Protesters filled Hong Kong International Airport in August. Many wore black, the unofficial uniform of these demonstrations. They carried signs and decorated the walls and floors with messages explaining why they were rallying, disrupting the transit hub. Some taped bandages to their eyes, dripping with red ink to represent the injury to a female volunteer medic after she was hit with a bean bag round, allegedly fired by police during a protest earlier that month.
The airport protests encapsulated months of turmoil in Hong Kong, which has only intensified in the weeks since. Demonstrations and sit-ins have now happened for about 26 weeks straight, at times turning tense and violent when police arrive spraying tear gas and rubber bullets. November was especially brutal: Police shot a protester, and a university campus occupied by demonstrators came under siege from police.
What began as a targeted protest against a controversial extradition bill in June has transformed into a battle for the future of Hong Kong. Protesters are not just fighting their local government. They’re challenging one of the most powerful countries on earth: China.
“How this is going to play out is really hard to say,” Victoria Hui, a professor of political science at University of Notre Dame, told me. “But Hong Kong will definitely never be the same.”
Protesters have sustained the demonstrations for six months, making it hard to keep track of all the developments. Here’s a guide to the unrest in Hong Kong: how it started, what it’s all about, and why China is so worried about it.
1) What is Hong Kong?
Hong Kong is a special administrative region of the People’s Republic of China. It’s located on the southern coast and borders the Chinese province of Guangdong.
The British took over Hong Kong in the 1840s during the Opium Wars, and ruled the territory — with the exception of a brief occupation by the Japanese during World War II — for the next century and a half.
The British government, in 1898, signed what was basically a 99-year lease for the territory, set to expire in 1997. As that date started to move closer, both governments tried to work out a deal.
In 1984, after lengthy negotiations, British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping signed a Joint Declaration on the future of Hong Kong. Britain agreed to return the territory to China on July 1, 1997, on the promise that China would give Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy” for 50 years, until 2047.
Formally, Hong Kong became a “special administration region” of the People’s Republic of China. The deal: China wouldn’t impose its government on Hong Kong, and Hong Kong’s “previous capitalist system and life-styles” would remain unchanged for that 50-year period. The setup became known as the “one country, two systems” rule.
Under this arrangement, Hong Kong could maintain its economic and trade policies, designed to protect Hong Kong’s status as an international financial capital. It gave Hong Kong its own judicial, executive, and legislative powers. And, as Thatcher put it at the time, it “preserves Hong Kong’s familiar legal system and the rights and freedoms enjoyed there.” That included freedom of the press, assembly, and religious beliefs, among other rights.
Despite the Joint Declaration’s guarantee of autonomy, which is also codified in Hong Kong’s Basic Law (the closest thing it has to a constitution), in practice, the line between the two systems has become blurrier, with the Chinese government in Beijing attempting to exert more control.
2) How does Hong Kong’s government work?
One expert I spoke to called aspects of Hong Kong’s government “hideously complicated,” but to understand some of the protesters’ demands, it’s worth going over the basics.
The Joint Declaration and Hong Kong’s Basic Law say that Hong Kong is supposed to administer itself. But the arrangement also gives China the power to appoint Hong Kong’s chief executive, “on the basis of the results of elections or consultations to be held locally.”
Here’s how that works in practice: An election committee, currently of about 1,200 people, votes and selects the chief executive, who serves a five-year term. The catch? The committee is stocked with Beijing loyalists, which means whoever wins is more or less the candidate Beijing wants to win.
But Hong Kong’s Basic Law goes a bit further, and says that the “ultimate aim” is to elect the chief executive through “universal suffrage upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee.”
For pro-democracy activists, this means one person, one vote. Beijing said in 2007 that it would grant universal suffrage in 2017. But in 2014, Beijing said, sure, you can have universal suffrage, but the candidates have to be chosen by a nominating committee. Oh, and China gets to pick who’s on that committee.
“Now you can sort of see where the problem is at this point,” Alvin Y. H. Cheung, an affiliated scholar at NYU’s US-Asia Law Institute, told me. “If Beijing can control who gets nominated that isn’t going to result in any meaningful choice.”
Pro-democracy advocates were furious and took to the streets in what would become the 2014 Umbrella Revolution.
The Hong Kong legislature ultimately rejected Beijing’s version of voting reform. So in 2017, for its chief executive elections, Hong Kong stuck with the electoral committee of about 1,200 members, most of whom are loyal to Beijing.
3) Why did the Hong Kong protests start?
