A continued battle for autonomy in Hong Kong; how protests continue despite state crackdown.
*Third article in a series on protests around the world*
**TW: Mention of Police brutality, torture, arrest**
Hong Kong is what is known as a special Administrative Region, meaning that it is controlled by the People’s Republic of China. However, due to its status it retains a certain level of autonomy over its own affairs. Hong Kong has a limited democracy and their own system of government. While the President of China acts as their head of state they also have a head of government, the chief executive, who is accountable to the Central People’s Government.
Yet, even with this separation of systems, the Chinese government has continued to assert itself into the politics of Hong Kong. This has led to a number of large-scale protests, including what became known as the “Umbrella Protests” back in 2014.
The Umbrella Protests pushed back against proposed reforms for electing the Chief Executive from the Chinese government, with protestors asserting that only candidates whose views aligned with the Chinese government should be allowed to run. These protests were largely unsuccessful in their efforts to get any concessions from Beijing.
That was far from the end of the tension between China and Hong Kong, in more recent years we saw massive protests sweep the streets of Hong Kong in response to the introduction of the Fugitive Offenders amendment bill by the Hong Kong government. At the time the bill was introduced there was no established mechanism for transfers of fugitives to Taiwan, China and Macau — this bill sought to change that.
There was widespread concern about the establishment of these mechanisms and what it would mean for Hong Kong’s legal system as well as its built-in safeguards. One of the most concerning powers granted to China through this bill was the ability to arrest voices of political dissent in Hong Kong.
The people of Hong Kong refused to let this stand, and in 2019 they took to the streets with a series of demands in an effort to preserve their autonomy. A wide variety of tactics were implemented in an effort to get their demands met. Within a few weeks of protests, the bill was suspended indefinitely. But that was not enough, and demonstrations continued demanding that the bill be withdrawn completely, as well as things like amnesty for protestors, inquiries into police brutality, the implementation of universal suffrage, and more.
From that point, things only continued to escalate. Protestors targeted local police stations, the Chinese government’s liaison office in the city, and the local legislature breaking in, smashing windows and even lighting fires. Protestors were not the only ones to escalate their tactics though, and as clashes with the police became more frequent, so too did the brutality the protestors faced.
Protestors were regularly met with tear gas, rubber bullets, and batons in the streets. Things that over time the protestors learned to combat. Many of the protests around the world were informed by what went down in Hong Kong, and the protestors learned from what they saw there. The protestors in Hong Kong got smart and organized. They used efficient tactics to stand against riot cops and keep up the fight.
A common chant that made its way across the globe after its use in Hong Kong was “Be like water,” this was meant to inform the way that protestors move as a group. You don’t stay in one place, you change as the surroundings change, and you stay together.
To be formless and ever-adapting is to be safe in the context of a protest. This is what keeps you and those around you from being arrested. It ensures that the line of cops can’t catch up to pick off the people closest to them, and it ensures that you cannot get kettled, a term used to refer to a method of crowd control used by cops where they confine protestors to a small area blocking off the exits.
Hong Kong protestors also had a common uniform of sorts, which included heat-resistant gloves, earplugs, a hardhat, face coverings, a respirator, and goggles. Later this uniform would also include all black clothing. These are the basic tools necessary to ensure your safety at a time where chemical weapons, “less-than-lethal” munitions and flash-bangs are all almost guaranteed to make an appearance.
The brutality did not end in the streets though, as arbitrary arrests, beatings and torture were all carried out by the police as well. These things were far less visible, and as such did not gain much international attention but they are just as, if not more, important to consider. The fear for one’s safety does not end when they leave a protest, getting home that night doesn’t mean that you are free.
And yet, in spite of this danger, 2020 saw a renewed effort for these demands to be met. And in 2021 we see the continued demand for freedom and autonomy from the people of Hong Kong as opposition figures face charges under a new national security law even amid stricter laws regarding assembly.
Challenging state powers is dangerous, and you are always at a disadvantage. But these fights continue, and people risk their freedom, their safety and their lives time and time again. Not just in Hong Kong, but all over the world in an effort to create a better and more just world than the one we live in.
We continue with the hope that one day we will stop seeing the same cycle repeat itself. But for now, we look around the world and find solidarity with those fighting. We learn from what has been done, and we keep up the fight.