By Natalia Slomczykowski
Two years ago, I spent two and a half months living and working in Hong Kong. I was lucky enough to make many close friends who have been protesting bravely for the last year for freedom which they may never get to experience.
Particularly, a recent discussion with my good friend Jeremy Ethan, who has been on the front lines for the last year, has brought to light the incredible resilience and organisation of the Hong Kong people in the face of a seemingly unbeatable foe, China (the People’s Republic of China – PROC). It is this story of camaraderie, bravery, mobilisation and spirit which I would like to share here.
Background to the protests
This story requires some context into what exactly led to the situation which Hong Kong now faces.
Hong Kong was once a British colony which was handed back to China (PROC) on the 1st July 1997 following the Sino-British Joint Declaration. However, all parts of Hong Kong’s administration remained separate from that of China, except the army, which was prohibited to set foot on Hong Kong territory without express agreement from the Legislative Council of Hong Kong (LegCo).
The freedom of the Hong Kong people was therefore protected, at least for 50 years until 2047, when the agreement would lapse, and Hong Kong would return fully to China’s control. Because of this, most Hong Kongers never realistically envisioned a Hong Kong completely separated from China, however, as Jeremy emphasised, their way of life had been promised to them until 2049. It is an already limited freedom which is now being taken away.
The events of 2019 hastened this handover. The 2019 protests began with the murder of Poon Hui-wing by a Hong Kong national Chan Tong-kai in Taiwan (Republic of China – ROC), who then returned to Hong Kong before Taiwanese authorities were alerted to the murder. Taiwan then requested that Tong-kai be extradited to Taiwan to stand trial.
This was a significant threat to the freedoms enjoyed in Hong Kong.
However, due to Taiwan’s uniquely complicated political situation, this resulted in the proposition of the controversial extradition bill. Given that Taiwan and China both claim to have sovereign rights to the island where Taiwan is situated, Taiwan’s request for extradition would also apply in PROC.
How nearly two million people mobilised
Jeremy’s story of involvement in the protests is reflective of a wider trend and shows how the demonstrations grew so large and why they are ongoing.
On July 21st 2019, following a demonstration at the Liaison Office for Beijing which culminated in black paint being thrown at the office, protestors returning to Kowloon peninsula by subway were ambushed by triad members. They beat people indiscriminately, whether they had been involved with the protests or not, while police looked the other way.
In the face of such events, many Hong Kongers lost faith in the police force intended to protect them.
This was also a defining moment for Jeremy, and others like him, who became more heavily involved with the pro-democracy movement.
A similar surge in involvement took place around August 31st. This time, instead of triad gangs beating subway passengers, it was the police.
Spurred by anger and outrage at the lack of police accountability, the people of Hong Kong gave their time, resources, mental and physical strength to help their people and their city. The betrayal felt by the Hong Kong people mobilised them to act out of love and loyalty to their city and way of life, seen across class boundaries, as everyone who believed in the cause did their part.
At the next organised protest, an airport sit-in, Jeremy approached the first aid team to volunteer, gaining a unique insight into the workings of the protests.
All of the first aiders on the ground in the protests are voluntary. Jeremy describes working with people from all walks of life with varying levels of first aid training, from students like him, to teachers, nurses and even dentists. The materials they use are crowd-sourced, and they are identifiable by their hi-vis ‘first aider’ jackets and organise with no external aid from organisations.
As many protestors cannot attend regular hospitals due to fears of being arrested, the first aiders’ work they do is imperative. This has led to the emergence of secret clinics in safe houses around Hong Kong, primarily for the use of pro-democracy activists, though not exclusively.
Jeremy emphasises that the volunteer medics put people’s wellbeing above their own political loyalties. He recalls resuscitating a policeman, and even treated a triad member with a head wound which he had received after attempting to attack pro-democracy demonstrators who then acted in self-defence against him.
These are two isolated incidents out of many thousand and show the incredible outlook of the people in Hong Kong who try to avoid narratives which distract from the objective of securing freedom. This is even following two deaths of pro-democracy protestors, and the injury and detainment of many, many more.
What’s happening now?
Beginning in 2020, there has been a downturn in violence, giving way to a new approach by police who are now evolving to avoid the scrutiny of media headlines. Jeremy describes a recent tactic of boxing off of pedestrians on a whole street and methodical performance of stop and searches. Anyone with any potentially suspicious items is then arrested, whether connected to the protests or not. Potentially suspicious items are not limited to weapons or masks, which might easily be linked with the protests, one notable case was of a boy who was arrested for possession of a butter knife.
Jeremy describes seeing this happen in Causeway Bay, the main shopping district in Hong Kong. Police rounded up a whole street of people, families, shoppers, and potentially some, though certainly not all protesters on New Year’s Eve, searching and arresting around 50 people before carting them away on busses.
Now, headlines no longer focus on police violence, but the successful arrest of large numbers of people. This is much more palatable to the local and international media alike, so the protests fade out of the public consciousness.
This issue is compounded by the recent reveal of plans to enact a secretive National Security Legislation, bypassing local legislature. The law may make it a punishable offence to demonstrate against the government, and potentially re-introduce the threat of extradition to China (PROC). Though the specific contents of the law remain unknown despite the enactment of the law on the 30th June, it is clear that the law would criminalise acts of subversion, terrorism or collusion with external forces.
Threats of mass arrest are now much more severe. Where previously protesters could expect to be tried under Hong Kong law in Hong Kong courts, they may now face trial in courts staffed by PROC judges, who will have the final say in interpreting legislation. More worryingly, where the law conflicts with Hong Kong’s ‘basic law’, PROC law takes priority.
Renewed worry that the law will allow extradition of protesters to PROC has also arisen. All of these concerns are furthered by the possibility that this law could be applicable to anyone who has past involvement in the Hong Kong protests.
Despite this, there has been some recent international support from the UK who are exploring options to widen rights provided by the British National Overseas status. Though this is largely a political move, and potentially a Brexit bargaining chip, it was also an important gesture, generally welcomed by Hong Kong people.
Additionally, the UK, US and Australia have condemned the security law, though it is imperative that the protests remain visible and continue to draw international attention.
What comes next?
With the coming into force of the National Security Legislation on the 30th June and waning participation in protests due to COVID, the future of freedom in Hong Kong looks bleak.
In response to these new obstacles, there has been renewed recognition of alternative methods of protest, such as large scale economic boycott of pro-Beijing businesses through the development of the Wolipay app which allows users to check political alignment of the stores at which they shop.
This article will be published on July 1st, the anniversary of the Sino-British joint declaration, and also the date devoted to pro-democracy marches in the city since 1997. Jeremy warns that this will be the last significant protest of its size and will reveal whether the movement has survived the National Security Legislation.
As of 28th May 2020, over 9,000 people have been arrested in the protests and more than 2,600.
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Note from author
Whatever happens, I hope you will keep Hong Kong, but more importantly the people of Hong Kong, in your thoughts and your discussions. Glory to Hong Kong.