The pro-democracy uprising that has rocked Hong Kong for the past several months began as a protest against proposed amendments to Hong Kong’s extradition law.
The amendments were prompted by the gruesome case of a Hong Kong man who was accused of strangling his pregnant girlfriend and stuffing her body in a suitcase while they were in Taiwan in 2018. The suspect, Chan Tong-kai, fled back to Hong Kong. And because Hong Kong doesn’t have a formal extradition treaty with Taiwan, he couldn’t be sent back to face trial.
The Hong Kong government seized on this case and used it as the rationale to propose amendments that would allow case-by-case extraditions to countries that lack formal extradition treaties with Hong Kong.
Notably, that would include mainland China, a country that arbitrarily imprisons its citizens if they displease the government.
Critics worried that China would take advantage of this law to arbitrarily detain Hongkongers — such as those who openly dissent against the Chinese government or advocate for human rights. One pro-democracy lawmaker called it a “dragnet over all of Hong Kong.”
The amendments would apply retroactively, meaning thousands of people who may have angered mainland China with a supposed past crime could be at risk of facing trial there.
The extradition rule changes were particularly fraught because China is accused of kidnapping people from outside its borders — including from Hong Kong, where it isn’t supposed to have jurisdiction — and essentially disappearing them to China. That would normally violate international law. But this bill would give China legal cover to do so.
Experts say that’s what this extradition bill was really about: an attempt by Beijing to exert more control over Hong Kong. Jerome A. Cohen, an Asia expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, called the Taiwan murder case that prompted these amendments a “phony excuse.”
“Everybody knew — who paid attention to it — [that] this was a long-overdue effort to extradite people from Hong Kong to China,” Cohen said on a conference call with reporters on August 14.
The proposed extradition law changes first prompted protests in March and April, and in May, pro-democracy and pro-Beijing lawmakers literally came to blows over the bill on the floor of Hong Kong’s legislature. In response, the government added some concessions to the bill, such as limiting the extraditable offenses. Critics weren’t satisfied.
“This is the last stand in the sense that once the extradition bill is passed, there is no more protection of Hong Kong against mainland China’s criminal system,” Hui, the Notre Dame professor, said. “It is the last step — this is really the last step in a whole series of erosions of Hong Kong’s autonomy since 1997.”
The protest movement really took off in early June. On June 9, as many as a million people in Hong Kong peacefully protested against the bill as Lam prepared to push it through Hong Kong’s legislature.
That huge show of opposition — as much as one-seventh of Hong Kong’s entire population demonstrated — did not persuade Lam to back down. She insisted on moving ahead.
On June 12, protesters swarmed the area near Hong Kong’s legislature, delaying the debate that would have effectively allowed for the speedy passage of the proposed extradition law amendments. These protests were met with violence, with police firing tear gas, rubber bullets, and beanbags at the crowds.
The police’s use of force — and their decision to call the protesters “rioters” and arrest some on rioting charges, which carries severe penalties — created a rift between the people and the police.
That fracture helped transform the protests against the extradition bill into a larger movement against the Hong Kong government and police abuses, leading to calls for an independent police investigation and Lam’s resignation.
4) How has the Hong Kong government responded?
After the huge protests on June 12, Lam “indefinitely suspended” the bill that would have amended the extradition law.
But her decision to put the bill on pause didn’t satisfy many in Hong Kong who saw it as nothing more than a standard delay tactic. “She is trying to delay and hope Hong Kong people forget,” Tim, a 26-year-old finance professional in Hong Kong, told Vox via WhatsApp at the time. The move prompted another round of protests that drew an estimated 2 million people, the largest show of opposition yet.
So the protests continued. On July 1, the anniversary of the British handover of Hong Kong, protesters stormed and vandalized the Legislative Council. On July 21, men in white shirts armed with clubs and sticks attacked people wearing black (the uniform of the protesters) in a transit station; activists accused police of being slow to respond and, in some instances, seeming a bit too chummy with the assailants. Many believed the attackers were affiliated with the notorious triads, Hong Kong’s mafia-like gangs that often do the bidding of Beijing.
A city-wide strike shut down transportation in Hong Kong on August 6. On August 8, protesters put on a fun laser show after police arrested a student for purchasing threatening lasers.
On August 11, a woman believed to be a volunteer medic was hit in the eye with a beanbag round fired by police; she has since become a symbol of police brutality, and protesters started wearing gauze eye patches, often stained with blood-red ink, and chanting, “An eye for an eye!”
