Hong Kong’s protests explained

Hong Kong protesters made history in 2019

 In March 2019 the government of Hong Kong proposed a bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China. In response, the people of Hong Kong took to the streets in record-breaking numbers.

On one day, 16 June, up to 2 million people marched peacefully in the streets of Hong Kong.

The Hong Kong police have responded to the protests with batons, tear gas, pepper spray, rubber bullets and water cannons.

Although the Extradition Bill has now been dropped, the movement has evolved into a much wider call for change and protests in Hong Kong continue. 

This movement has shown how many Hong Kongers want fundamental changes

Suki, student and activist

“Five demands, not one less”

The withdrawal of the Extradition Bill was only one of the “five demands” that have propelled the movement.

Protesters also want the government to retract its characterization of protests as “riots”; an independent investigation into use of force by police; and the unconditional release of everyone arrested in the context of protests.

They also want political reform to ensure genuine universal suffrage – the ability to choose Hong Kong’s leaders themselves – as set under the city’s mini-Constitution, the Basic Law.

Amnesty International welcomes the bill’s withdrawal and is calling for an independent, impartial investigation into use of force by the Hong Kong police.

One student’s experience

Joey Siu is a student at Hong Kong City University. She told Amnesty International:

“The first time I experienced tear gas was on 12 June. It was a very, very bad day. I was trying to distribute protective gear to protesters when tear gas was suddenly deployed at our first aid station.

“Tears poured uncontrollably from my eyes and I could hardly breathe. Other people have been beaten up by the police just for taking part in protests.

“This is why there needs to be an independent investigation into police actions, and one of the reasons why we aren’t backing down.”

The root causes of protests

One country, two systems

Hong Kong was a British colony until 1997, when sovereignty of the territory was returned to China. Under the deal struck between the UK and China, Hong Kong was guaranteed a separate legal and economic system.

The deal also guaranteed the continued protection of a range of human rights in Hong Kong. The principle of “one country, two systems” was enshrined in Hong Kong’s Basic Law. 

China’s “red line”

The autonomy and freedoms that Hong Kong is supposed to enjoy have come under attack in recent years. In2017, President Xi Jinping warned that any attempt in Hong Kong to endanger China’s “national sovereignty and security” or to challenge the power of the Central Government crossed a “red line” and should be dealt with harshly.

Chinese authorities have a very broad interpretation of what constitutes a threat to sovereignty and national security. Peaceful criticism, journalism and activism are regularly punished harshly in mainland China.

Beijing considers pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong to be a threat to China’s national security. The Hong Kong authorities have increasingly been using this justification to target activists, especially since the 2014 “Umbrella Movement”.

“Hong Kong is not far from being a part of the closed system of China, completely without freedom and democracy”

Lam Wing-hang, former student union leader
Demosistō’s peaceful activism, as well as its stance on self-determination, has made it a target of attacks from both the Hong Kong and mainland governments. Many members of Demosistō have been arrested and prosecuted for their activism, including its Secretary General Joshua Wong. The party also had to deal with other legal challenges, such as the court case to disqualify its chairman Nathan Law from taking office after winning a seat in the Legislature in 2017.
In 2015 five booksellers associated with a bookshop in Hong Kong went missing in Thailand, mainland China and Hong Kong. The shops was known for its books on Chinese leaders and political detention and disappearances of the booksellers had a chilling effect on freedom of expression in Hong Kong. When one of the missing men, Lam Wing-kee, returned to Hong Kong in June 2016, he held a press conference in which he said he had been arbitrarily detained, ill-treated in detention and forced to “confess”. Another bookseller, Gui Minhai, appeared on Chinese state television broadcaster CCTV making a “confession” in which he said he had voluntarily surrendered to the Chinese authorities over his supposed involvement in a hit-and-run accident.
Anthony Wong, a Cantopop star who actively participated in the Umbrella Movement protests, told Amnesty that altering musical work to cater to the censorship in China was the norm in the music industry. Wong says that after his involvement in the 2014 protests, work in Hong Kong and the mainland dried up.
In April 2019 four leaders of the Umbrella Movement protests – Benny Tai Yiu-ting, Chan Kin-man, Raphael Wong Ho-ming and Shiu Ka-chun – were sentenced to eight to 16 months’ imprisonment, on conviction of “public nuisance” related charges. Their imprisonment set a chilling precedent from freedom of expression and peaceful assembly in Hong Kong.
Journalists working on China issues have experienced direct censorship and interventions from mainland authorities. Last year, Michael*, a veteran journalist, received calls from government officials in Beijing once a week on average. He said mainland authorities demanded front-line journalists “play down” news about Taiwan’s independence. When he ignored the demand, the head of Michael’s news department delivered the same message. His supervisor told him that people from the China Liaison Office slammed the owner’s desk as they gave him instructions.

