Hong Kong’s huge protests, explained
The people of Hong Kong are out in the streets. Hundreds of thousands are demonstrating against a deeply unpopular bill. But this is about a whole lot more than a bill. Its about the status of Hong Kong and the power China has over it. Its a fight to preserve the freedoms people have here. And it all started with a murder. On February 8, 2018, a young couple, Chan Tong Kai and Poon Hiu-Wing, went from their home in Hong Kong to Taiwan for a vacation. They stayed at the Purple Garden Hotel in Taipei for nine days. But on February 17th only one of them returned to Hong Kong. There, one month later, Chan confessed to murdering his girlfriend, who was pregnant at the time.
But there was a problem. Hong Kong authorities couldn’t charge him for murder, because he did it in Taiwan. And they couldn’t send him back to Taiwan to be charged, because Hong Kong and Taiwan don’t have an extradition agreement. So in 2019, the Hong Kong government proposed one: it would let them transfer suspects to Taiwan so they could be tried for their crimes. But the same bill would also allow extradition to mainland China. Where there’s no fair trial, there’s no humane punishment, and there’s completely no separation of powers. And that’s what sparked these protests. China and Hong Kong are two very different places with a very complex political relationship. And the extradition bill threatens to give China more power over Hong Kong. See, Hong Kong is technically a part of China. But it operates as a semi-autonomous region. It all began in the late 1800s, when China lost a series of wars to Britain and ended up ceding Hong Kong for a period of 99 years. Hong Kong remained a British colony until 1997, when Britain gave it back to China, under a special agreement.
It was called One Country, Two Systems. It made Hong Kong a part of China, but it also said that Hong Kong would retain “a high degree of autonomy, as well as democratic freedoms like the right to vote, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, of assembly. And that made Hong Kong very different from mainland China, which is authoritarian: Citizens there don’t have the same freedoms. Its legal system is often used to arrest, punish, and silence people who speak out against the state. But according to the agreement, One Country, Two Systems wouldn’t last forever.
In 2047, Hong Kong is expected to fully become a part of China. The problem is, China isn’t waiting for the deal to expire. Under the rule of Chinese leader Xi Jinping, pro-democracy leaders have already been arrested in Hong Kong. And mysterious abductions of booksellers have created a threat to free speech. But Hong Kong has been pushing back. In 2003, half a million Hongkongers successfully fought legislation that would have punished speaking out against China. And in 2014, tens of thousands of protesters occupied the city for weeks to protest China’s influence over Hong Kongs elections. Now, Hong Kongers is fighting the extradition bill, because the bill is widely seen as the next step in China’s encroachment on Hong Kong’s autonomy. The sheer size of these protests shows you just how much opposition there is to this bill. But if Hong Kong’s legislature votes on the bill, it’ll probably pass. And that’s because of the unique nature of Hong Kong’s democracy. For starters, Hong Kong people don’t vote for their leader. The Chief Executive is selected by a small committee and approved by China.
And even though they’re the head of the government, they don’t make the laws. That happens here. Like many democracies, Hong Kong has a legislature, with democratically elected representatives. Its called the Legislative Council, or LegCo, and it has 70 seats. Within this system, Hong Kong has many political parties, but they are mostly either pro-democracy or pro-China. In every election, Hong Kongs pro-democracy and anti-establishment parties have won the popular vote.
But they occupy less than half of the seats in the LegCo. This is because when Hong Kongers vote, they’re only voting for these 40 of the 70 seats. The other 30 are chosen by the various business communities of Hong Kong. For example, one seat belongs to the finance industry. One seat belongs to the medical industry. One belongs to the insurance industry. And so on. Many of these 30 seats are voted on by corporations. And because big business has an incentive to be friendly with China, those seats are dominated by pro-China political parties.
When Hong Kong was handed over to China in 1997, Hong Kong and China made an agreement that eventually, all members of the council would be elected by the people. But that never happened. And ever since the handoff, pro-China parties have controlled the LegCo, despite having never won more than 50 percent of the popular vote. The way it’s structured, they want to make sure that the executive branch can have easy control over it. And that would serve Beijing very well indeed. Within this unique structure, the extradition bill has created new tensions and fueled anger among pro-democracy politicians. And it’s driven hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers into the streets. While this isn’t Hong Kongs first protest against China’s influence, it is the biggest. And many say this time is different, because of the people involved. Professionals like lawyers and politicians are participating. Our legal sector staged their biggest ever protest parade. But it’s young people who are at the forefront, since they have the most to lose.
They are the first generation born under One Country Two Systems. And in 28 years when that arrangement ends, they’ll be Hong Kong’s professional class. I won’t be around anymore. It’s their future. Its their Hong Kong. They have every right to fight it. The protests have convinced Hong Kongs government to suspend the bill. But that’s not enough. Many want the bill withdrawn completely. That’s because these protests are also part of a larger fight. To push back against China’s encroachment now, not just when times up. 2047 is on its way. But its not here yet. And until then, Hongkongers still have a voice. History will tell whether we succeed, but even if we failed, history would say they did put up a fight and they didn’t just take things lying down. And that’s what we’re trying to do too. .