Police also have been accused of going undercover and disguising themselves as protesters, which many saw as an attempt to sow suspicion and distrust within the mostly leaderless movement, where demonstrators carefully guard their anonymity.
On August 12 and 13, demonstrators took over the Hong Kong airport, occupying terminals and plastering signs on the walls and floors explaining why they were protesting to travelers; some also apologized for disrupting flights. The action led to mass flight cancellations at the airport, gaining worldwide attention — and ended with yet more police clashes.
Protests continued throughout August, including another demonstration on August 18 that brought about 2 million people to the streets and a tense protest on August 25, where police deployed water cannons and fired live ammunition for the first time.
At the end of August, Hong Kong authorities also arrested key pro-democracy advocates ahead of the fifth anniversary of Beijing’s actions that prompted the Umbrella Movement.
But Lam continued to refuse to formally withdraw the extradition bill even after weeks of intensifying protests. Her stance led to a somewhat viral moment on August 13 when a Reuters reporter asked her if she actually had the power to withdraw the bill. “In other words, have your hands been tied by Beijing in not allowing the bill to be withdrawn?”
Lam did not answer the question.
The impasse between protesters and the Hong Kong government looked unshakeable. But then, on September 4, Lam announced that — after weeks and weeks of sustained demonstrations — the government would formally withdraw the extradition bill.
Lam said the government had taken that step “in order to fully allay public concerns.” Lam offered some additional concessions, including adding new members to the Hong Kong police’s independent watchdog. Lam said she would do community outreach to talk to people to better understand their problems, and initiate a study on the causes of Hong Kong’s social injustices.
After months of resistance, this looked like a huge concession from the Hong Kong government. And yet, protesters largely responded: “too little, too late.”
Over the weeks of protests, demonstrators began to see the Hong Kong government’s refusal to budge as the prime example of why universal suffrage — selecting their own leaders — was paramount if they wanted to preserve Hong Kong’s unique status. They also became increasingly angered with what they saw the government’s disproportionate response to the protesters. Tensions had gotten to such a point between the authorities and the protesters that, in some ways, by September, the extradition bill was beside the point.
And so the protests continued, some taking on an increasingly violent tenor.
In early October, the Hong Kong government tried to ban face masks, which protesters wore to hide their identities and to protect themselves from tear gas. Protesters defied the ban (which was later deemed unlawful). But it was a sign of just how deeply relations between authorities and the demonstrators had broken down.
November was a particularly bloody month. A protester was shot by police, and a man, believed to be a Beijing supporter, was set on fire. In November, protesters took over Hong Kong Polytechnic Institute leading to a brutal standoff with police. Protesters shot arrows and set fires to prevent police from storming the campus. But authorities surrounded the protesters, trapping them inside. Those who tried to escape were showered in tear gas, and arrested.
5) What do the Hong Kong protesters want now?
The Hong Kong protesters started off with five specific demands. Getting rid of the extradition bill for good was the first one, which has now been met.
The second is that the government retract its use of the word “riot” to classify the protests. Rioting carries specific penalties — up to 10 years in jail — and demonstrators reject the term because they say it gives police cover to use heavy-handed tactics against peaceful protesters.
That ties into their third demand, which is that the police release all protesters who have been arrested and drop any charges that have been brought against demonstrators. Police have arrested approximately 4,500 people since the protests began in June, not including the hundreds who were detained after a siege on a Hong Kong University in November.
Demand number four calls on the government to convene a serious, independent inquiry into the Hong Kong police and their tactics.
And fifth, protesters are demanding universal suffrage — not Beijing’s version, but a legitimate opportunity for Hongkongers to democratically choose their leaders.
6) How much support do the protesters have in Hong Kong?
This is not an easy question to answer. I’ve spoken to experts, activists, and protesters, and they say it’s difficult to fully gauge the level of support across the city.
Families and friends are split on whether the protests are good or bad. Some are concerned about their impact on Hong Kong’s economy and believe disruptive protests may hurt its status as an attractive financial capital. (As of October, Hong Kong has officially entered into a recession.) Some sympathize with the aims of the protesters but not always with their tactics, such as defacing the legislative building.
A substantial portion of the protesters are students and young professionals in their late teens and 20s who were born around the time of the 1997 handover. They’re afraid the Hong Kong they’ve grown up with, and its distinct culture and traditions and special freedoms, are slipping away. What’s more, they’re starting to realize that 2047 — the year Hong Kong’s special status is set to expire under the original agreement between China and Britain — is not as distant as it once seemed.
