Laura Smith has been living in Hong Kong with her husband since 2019. She’s fallen in love with the city but is concerned for its future during the political unrest. She explains why many Hongkongers are protesting right now despite being in the middle of the coronavirus pandemic.
My husband and I moved to Hong Kong in January 2019. He is British but grew up in Hong Kong and for him, it has always felt like home. I quickly fell in love with this hectic, magical, melting pot of cultures here but what I didn’t see was the unrest bubbling just beneath the surface.
Time for a brief historical interlude: Hong Kong was under British colonial rule until July 1997 when it was ‘handed back’ to Mainland China. Negotiations concluded in the ‘one country, two systems’ policy which instates that whilst Hong Kong would technically fall under China’s dominion, it (and neighbouring Macau) would become ‘Special Administrative Regions’ ruled by their own governments, retaining their own economic and administrative systems.
However, there was a 50-year expiry date built into the deal. In 2047, this promise of autonomy no longer stands, and Hong Kong’s fate will be in the hands of Beijing.
Many Hongkongers are fearful of this prospect, wanting to avoid being ruled by a communist ideology with the potential power to erode their civil liberties. Underlying tensions between Hong Kong locals and Mainland Chinese visitors are plain to see. For the most part though, 2047 seemed like a far off threat, nothing I should concern myself with. That is until March 2019, when I, and the world, was forced to pay attention.
Mainland China proposed passing the ‘extradition bill’ which in a nutshell, if instated, would allow for the Hong Kong government to consider requests from any country, including mainland China, for the extradition of suspected criminals, even when an extradition treaty is not in place. Meaning people wanted for crimes in those jurisdictions could be sent there to face trial. Hong Konger’s fear that many ‘suspects’ would not face a fair trial in China, and may subsequently suffer unjust punishment, or a far worse fate.
On 9 June, the severity of the situation hit home for me. Over a million residents took to the streets in Hong Kong as part of a peaceful protest, demanding that Hong Kong’s leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, kill the bill. Most of my colleagues requested to take the day off work in order to join the march.
Being one of a few expats in the office that day was an odd feeling. On the one hand, I fully supported the movement and wanted to express my solidarity. On the other hand, I had an overwhelming sense that it wasn’t my place to do so - after all, I’d only been a Hong Kong resident for a hot second. Perhaps more poignantly, as an expat, I knew I had a home country I could go back to should things get really ugly.
The protests continued every weekend for months on end and became increasingly more violent and destructive. Mass gatherings of mostly young men and women dressed in black, carrying gas masks, goggles and umbrellas, became commonplace. Radicals would storm government buildings, graffiti anti-establishment slogans and destroy facilities. They smashed up concrete pavement slabs making them unwalkable. All large scale public events were cancelled and businesses with links to Mainland China were targeted, having their windows smashed and graffitied.
Police responded with tear gas, rubber bullets and bean bag rounds. Many felt the force used by police was unjust, unprecedented and bordering on brutality, which only added fuel to the protestors’ fire. Between June 2019 and May 2020 police fired over 16,000 rounds of tear gas, over 10,000 rubber bullets and 19 live bullets. Almost 9,000 people were arrested for rioting, common assault and arson, amongst other offences.
One evening I remember coming home from an early dinner with friends and their one-year-old, to find a barricade of debris had been erected to deliberately block the road, causing traffic to mount the pavement. We were confronted by a swarm of protestors moving towards us warning that the police had just fired tear gas and we should either turn back or rush home to protect the baby.
That was the closest to home it ever felt for me. The strange thing was, throughout all of this I never really felt unsafe. The protests were always planned in advance with notice given to the public, and even the destruction wasn’t entirely totally random or senseless.
Everything that occurred was an outcry from a disillusioned generation who felt abandoned by the people that were supposed to protect them. A group of millennials left with no hope for the future, powerless to stop the inevitable. Many blame the generation who preceded them, their parents, whom they feel should have fought harder back in 1997 to protect the future of Hong Kong for their children. This has created a huge divide depending on where you stand and many families have been utterly torn apart.
Everything seemed to build into the disastrous crescendo that was the siege at PolyU University in mid-November. Protesters barricaded themselves into the University where they were targeted by police shooting tear gas and water cannons filled with coloured dye. Protesters retaliated by throwing bricks and petrol bombs. After two days of what could only be described as a scene from a violent video game, the last protestors left or were removed from campus, many suffering injuries. At this point, many pro-democracy supporters who had been behind the initial peaceful protests started to speak out against the violence and condemn the perpetrators.
Shortly after that - you’ll be familiar with this plot twist by now - the coronavirus hit, and effectively put a stop to everything. People in Hong Kong reacted fast, brimming with latent anxiety from the SARS epidemic. Public gatherings were once again cancelled but now thanks to an invisible danger. Small businesses who had shut down shop due to the protests were once again forced to close and for many, this was the final nail in the coffin.
Thanks to the quick reactions of the government and citizens, things were largely under control and lockdown never really happened here to the same extent as it has in other parts of the world. Hong Kong is all but recovered from the pandemic but now we face a second wave of protests, thanks to a new national security law being proposed by China.
The future of Hong Kong is uncertain, but I know I have fallen for this city I now call home and plan to make the most of the time here that I have.