Discontent in Hong Kong – Breakdown of the Protests Featuring an Interview with Action Free Hong Kong Montreal

By Bérénice Collignon

This global trade hub is currently demonstrating its concern and anger regarding its current social state and political standing.

Background

For 156 years, Hong Kong has been a part of the British Empire. Its sovereignty was eventually passed to the People’s Republic of China on the 1st of July 1997 with one condition: that the region would still possess its autonomy for a period of fifty years. China has since then adopted the policy “One country, Two systems”.

This system let Hong Kong maintain its economic and political setup while recognizing China as its sovereign state and leaving foreign and defense affairs in the hands of its recognized nation-state. These agreements, which define the essentials of Hong Kong’s constitutional framework, are contained within the Hong Kong Basic Law

Even though the autonomous region claims to have a democratic political system aimed towards universal suffrage, the Beijing government possesses the right to interpret the Hong Kong Basic Law and ultimately its definition of universal suffrage and democracy. The communist government was therefore able to realize its own vision of elections. Today, the Chief Executive is elected by 1200 members selected from various sectors, such as industrial, professional, commercial and financial. Criticism of the election process deems it unfair as the representation of its population’s beliefs is not adequately respected, especially if the ones selected to vote are close to the Chinese government.

Even though it may not be considered a complete democracy by Western standards, Hong Kongers still possess high degrees of freedom. This differs from Hong Kong’s neighboring territory, the Chinese mainland, where criticism and opposition are not tolerated and censorship is employed to control and monitor disobedience. As J. Carroll wrote in A Concise History of Hong Kong: “lying at the strategic intersection of Chinese and British imperial history, Hong Kong also has its history and identity, replete with contradictions, problems, and idiosyncrasies that have shaped its present”.  

What Pulled the  Trigger

Hong Kong has attracted a substantial amount of media attention in the past months. What started as a protest against a bill became an international cry of anger reflecting its growing discontent.

The protests began in June of this year when a bill was proposed which would allow the extradition of criminal suspects back to mainland China. This was deemed necessary as a wanted Hong Kong citizen in Tawain was being persecuted for the murder of his girlfriend. This extradition bill was condemned by Hong Kongers as it appeared to be a breach in their legislative independence. The Economist reported that two million people marched in several increasingly violent protests demanding the scrapping of this bill, clearly highlighting the lack of confidence that the city’s population has in China’s communist-controlled legal system.

Even though the bill was retracted, the protesters currently have five demands:

  1. Universal suffrage
  2. The recractment of the term riot
  3. Amnesty for protestors that had been imprisoned 
  4. An independent inquiry into alleged police brutality and corruption
  5. The retraction of the bill and the chief executive’s resignation

This bill has triggered Hong Kong’s wish to stop the ongoing influence that the Chinese communist government has on Hong Kong’s electoral and security systems.

Violence

The police brutality prevalent throughout the aforementioned protests increased the anger of the protestors and led to controversy regarding the position of the police and their actions against individuals. Additionally, video evidence of police officers’ apathy towards mafia members attacking civilians is one of many events sparking further suspicion regarding possible corruption.

In retaliation, the protesters have become more rebellious. Vandalism, damaging property, beating up the police or, in more extreme cases, beating up individuals who do not agree with their demands or their ways, has become common. More recently, the rail network had to be closed due to arson and intentional flooding. 

Some may believe that the use of such violence is necessary and that it reflects the protesters’ desire to free the city from the Chinese government’s influence. Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, said earlier in October that, “protesters’ violence has been escalating and has reached a very alarming level in the past few days”. The city is being damaged and the protesters are not ready to stop without their demands being fulfilled, this certainly has a cost for Hong Kong. 

Even though the media has often broadcasted the more violent side of the protests, peaceful ones have been organized and social media is being used to educate and seek support from the international community. 

With that being said, a firearm has recently been employed for the first time. An eighteen-year-old boy was shot as he was trying to charge a policeman on the ground. The biggest concern regarding this incident is that the police officer who came to help his colleague and shot the boy was carrying non-lethal weapons that could have been used instead. 

The protests have thereby divided the population into “good and evil”. While some condemn the demands and ways of the protestors and others promote them, many pacifists settle for agreeing with the demands, but not the actions.  

Retaliation

Social media has had a major role in organizing and diffusing news about the protests. However, the Chinese government’s ‘Great Firewall’ shows that it does not restrict itself when it comes to censorship.

As some may be aware, websites such as Facebook, Instagram or Twitter have been banned from China. This has led to other various social media apps to be created for the Chinese population, the most popular being WeChat and Weibo. According to the CNBC, content relating to the Hong Kong protests or messages offering support to the protestors have been blocked. Censorship is, therefore, a natural retaliation against Hong Kong’s anti-government protests.

Is there hope for Hong Kong?

As the protests persist and violence escalates, it remains unclear whether the Chinese government will listen to the Hong Kongers and grant their five demands. The communist party has recently expressed its confidence in Carrie Lam and her capability to calm the protests. Chinese President Xi has shared his perspective on the matter: “Stopping the storm and restoring order remains the most important task in Hong Kong.” He thus leaves it to Hong Kong’s Chief Executive to deal with this crisis. 

The global community has shown widespread support for the protestors, with Action Free Hong Kong Montreal being just one of many groups. Moreover, many protests have been organised in cities such as Vancouver, Sydney and London to educate people and cast further light onto the protesters demands. 

