“There was no cool off period”: An update on Hong Kong

Hong Kong protester
A marcher holds a sign protesting China's proposed extradition bill. Though the bill was rescinded in Sept. 2019, violent protests continued to wrack Hong Kong into 2020, leading China to propose a new controversial security law that would criminalize secession, subversion and treason against the Chinese government.

By Rikki Li
Medill Reports

Since June of last year, Hong Kong has remained in a seemingly constant state of unrest as police and pro-democracy protesters clashed over legislation.

What began as a mass procession in the streets against mainland China’s proposed extradition bill—which would allow for deportation of fugitives in Hong Kong to China for trial—devolved into frequent protests, strikes and alleged police brutality. Images of flying rubber bullets, uprooted bricks and billowing clouds of tear gas illustrated the growing animosity. Even after the bill was revoked in September, protesters responded that it was “too little, too late,” and the violent demonstrations persisted.

Thomas Yau, a South China Morning Post video producer, documented scenes of the protests on his Twitter. “I feel like the last water [cannon] burst on the footbridge is aimed at journalists,” he tweeted on Sep. 28 as he caught shaky video of pepper-spray laced water jets dousing a dispersing crowd. In another, Yau was buffeted by shields as police pushed him away from a detained protester. In another, marchers chanted “five demands, not one less,” referring to their demands for suffrage in addition to the withdrawn bill.

Even those uninvolved in the protests could not escape its effects. Violence came from police and protesters alike. “You could be at dinner and suddenly someone would break the glass and start yelling at you so they can trash the place,” said Kay Tse, a marketing manager at Time magazine’s Hong Kong branch. “And there were times my brother almost fell into a ditch because of all the dug-up bricks gone from the street.”

However, as COVID-19 spread across the world and dominated the news sphere in January, coverage of the Hong Kong protests was put on a back burner, though the movement itself did not fizzle out. “Every 21st and 31st of the month, there would still be something going on, but it wasn’t as huge,” said Tse. “People were loud but not necessarily violent, so it was manageable.”

According to Worldometer, a real-time statistics tracker, Hong Kong avoided the brunt of the coronavirus wave, with only a little over 1,000 cases reported as of May 28. As residents quarantined at home and protests shrank, the city seemed to move away from the violence it had endured in the past year.

“Places I had seen vandalized got cleaned up,” said Tse. “Before, a lot of bridges were covered in anti-China, anti-government flyers, but because people weren’t going out, they had time to scrub the space clean.”

But decreased activity did not mean decreased sentiment. A Reuters poll conducted by the Hong Kong Public Opinion Research Institute in March showed that 58% of the respondents remained in support of the protests, compared to 28% who did not. The unresolved tension came to a head in late May, when China proposed a national security law that would criminalize “treason, secession, sedition [and] subversion” against the Chinese government.

Tse watched the protests surging anew that weekend. “There was no cool off period,” she said.

On social media, Thomas Yau retweeted posts of those grieving the “death of Hong Kong.” Others posted images and videos of protesters being arrested in droves. Many implied an uncertainty of what was to come.

“I don’t know when it’s ever going to end,” said Tse. “Obviously, violence isn’t working. You can’t solve things without talking about it, and no one is talking about it.”

Photo at top: A Hong Kong marcher holds a sign protesting China’s 2019 extradition bill. Though the bill was rescinded in September of last year, violent protests continued into 2020, leading China to propose a new security law that would criminalize secession, subversion and treason against the Chinese government. (Joseph Chan/Unsplash)