In 2018, a Hong Kong teenager visiting Taiwan, Chan Tong-kai, allegedly killed his girlfriend. He then returned to Hong Kong. Chan subsequently confessed to police, but Hong Kong has no extradition treaty with Taiwan, a separately-governed island off the Chinese mainland, so the killing could not be prosecuted.1

This tawdry murder case set off a chain of events that led to an eruption of dissent among Hong Kong citizens who feared the encroachment of the People’s Republic of China and its authoritarian government. The result has been massive and at times violent street demonstrations, a significant electoral victory for the protesters, but also lingering questions about what they have ultimately achieved as the coronavirus and its restrictions now force protesters off the streets.

The year after the killing, the Hong Kong government cited Chan’s case when it proposed legislation permitting case-by-case extradition to countries with which it does not have formal agreements — including the People’s Republic.2 This triggered alarm that such a law could lead to arbitrary imprisonment of Hong Kong residents who dissent against the Chinese government. Pro-democracy activists responded by organizing protests against the proposed law.

The dispute was rooted in the laws that govern relations between Hong Kong and the mainland. The 1,108-square-mile Hong Kong Special Administrative Region enjoys special economic, political and legal status until at least 2047, the result of the agreement by which Great Britain ceded Hong Kong to China in 1997. Under the agreement, which applies a principle called “one country, two systems,” Hong Kong has maintained the free-market economic system that makes it an important world financial center, and its citizens enjoy civil and political rights unheard-of in mainland China.3

“Extraditing people from Hong Kong into China would break down the ‘one country, two systems’ firewall,” says Angeline Chan, a Hong Kong lawyer who took part in the pro-democracy movement that opposed the legislation.

Pro-democracy advocates gather in central Hong Kong in February (AFP/Getty Images/Isaac Lawrence)
Pro-democracy advocates gather in central Hong Kong in February. They sought to keep alive a protest movement that began last year when authorities tried to enact legislation permitting the extradition of Hong Kong residents to mainland China. (AFP/Getty Images/Isaac Lawrence)

The protests peaked on June 9 with a crowd estimated by police at 240,000 and by organizers at more than 1 million.4 The protests continued during the summer.

On Sept. 4, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam withdrew the extradition bill, saying she was doing so “to eradicate the worries of [the] people” of Hong Kong.5 But her move came too late to quell the movement. By that time the protesters had broadened their demands and hardened their position.

They said they would not end the demonstrations until the government met four other demands in addition to withdrawing the extradition bill: cease defining the protests as rioting, grant amnesty for arrested protesters, conduct an independent inquiry into police violence and give Hong Kong citizens more say in choosing their government. At present, residents elect a territorial council with limited authority, but the powerful chief executive is chosen by an electoral council made up of 1,194 representatives of various sectors of Hong Kong society who are approved by Beijing.6

Protesters criticized Hong Kong’s security forces for using unreasonable force. “We’ve seen police violence used regularly — tear gas, beanbag rounds, pepper spray, batons, with hardly any police held to account,” Chan says. “The focus of the protests has shifted from the extradition bill to the fact that the police are acting with impunity.”

But protesters too have used violence. During a standoff at Hong Kong Polytechnic University in November, barricaded students used firebombs and bows and arrows against police — who themselves had used tear gas, rubber bullets and water cannons.7

The protesters can claim some credit for a major political shift in Hong Kong. In November’s territorial council elections, pro-democracy candidates won 389 of 452 seats; previously they held 124. Pro-Beijing candidates took just 58 seats, down from 300.8 “This election [was] totally a de facto referendum for the protests,” said Samson Yuen, an assistant professor of political science at Hong Kong’s Lingnan University.9

A survey by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute taken March 17–20 indicated substantial public support for protesters’ demands, with those backing the protests outnumbering opponents by 58 percent to 28 percent.10

But Richard Bush, a China specialist and senior fellow in foreign policy at the Brookings Institution, a centrist Washington think tank, says the movement is probably failing in fulfilling its objectives.