What is most troublesome is the overall division that it has created between the population of Hong Kong but also within families. It all comes down to what they consider as their identity: their culture, their relationships, or their political alignment.

Interview with Action Free Hong Kong Montreal (25th October 2019)

In order to grasp a better picture of the situation and its implications, Catalyst McGill spoke with Action Free Hong Kong Montreal,  a local group which has been offering its support overseas. 

Catalyst McGill: What is your perspective on the ongoing events in Hong Kong ? 

Action Free Hong Kong Montreal: We stand firmly behind our fellow Hong Kongers in continuing fighting for all of their five demands, including:

  1. Full Withdrawal of the Extradition Bill
  2. An independent inquiry into police violence and incompetence in protecting the public.
  3. Retracting the classification of protesters as “rioters”. HK protesters have been unbelievably peaceful for the last 5 months. Even the recently escalated violent acts all are political or defensive in nature. No rioters, there’s only tyranny. 
  4. Amnesty for all arrested protesters. By now, it is already a common knowledge HKPF is using arbitrary arrests to deter young protesters, therefore their political arrests must stop. 
  5. Dual universal suffrage for both Legislative Council and the Chief Executive; only by implementing true dual universal suffrage, reform the government, fire those officials who were responsible, and providing a fair election system, then Hong Kongers can elect a leader who can truly represent Hong Kong. 

CM: Do you think that there is now a more intensified division between the Chinese population and the Hong Kongers? Do you feel the division present here, in Montreal?

AFHKM: In Chinese media, the current HK democracy movement is rebranded as a national identity crisis. The CCP government is attaching the movement to China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity by inciting nationalism to emotionally charge the Chinese population.

This has caused the Chinese population, who grows up under propaganda, unable to question whether there is any validity in what is displayed in the media or if there is any truth in protesters’ demands. This is also why when you ask Chinese why are they against the HK protest, they can only say they are against independence, and support one China.

Therefore, there is definitely a very polarised division between the Chinese population and Hong Kongers, due to the limited and biased information the Chinese population could receive. The Chinese Communist Party will only allow violent scenes caused by the Hong Kong protestors to be viewed by its people to support their narrative. Violent acts committed by the police, such as shooting protestors at point-blank range, or breaking protestors’ arm by twisting it will be censored. 

The same polarisation happens in Montreal and elsewhere around the world. Even though overseas Chinese might be able to obtain uncensored information, quite a large part of them have been nurtured by the regime’s propaganda for too long, that they have developed the “China has suffered a lot in the past century and now that China is big and strong, we are proud of it and no one should bully China” mentality. And naturally, they will wholeheartedly believe that HK protesters are rioters, they are messing around to their beloved country. And sadly, we saw that even Chinese students studying in or graduated from McGill, someone who is supposed to be rational and well-educated, still share this same view.  

CM: Do you think that there might be internal division between the protestors themselves, the ones that are pro-democracy or pro-independence ?

AFHKM: We would not rule out this idea, as in any large scale public event, not all share the same views. On the streets of HK, there must be some who protest, hoping the HK government will respond or reform, while others protest with the aim to disband the HK government.

But two important points to note are: 

  1. Those being classified as more violent protesters are not necessarily pro-independence. 
  2. Independence is never the majority’s point of view. It might be a rosy picture, yet Hong Kongers are well aware that technically and politically, independence is a cul-de-sac. 

CM: What is your opinion on the increase in violent acts from both the protests and police side?

AFHKM: The increase of violence on both sides are due to the inaction of the HK government and insisting to continue to use the HKPF to solve their political problems. The protests started because of a political problem, and it can only be tackled by political solutions, police cracking down public is never a solution. It should be noted that the escalation of recent violent acts by protesters all either has their political reasons behind them (eg: “renovations” on franchises owned by Maxim’s or Chinese nationalists) or bounded by necessity in defensive nature (eg: setting roadblocks so that protesters will have more time to disperse.) 

CM: How would you respond to the individuals that support the ideas of the protestors yet condemn their actions? 

AFHKM: We invite them to look into the violence of the two sides and judge who is more detrimental to society. Not only they should look at the physical violence of the police and the triad members, but also the political violence, including elected democratic lawmakers unfairly disqualified, or the ruling of the independent legal system not respected by China, just to name a few.

CM: What have you done to offer your support overseas? What do you think you could do more?

AFHKM: Since August, we have done the following to show solidarity to our fellow Hong Kongers:

  1. Spoke to different media outlets about the situations in HK
  2. Organized an art event with our immensely talented artist, Pomelo 
  3. Organized a rally that connects the local Hong Kongers
  4. Organized a cross-party rally
  5. Submitted an open letter to the Montreal U.S. consulate to urge support on the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act

However, our main focus will continue to be spreading the news in HK to the Montreal general public through English and French translated news, articles, and artworks. We and other overseas Hong Kongers understand that voices from around the world are crucial to the whole movement, be it emotional support or diplomatic pressure from the government. 

CM: Even if you do manage to obtain the five-point demands, what do you think would occur in 2047 once the ‘one country, two systems’ will potentially disappear? 

AFHKM: Nobody can be certain about the future. It is true that HK may not enjoy the same rights and autonomy after 2047, but it doesn’t deter people from defending it in 2019. Similarly, does it make a difference to a person if he/she is to die today or 30 years later? I think most people will give an affirmative answer.

Edited by Sruthi Sudhir

Featured image by VOA News, public domain.

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