which began last year.
She believes there is a better approach to the cause.
“Most of them are young people, I think they can use another way (like) being elected as a legislative council member and later on to become high officials, so they can change the whole structure of Hong Kong – that would be a longer and passive way, but I think it’s the right way,” she said.
In late May this year, Chinese legislators announced they would impose a national security law on Hong Kong at the behest of the ruling Communist Party in Beijing.
Similar to the 2003 bill, this law covers subversion, secession, terrorism and foreign interference with the goal of clamping down on the violence seen in the 2019 protests.
But many locals fear it stampedes on their unique freedoms.
While information about this new law has been scarce, residents have asked for more details to mitigate the concerns of the people of Hong Kong.
Mr Capistrano finds that there is an “erosion of democracy” in limiting the right to speak up and vote for Hong Kong’s preferred leaders.
“These are the remnants of the leftovers of the Umbrella Revolution spilling over to now – you can see the Chinese government slowly having a stronger influence in policy making and how officials are elected to government posts,” he said.
From the coronavirus to the on-again off-again protests which marked their one year anniversary in early June, Hong Kong has taken a beating in 2020.
The facemasks are here to stay, for one reason or another – and with the future of the SAR’s political freedoms unclear, it is no wonder many are looking for a way out.
“We’re all thinking of our exit strategy – sadly, for me I don’t want to leave so soon,” Mr Capistrano said.
“I enjoy teaching here and I do enjoy living here in Hong Kong – compared to the Philippines, it’s still safer here even though we have all these protests going on…I’m hoping China won’t take away all the good things from this city, and use its positive aspects as a model for all of its cities in its home country.”
Ms Wong has also looked into migrating elsewhere but the strict requirements in many countries of being from a specific profession or investing in businesses are not realistic avenues for her.
“My mother has already [started] looking for ways to get citizenship or residency in Taiwan, and most of us have applied for the BNO passport,” she said.
While Mr Tam sees the major issue with the police is their systems of accountability, he thinks if his party gets more than half of the seats in the Legislative Council, they will then have statutory authority and impose limits to police brutality.
“This year, for the Legislative Council, I can see it as the only chance that we may be able to have over 50 percent of seats – if we can get that, I hope, we still stand a chance,” he said.