Why are people protesting in Hong Kong?

Amy Qin, The New York Times

Posted at May 28 2020 02:43 AM

Police try to disperse protesters in Hong Kong, on Wednesday, May 27, 2020. Antigovernment protests have roiled this semiautonomous Chinese city for months, and protests swelled again after Beijing announced last week that it would impose national security laws that democracy advocates fear would target dissent. Lam Yik Fei, The New York Times

The protests in Hong Kong this past week have many of the hallmarks of the anti-government demonstrations last year that came to define the territory’s biggest political crisis in decades. Protesters have tried to target the legislative chambers. They have marched on the streets and waved banners. They have tried to stop traffic.

This year, there is a key difference. The protests are increasingly a direct challenge to China’s ruling Communist Party rather than to the territory’s leadership.

This latest round of demonstrations, the city’s biggest rallies in months, has been fueled largely by the party’s move this month to impose new national security legislation for Hong Kong.

To China, the rules are necessary to protect the country’s national sovereignty. To critics, they further erode the relative autonomy granted to the territory after Britain handed it back to China in 1997.

Here’s a guide to the protests, and why they have returned.

The national security legislation targets dissent.

The rules would take direct aim at the anti-government protests and other dissent in Hong Kong.

They are expected to prevent and punish secession, subversion as well as foreign infiltration — all of which Beijing has blamed for fueling unrest in the city. The legislation would also allow the mainland’s feared security agencies to set up their operations publicly in Hong Kong for the first time, instead of operating on a limited scale in secrecy.

The legislation has evoked fear that the Communist Party is undermining the freedoms that Hong Kong has enjoyed since China reclaimed the region from Britain. The political framework in Hong Kong, known as “one country, two systems,” ensures the right to assembly and an independent judiciary.

China promised that this policy would remain in place until at least 2047.

Many protesters believe that Beijing is already eroding the city’s autonomy, and that the local government acts at its behest. The city’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, is appointed by a pro-Beijing committee.

Beijing hinted at taking a harder line for months.

Hong Kong’s mini constitution, the Basic Law, requires the territory to introduce national security legislation. But the government had not dared to do so after an earlier attempt was stymied in 2003 by huge protests.

Now, Beijing is bypassing the Hong Kong government, and the legislation is instead being pushed by China’s rubber-stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress.

But Beijing had been signaling for months that it would move against the intensifying protests.

A Chinese Communist Party leadership meeting in late October called for steps to “safeguard national security” in Hong Kong, without releasing further details. In January, Beijing abruptly replaced its top representative in Hong Kong, installing a senior Communist Party official with a record of working closely with the security services.

The national security legislation drew immediate criticism from the United States.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo warned that the Trump administration could revoke Hong Kong’s status as a separate economic entity from mainland China, an important underpinning of the territory’s easy trade access to the United States. And President Donald Trump said Tuesday that he was preparing to take action against China in response to the national security laws on Hong Kong, but he did not give details.

Peaceful rallies morphed into a broader protest movement.

The mass anti-government protests started nearly a year ago over contentious legislation in Hong Kong that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China. After months of protests, the bill was withdrawn in September.

Since then, the demonstrations have morphed into a broader movement calling for increased democracy, an investigation into police brutality and greater autonomy from mainland China. At its core, the movement is aimed at protecting Hong Kong’s autonomy and resisting encroachment from the mainland.

What began as peaceful mass rallies in the streets later devolved into intense and often-violent, drawn-out clashes between some protesters and police officers. The most intense of clashes at times transformed large swaths of the global financial hub into fiery urban battlegrounds.

All sides appeared ready for a protracted fight until pro-democracy candidates notched a stunning victory in Hong Kong elections in November, in what was seen as a pointed rebuke of Beijing and its allies in Hong Kong.

The protests then quieted. For the first few months of this year, fears of the new coronavirus and social distancing orders kept demonstrators indoors.

The coronavirus pandemic has affected the protests.

The emergence of a mysterious virus in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late December immediately prompted concerns in Hong Kong. Many residents remember the 2002-03 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which killed nearly 300 residents.

Though Lam, Hong Kong’s top official, moved to limit arrivals from mainland China, she initially resisted a complete travel ban. Then, in early February, more than 2,500 medical workers in Hong Kong formed a union and held a strike that eventually forced the government to impose quarantines on all travelers arriving from the mainland.

The mobilization by the hospital workers was one of the first signs of how the protest movement had evolved to pose a more organized challenge to the government.

The public widely credits the travel restrictions for keeping the virus out of the territory, which by late May had recorded just over 1,000 cases of the coronavirus and four deaths.

Though the virus appears to have been tamed in Hong Kong, local officials recently announced that they would be extending social distancing orders and that group gatherings with more than eight people in public places would be banned until at least mid-June.

Already, the police have begun issuing fines to protesters, including some who staged a pro-democracy singalong at a mall, for violating social distancing orders.

Officials are using harsher tactics and rhetoric against protesters.

Some protesters frustrated with the government’s response have adopted increasingly violent tactics, attacking the police with bricks and Molotov cocktails. Officers have responded with a heavy hand, deploying rubber bullets, pepper balls, tear gas, water cannons and, on several occasions, even guns, to repel the protesters.

Chinese officials have seized on the unrest to label the protesters “separatists” and “violent terrorists” backed by “meddling foreign forces.” They have said the demonstrations were evidence that national security legislation was urgently needed.

“The troublemakers in Hong Kong cannot be allowed to collude with foreign anti-China forces to impose sanctions on the city and confront China,” Xie Feng, China’s foreign affairs commissioner in Hong Kong, said at a news briefing in May. “The ‘Hong Kong independence’ separatists cannot be left unchecked, and the extremists cannot have a free pass to commit violent terrorist acts.”

Only a few protesters have openly called for Hong Kong’s independence, however, and Chinese officials have so far declined to produce substantive evidence of official foreign involvement in the protests.