“If the goal is to get Beijing to create a more democratic system, then it has failed,” he says. “If the goal was to deal with the extradition bill and then return to more normal circumstances, it failed by following up with unreasonable demands that would lead Beijing, the Hong Kong government and the Hong Kong elite to conclude the movement really didn’t want a mutually acceptable solution.”

However, he adds, “if the goal is to keep Hong Kong in a permanent state of instability, the movement succeeded, and will probably be back for more once the coronavirus subsides.”

Without a doubt, the pandemic is complicating the pro-democracy movement. Hong Kong’s first coronavirus death was confirmed Feb. 4, and the city instituted quarantines and other preventive measures. Since then, demonstrations have been sporadic, and smaller.11

Albert Ho, a pro-democracy leader, said authorities appear to be using the respite to prevent large demonstrations, including rounding up protest organizers. “They have to do everything to deter the social organizers from continuing to organize marches and demonstrations on a big scale,” Ho said.12

The coronavirus outbreak may dampen enthusiasm for street demonstrations, but in the long run it could help fuel the protest movement, whose leaders see the government’s failure to cope with the virus as an opportunity to rally support.

“Street protests are just a part of the movement,” said Eric Lai Yan-ho, deputy convener of the Civil Human Rights Front. Yan-ho’s group, which organized rallies, also helped gather more than 35,000 online signatures in a citywide campaign to protest the government’s handling of the virus crisis. Unions added to the pressure by engaging in Hong Kong’s largest-ever medical strike.13

Chan, the lawyer-activist, says the cause is vital to Hong Kong residents. “A lot of the protesters I come into contact with feel that if they don’t resist, the way of life we know in Hong Kong will disappear,” she says. “They’re fighting because they feel they have no choice.”

— Bill Wanlund

[1] Cindy Sui, “The murder behind the Hong Kong protests: A case where no-one wants the killer,” BBC, Oct. 23, 2019, https://tinyurl.com/y8fjl24o.

[2] Daniel Victor and Tiffany May, “The Murder Case That Lit the Fuse in Hong Kong,” The New York Times, June 15, 2019, https://tinyurl.com/y6qz8cx3.

[3] Eleanor Albert, “Democracy in Hong Kong,” Council on Foreign Relations, Sept. 20. 2019, https://tinyurl.com/ybw2yd7r.

[4] Eric Kleefeld, “Hundreds of thousands attend protest in Hong Kong over extradition bill,” The South China Morning Post, June 9, 2019, https://tinyurl.com/y2pmzr65.

[5] “Hong Kong: Carrie Lam withdraws controversial extradition bill,” Deutsche Welle, Sept. 4, 2019, https://tinyurl.com/y967uqfw.

[6] “How Hong Kong picks its chief executives,” The Economist, March 21, 2017, https://tinyurl.com/y7fp2723.

[7] Edward Wong et al., “Hong Kong Violence Escalates as Police and Protesters Clash at University,” The New York Times, Nov. 17, 2019, https://tinyurl.com/voa6lwq.

[8] Keith Bradsher, Austin Ramzy and Tiffany May, “Hong Kong Election Results Give Democracy Backers Big Win,” The New York Times, Nov. 24, 2019, https://tinyurl.com/qk33gms.

[9] Casey Quackenbush, “Hong Kong democrats score historic victory amid ongoing protests,” Al-Jazeera, Nov. 24, 2019, https://tinyurl.com/uzr3v9w.

[10] Felix Tam and Clare Jim, “Exclusive: Support for Hong Kong protesters’ demands rises even as coronavirus halts rallies: poll,” Reuters, March 27, 2020, https://tinyurl.com/y87z8vsp.

[11] James Griffiths, “Hong Kong appeared to have the coronavirus under control, then it let its guard down,” CNN, March 23, 2020, https://tinyurl.com/ws6xhhq.

[12] Helen Davidson, “Hong Kong: with coronavirus curbed, protests may return,” The Guardian, March 15, 2020, https://tinyurl.com/s664gyy.

[13] Natalie Wong and Tony Cheung, “A new strain of resistance? How the coronavirus crisis is changing Hong Kong’s protest movement,” The South China Morning Post, Feb. 10, 2020, https://tinyurl.com/yddyq8t3.

Article originally appeared in CQ Press on 1 May 2020