HONG KONG (AP) — A year has passed since the beginning of anti-government protests in Hong Kong that brought hundreds of thousands of people into the streets of the semi-autonomous Chinese territory. While the demonstrations have all but died out, none of the underlying issues have been resolved, and a deep unease lies over the city as China moves to tighten its grip.
Beijing cracked down hard on the demonstrations and has moved in recent weeks to make it illegal to disrespect the Chinese national anthem in Hong Kong and and pass a national security law for the city that could severely restrict freedom of speech and opposition political activity.
China says it is justified in making the moves to preserve sovereignty and counter vaguely-defined crimes such as sedition. Critics say Beijing is reneging on commitments it made when the former British colony was handed over to Chinese rule in 1997 with a promise it could maintain its own legal, social, political and economic systems for 50 years.
The original protests were spurred by proposed legislation that would have allowed criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial. China’s legal system allows far fewer rights for those facing charges, and allegations of torture and coercion to obtain confessions are common.
Although the legislation was eventually shelved, the protests continued with expanded demands, including for expanded democracy and an investigation into alleged police brutality. They appeared to culminate just before opposition candidates won an overwhelming victory in elections for district council delegates last November, but have continued to pop up on a much smaller scale as a push-back against Beijing’s moves to consolidate control in the territory.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has endorsed China’s national security legislation but faces a test in September when the city’s Legislative Council elects new members. The electoral system heavily favors those in the pro-Beijing camp, but a strong showing for opposition candidates — if they are allowed to run for office — would be a further sign of a lack of confidence in China’s governance over the territory.
China plans to pass the law at the national level, circumventing Hong Kong’s Legislative Council where it faces fierce opposition. A previous attempt to pass the law in Hong Kong in 2003 was withdrawn after public demonstrations against it, but critics fear China now plans to use it to disqualify opposition candidates from taking part in the September elections.
That is deepening concerns that began floating to the surface during last year’s protest. In recent weeks, thousands have applied for British or other foreign passports, and international companies that have long enjoyed the territory’s stability and generous taxation measures are reconsidering their options.
On June 9, 2019, hundreds of thousands of people marched through the center of the city to demand the withdrawal of the extradition bill. The protests grew through the summer, declining in numbers of participants but increasing in the level of violence.
At points, protesters shut down Hong Kong’s international airport and university campuses, fighting back against police tear gas and rubber bullets with their own improvised weapons. Thousands were injured on both sides and more than 8,000 protesters were arrested, ranging in age from early teens to senior citizens.
Internationally, the protests were seen both as a sign of the Hong Kong public’s desire to maintain their city’s unique character, and as a demonstration of Beijing’s determination to crush all opposition. The U.S. has said it will remove Hong Kong’s special customs status as a result, although the timing of the measure and its potential ramifications remain unclear.