Report: Beijing’s “Red Line” in Hong Kong

How not to police a protest

Tens of thousands of protesters took to the streets of Hong Kong on Wednesday, 12 June.

From late afternoon into the night on 12 June, the largely peaceful protesters faced an onslaught of tear gas, guns firing rubber bullets, pepper spray and baton charges from police to disperse the demonstration near government headquarters. These unlawful police actions posed a serious risk of severe injury, or even death, to protesters.

Amnesty International’s team of experts on policing and digital verification took a closer look at this unnecessary and excessive use of force by police. We examined in detail footage from 14 instances of apparent police violence, including brutal beatings and the misuse of tear gas and pepper spray.

Since then, Hong Kong police have deployed excessive force numerous times.

On 12 August a protester suffered a ruptured eye in Tsim Sha Tsui after being shot by what appeared to be a bean bag projectile.

Reckless and aggressive policing

More than 1,300 people have been arrested so far in the context of the Extradition Bill protests, and the number continues to rise. Amnesty International interviewed 21 people, almost all of whom described being beaten with batons and fists during their arrests, even when they posed no resistance. Anti-riot police and a Special Tactical Squad (STS), commonly known as “raptors”, have been responsible for the worst violence.

One man who was arrested at a protest in Tsim Sha Tsui in August described how he ran away from police as they charged at protesters. When STS police caught up to him:

“Three of them got on me and pressed my face hard to the ground. A second later, they kicked my face …they kept putting pressure on my body. I started to have difficulty breathing, and I felt severe pain in my left ribcage … They said to me, ‘Just shut up, stop making noise. You came out; you’re a hero, right?’”

The man spent two days in hospital and was diagnosed with a fractured rib, among other injuries. Other arrested protesters described injuries including bone fractures, a cracked tooth and bleeding from head wounds.

I started to have difficulty breathing, and I felt severe pain in my left ribcage

Since April 2019, up to 2 million protesters in Hong Kong took to the streets. The protests were largely peaceful but were faced with disproportionate police violence. Clashes between police and protesters have now become a frequent occurrence. (Credit: Jimmy Lam @everydayaphoto)
Starting from 12 June 2019, police deployed tear gas, guns firing rubber bullets, pepper spray and baton charges from police to disperse the demonstrations in various areas. These unlawful police actions posed a serious risk of severe injury, or even death, to protesters. (Credit: Jimmy Lam @ everydayphoto)
According to media reports, one protester suffered from a ruptured eye in Tsim Sha Tsui after being shot by what appeared to be a bean bag projectile from the police on August 11, 2019 (AFP/Getty Images)

Policing standards

The vast majority of Hong Kong protesters remain peaceful. However, there has been violence, which appears to be escalating alongside excessive use of force by the police. Police have also failed to act when protesters and journalists have been attacked by others.

While police have a duty to maintain public order, there are strict international human rights laws and standards governing the use of force.

If law enforcement decides to use force, it must be in strict compliance with the principles of legality, necessity and proportionality.

Benny Tai (Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images)
Benny Tai (Philippe Lopez/AFP/Getty Images)
Activist Jimmy Sham (Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)
Activist Jimmy Sham (Anthony Wallace/AFP/Getty Images)

I am optimistic about the future for Hong Kong. The government may chip away at our freedoms, but change will come. There will be darker times ahead for Hong Kong but the sun will rise again. We need to keep strong.

Benny Tai, professor and pro democracy activist

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