But the protests are not limited to just young people. At least 2 million people attended one protest in June, out of Hong Kong’s 7 million residents. Again, on August 18, nearly 2 million joined peaceful protests, despite a police ban and pouring rain. Trade unions have gone on strike in solidarity. After the volunteer medic was shot in the eye with a beanbag round by police, about 200 doctors, nurses, and paramedics gathered in protest, many wearing bandages in solidarity.
In August, bankers held a demonstration in Hong Kong’s central business district, which they called “Freedom lose, market snooze.”
As the protests wore on into the fall, they also became increasingly violent. But even so, plenty of peaceful protesters continued to back the movement. When Hong Kong’s Polytechnic University became a battleground between police and protesters, hundreds of supporters — including parents — gathered to try to ease tensions. As the New York Times reported, many sympathized with their children’s decision to resist, especially as they saw some of the police tactics up close.
Hong Kong’s leaders, through it all, have argued that the demonstrators are disruptive and unrepresentative of Hong Kong, insisting that a “silent majority” of Hongkongers actually opposed the protesters.
But Hong Kong’s local district council elections on November 24 cast doubt on that rhetoric: A historic 71 percent of voters turned out to vote, and pro-democracy candidates took majorities in 17 of the 18 district councils, flipping hundreds of seats that had been previously held by pro-Beijing candidates. The results sent a strong message to the Hong Kong authorities — and to China.
That said, the movement certainly has its detractors. In late July, tens of thousands of demonstrators, “mostly middle-aged or older,” took to the streets of Hong Kong in a pro-police rally, calling for an end to the violence, according to Reuters. “Some waved Chinese flags as others chanted ‘Hong Kong Cheer Up’ and ‘Support Hong Kong Police’,” Reuters reported.
Additional, sporadic pro-police protests have occurred in the background, particularly in more conservative, pro-Beijing, working-class neighborhoods, but they typically only draw a few hundred people at most.
Some of Hong Kong’s ultrarich business tycoons are also growing weary of the protests and the disruption (read: loss of profits) they’re causing. Hong Kong’s wealthiest man, a 91-year-old business magnate reportedly worth $27 billion, took out full front-page ads in several local newspapers calling on both the protesters and the authorities in Beijing to end the violence.
Companies are also coming under increased pressure from China to oppose the protests and side with the Hong Kong government — and with Beijing.
In one of the most visible cases, after employees of the Hong Kong-based Cathay Pacific Airways reportedly participated in pro-democracy demonstrations, Chinese government regulators demanded that the airline prohibit any of its employees who had taken part from doing any work involving flights to mainland China.
Regulators also “ordered that the airline begin submitting information about all crew members flying to — or above — the mainland to the Chinese authorities for prior approval,” according to the New York Times. The company moved to comply, but it evidently wasn’t enough for Beijing, and pressure continued to mount — ultimately leading the company’s CEO to resign.
7) Why does China care so much about these protests?
China has taken an increasingly hard line against Hong Kong’s protests because it sees them as a threat to its growing influence in the territory.
After 1997, China mostly respected Hong Kong’s autonomy because Hong Kong contributed tremendously to China’s economy — about 27 percent of its GDP in the 1990s, and about 3 percent today. China is eager to invest in the mainland now, so Hong Kong has lost a bit of its shield to Beijing’s influence.
So China has tried to bring Hong Kong closer and closer into its orbit. It wants Hong Kong to embrace the country’s ruling Communist Party and not care so much about those pesky freedoms Hong Kong citizens love so much. It wants Hong Kong to speak mainland China’s official language, Mandarin, instead of Cantonese. And it doesn’t want Hong Kong to commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre, which it does each year, as the only place in China allowed to do so.
The protests are proof that Beijing’s plan has fallen short. Not only is the territory fighting Beijing’s encroachment, but Hong Kong citizens’ sense of connection to mainland China has diminished since the 1997 handover, according to public opinion polls.
The protests aren’t likely to convince China that it has overstepped in trying to curb Hong Kong’s autonomy; instead, they’re taken as a sign that China hasn’t tried hard enough. The protests have also gained world attention and press that the Chinese government absolutely doesn’t want.
China also really doesn’t want such unrest to spread, or set a possible precedent for citizens in the mainland. Beijing has stepped up its disinformation campaign in response and closely censored what the rest of China sees and hears about the protests — which is that the demonstrators are disgruntled rioters and CIA props.
The leaders in Beijing may have initially hoped that the demonstrations would fizzle out, but now that they haven’t, they’re likely trying to figure out options for how to stop them.
