HONG KONG—If Hong Kong is supposed to represent the model of “one country, two systems,” why are the people there now fighting for freedom and democracy amid hails of rubber bullets and clouds of tear gas?
Over a million protesters have reportedly taken to the streets over the last week in opposition to a proposed bill that would allow Hongkongers to be extradited to mainland China, where they would invariably face a murky judicial system under the supreme authority of the Communist Party. Despite the protests, pro-Beijing leaders in Hong Kong want to fast-track the legislation.
Meanwhile, taking a soundbite straight from Communists, Hong Kong’s Police Commissioner Stephen Lo Wai-chung ordered his officers to do everything in their power to hunt down the protesters who managed to escape identification or arrest.
“We’ll go back and watch videos, including those taken by the press,” he said, “and track down every one of them.” On Tuesday, June 11, preparing for further clashes on Wednesday, thousands of protesters gathered overnight in Admiralty near the legislative council to sing and pray. Students delivered water, masks, and raincoats to protesters, while police officers aggressively searched individuals despite having only cause of suspicion—a direct threat to the people’s freedom of assembly.
According to one source, in an operation codenamed “Tiderider,” over 5,000 uniformed and plain-clothed police officers carried on cataloging protesters’ names, faces, and ID numbers, while also randomly searching vehicles. According to reporter Chris Lau, police confronted clearly marked journalists:
Our colleague was searched even with press ID on. How does it make him a reasonable suspect qualified for a search? Please explain @hkpoliceforce Officer 1343 warned in a raised voice: “Do not think you have any privilege just because you’re a journo”. Is that necessary? pic.twitter.com/rDkRnaz1tR
— Chris Lau (@hkchrislau) June 11, 2019
When an old lady asked what her violation was, another officer replied, “I don’t have to explain anything to you.” The youth are now fearful of the police’s use of unnecessary force and intimidation: they are asking when Hong Kong became a police state. The 2014 Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong—which shut down the city’s center for 79 days and is also known as Occupy Hong Kong—originated out of the sincere desire for universal suffrage, the right of Hong Kong citizens to elect their leaders in legitimate elections from a pool of candidates not hand-selected by the Chinese government. Hongkongers want to elect those who are not loyal to China, who do not kowtow to Beijing authorities.
The desire for universal suffrage in Hong Kong has only strengthened as Beijing has reneged on its promises. As a result of the Occupy Hong Kong protests in 2014, the group’s leaders were imprisoned back in April. Occupy founders Benny Tai Yiu-ting, 54, and Chan Kin-man, 60, were convicted and sentenced to 16 months. Reverend Yiu-ming Chu, 75, received a suspended sentence due to a life-threatening illness.
Hongkongers, however, cannot openly voice their objections because of ongoing Chinese blacklists. Business owners say they are being pressured to remain neutral out of fear of retribution from Beijing. This seems to be the new norm in the economic hub once cherished and branded as Asia’s World City.
World city? Not anymore. Over the last few days, though, the resolve of the people in Hong Kong has grown tremendously. So much so that a general strike throughout the city was carried out on Wednesday, June 12, which included an estimated 1,000 businesses and shops, over 50 welfare and religious groups, unions, and thousands of students from six universities. Students from 72 secondary schools also signed online petitions to formally boycott classes. One nameless shop owner told the South China Morning Post, “It’s now or never.”
A small business that sells products from Thailand, AbouThai, announced that its 13 branches had closed as part of the general strike, saying, “If we lose the Hong Kong we have, we won’t be able to save it anymore.” Democratic Party chairman Wu Chi-wai called Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam, who supports the extradition bill, “cold blooded,” and claimed that she had lost her legitimacy with the people. He also called for Hongkongers to paralyze the government by any means necessary.
Civil Human Rights Front convener Jimmy Sham Tsz-kit also rebuked Carrie Lam for ignoring the will of the people and even went so far as to say, “It seems that Carrie Lam found Hongkongers are not angry enough and wants to test how much more we can do to protect our home and the rule of law.”
During the general strike, dozens of Hongkongers from the literary, film, and arts worlds also participated in a hunger strike with 24 hours of no food and water. On Wednesday, June 12, protesters surrounded government offices in the tens of thousands, blocking the financial district in Hong Kong, including the major arteries of Harcourt Road and Lung Wo Road, and delaying the planned debate over the extradition bill in the Hong Kong legislature.
Throughout the day, there was a thunderstorm warning in effect with bouts of rain, which led to protesters raising umbrellas. Many in the crowd labeled the unofficial demonstration as Occupy 2.0. Late into the day, police officers were photographed sleeping inside the legislative complex hallways while outside the young people repeatedly chanted in Cantonese, “Withdraw! Withdraw! Withdraw!” By late afternoon, however, the officers had emerged and once again resorted to violence to disperse the crowds.
Police fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and beanbag rounds at the mostly young students who made up the majority of the protesters. In one scene, little children wore backpacks and gas masks. Driven by Beijing’s agenda, Carrie Lam, meanwhile, refuses to acknowledge the wishes of her people and withdraw the bill. Instead she wants to fast-track the legislative debates and push it through quickly, because, as she says, “there is very little merit” in delaying it any longer, as waiting would “just cause more anxiety and divisiveness in society.”
This suggests that Beijing has already made its decision behind closed doors, that the Hong Kong government has no power of its own, and that Hongkongers should blindly do what they’re told because Carrie Lam says so. And that’s where we get to the core of the issue: Hong Kong’s citizens feel they don’t have a voice or a vote. They feel they don’t have a government that represents their interests.
CG Fewston is an American novelist, a former visiting scholar at the American Academy in Rome, and visiting fellow at City University. His most recent novel is A Time to Love in Tehran, published in 2015.