Thousands of protesters filled the streets of central Hong Kong on Sunday, defying social distance protocols to protest Beijing’s announcement of a sweeping new national security law that could unravel many of the civil liberties enjoyed by residents in the semi-autonomous region from China.
Police used water cannons, tear gas, and pepper spray to disperse protesters, and there were reports of protesters throwing objects such as plastic bottles and umbrellas to the police. At least 120 people have been arrested.
The protest – the largest in the territory since the spread of coronavirus-induced lockdowns in China – reflects an intensification of protracted tensions between pro-democracy protesters and the Chinese government at a critical political moment in the region.
The demonstrations came after Beijing announced plans to further bring Hong Kong under its control using an upcoming national security law – an expert says it could be used to destroy dissent and Hong Kongers have many freedoms that people on the mainland of China, such as freedom of the press.
The ruling Communist Party has long sought to bring Hong Kong more fully under its control and has indicated that it would prefer not to wait until 2047 – when the city’s special status expires – to do so. Given that the local government has failed to pass legislation that gives the national government control, it now seems that Beijing is taking matters into its own hands, as Jox Kirby of Vox has explained – and that it is away to kick-start a vibrant protest movement that has serious momentum in 2019.
Members of the protest movement – which had a huge success in beating pro-Beijing law in 2019 – took to the streets again on Sunday hoping to pressure local officials to take a stand against the new national security law.
Despite not getting official government approval, and social distance restrictions that prohibit gatherings of more than eight people, several thousand protesters gathered in the shopping area of Causeway Bay, in addition to the presence of heavy police. They would be there sang a lot of slogansincluding “Fight for freedom, stand for Hong Kong”, “Revolution of our time. Free Hong Kong” and “Hong Kong independence, the only way out.” Some of them displayed blue flags for independence.
But the Guardian reports the atmosphere was unusually tense: “Unlike marches and demonstrations last year, protesters were visibly tense pending police crackdown.”
And indeed there was a crackdown. According to CNNWhen some protesters were challenged by law enforcement officers, they claimed the meeting was an authorized “health talk”, but the police were not convinced and quickly declared the protests illegal. When the crowds started marching peacefully on Hennessy Road, police shot tear gas at them.
Despite this police resistance and the arrests that followed, many protesters said the demonstration was worth the risk, arguing that Hong Kong’s semi-autonomous status is in serious jeopardy.
“I witnessed for several decades the misdeeds of the Chinese Communist Party, I escaped to Hong Kong [from mainland China] 40 years ago “, a 75-year-old protester who called himself Mr. Hui, said the Guardian. “Now they have completely ruined Hong Kong. I am here to protect my house. We are the real patriots, not the communist party. “
This law means that Hong Kong may soon look very different
The National People’s Congress announced an upcoming national security law on Thursday. According to CNN, the law is expected to “ban the incitement, secession and undermining of Beijing” and will for the first time allow China’s mainland security services in Hong Kong. In particular, the law is expected to continue as “a rarely used constitutional method” that bypasses the Hong Kong government completely.
Experts say Beijing’s new policy could be a deadly blow to the “one country, two systems” rule under which Hong Kong operates since the British returned the city to China in 1997. The rule has given Hong Kong certain freedoms, such as greater freedom of expression and an independent judiciary, not extended to most of the Chinese people.
Dennis Kwok, a pro-democratic legislator in Hong Kong, said China’s new national security law would end “one country, two systems.” ‘
“It is an official death sentence for Hong Kong; it’s nothing short of that, ”Alvin Y. H. Cheung, an affiliate scientist at NYU’s USU-Asia Law Institute, told Vox earlier this week.
As Vox’s Jox Kirby explained, passing the law can have a number of implications for Chinese political life:
The law could have a terrifying effect on China’s dissent, rejecting the most extreme protests. The opposite also seems possible: that China’s actions – proof that many Hong Kong people felt they should continue to protest – would further escalate tensions.
Hong Kong was already divided into two camps: “blue” (those supporting the police) and “yellow” (those supporting the protesters). But many of those “yellow” donors disagreed with the more radical tactics of some Hong Kong protesters, such as storming the Legislative Council or occupying a university campus.
But the Chinese raids can make it more difficult for pro-democracy Hong Kongers to argue in favor of a more moderate stance. “They will eventually be forced to become either fully pro-Beijing agendas or pro-confrontational protesters,” [Ho-Fung] Hung, [professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins], noted. “It is the disappearance of the middle ground and will really become more polarized.”
Beijing has made it clear that it hopes that the law will indeed end the protests. But Sunday’s demonstration suggests the movement may not dissolve as quickly as party officials would hope.
The movement gained momentum during the demonstrations in Hong Kong 2019 that started in opposition to a controversial extradition bill, which would allow Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to mainland China. Over time, however, the demonstrations evolved into a broader call for more political freedoms in the city, such as universal suffrage to elect Hong Kong leaders.
Those protests took place regularly and were sometimes massive – at their peak, millions of protesters were involved. And while they were largely peaceful, they grew increasingly violent over time. The protests received international attention and convinced Hong Kong’s legislature formal scrap the extradition law that caused the unrest.
Now it seems that Beijing hopes to avoid local political considerations and use the power of the national government to both reshape its relationship with Hong Kong and fundamentally change the landscape of discord in the territory.
The Chinese government has defended the new national security law where necessary and said the protests last year threatened the country’s national security. On Sunday, the Chinese foreign minister, Wang Yi, said the law should be passed “without the slightest delay” and promised that it would be used to punish a “very narrow category” of acts, not any anti-government difference.
But many experts and critics outside of China see the law as a way to justify broad oppressions, and as a blatant seizure of power by Beijing.
And the Trump administration has strongly condemned the announcement of the law.
“The United States strongly urges Beijing to reconsider its disastrous proposal, adhere to its international obligations, and respect Hong Kong’s high level of autonomy, democratic institutions and civil liberties, which are essential to preserve its special status under US law, “Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said in a statement on Friday.
That special status is now regulated by the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which was approved by Trump in 2019. By law, the State Department must certify at least once a year that Hong Kong maintains sufficient autonomy from mainland China to retain its special trading partner status with the US.
Trump’s national security adviser, Robert O’Brien said Sunday Meet the press that certification is now in jeopardy – and it is likely “sanctions will be imposed on Hong Kong and China” if the law is passed.