8) What is China going to do?
China first responded to the protests by pretty much pretending that they didn’t exist. Instead of covering the storming of the Legislative Council in July, for instance, China’s state-controlled media showed propaganda celebrating the 1997 handover.
But that’s changed as the protests have gone on, and China’s rhetoric — and disinformation campaign — has intensified. Chinese state-run media is now actively promoting the idea that the protesters are rioters or “paid provocateurs” and actively misrepresenting footage to denigrate the protesters. In August, both Facebook and Twitter said they found accounts originating in China spreading false news about the Hong Kong protests.
After the protester was shot in the eye in August, China showed a video of a protester accepting cash, trying to make the point that the entire incident was fake — when in fact it was the Chinese video that was fake.
China is also claiming that the West, specifically the US and the CIA, is trying to foment unrest in Hong Kong by paying protesters. (It seems some in the Communist Party might actually believe that conspiracy theory.)
Especially troubling is China’s increasingly harsh rhetoric toward the protesters. After the airport protests in August, China called the protesters’ actions “near terrorism.” Chinese state-run news outlets have echoed this harsh rhetoric, calling protesters’ demands for democracy a “malignant virus.”
The message Beijing seemed to be sending to protesters right now is “Go home or else.”
China may be choosing its language very carefully to lay the groundwork for a potential intervention.
There are two scenarios under which China can send its armed forces — the People’s Liberation Army, or PLA — into Hong Kong. (China does have about 6,000 troops permanently stationed in Hong Kong.) The Hong Kong government can request assistance from China to help maintain order, essentially admitting it has lost control of the city.
The second is if China’s National People’s Congress standing committee — the powerful, permanent body of the National People’s Congress, the national legislature — either declares war or a state of emergency in Hong Kong.
“China’s rhetoric — calling what’s been going on in Hong Kong ‘riots,’ ‘counterrevolution,’ or ‘terrorism’ — it’s essentially paving the way for it using that clause,” Victoria Hui, the expert at the University of Notre Dame, said.
China also amassed troops and tanks across the border from Hong Kong in Shenzhen in August, and has released videos of the armed forces doing drills. Taken together, China has at least signaled that it’s prepared to act.
That doesn’t mean it will. Experts I spoke to cautioned that it’s impossible to say what China will do, but it would be a dramatic, unpredictable escalation if China intervenes in Hong Kong. Just the idea of it has comparisons to China’s Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989.
For one, although Hong Kong may not be as economically influential as it once was, it’s still seen as the “gateway to China” and a global commercial and financial capital. A forceful Chinese intervention would disrupt the city’s economy far more than the protests already have.
Hong Kong entered a recession in October, but China’s economy isn’t doing so well right now, either, which means its leaders are probably hesitant to cause even more serious financial harm, even if Hong Kong only accounts for about 3 percent of its total economy now.
Such action could potentially result in loss of life, which would likely anger Hongkongers even more. It would also immediately draw international condemnation (although maybe not much more than that), and China, and specifically President Xi Jinping, isn’t totally immune to such things.
Some experts saw October 1, 2019, as a possible turning point. On that date, the Chinese government celebrated the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China with a lot of pomp and military might.
On that date, Xi declared that “no force” could stop China’s rise. Whether it was a threat to Hong Kong’s protesters is unclear, although Hong Kong erupted into demonstrations on that date in a direct affront to China.
If Hong Kong’s attempt to overshadow China’s celebration angered Beijing, it didn’t act on that anger. And it still hasn’t. Beijing has reiterated support for Lam and continued to condemn the protests — and downplayed the recent local elections. In that sense, China also seems stuck: unwilling to compromise, but not quite sure how, exactly, to finally quell this pro-democracy movement.
9) How are other countries responding to all this?
The response of the international community has been somewhat lackluster.
The United States, purported to be a supporter of democracy around the world, hasn’t taken a particularly strong stance. The State Department has called on China to honor the “one country, two systems” rule, and a State Department spokesperson in August called China a “thuggish” regime after it released personal information for a US consular official who met with Hong Kong protesters, which China used as propaganda to show foreign meddling.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo has dismissed such allegations of US interference as “ludicrous.” He also said in interviews in August that China should respect the rights of Hong Kong and that “something like Tiananmen Square” in Hong Kong could jeopardize a trade deal. In August, then-National Security Adviser John Bolton also warned against a “new” Tiananmen Square.
President Trump has made some vague statements that he hopes the situation “works out for everybody, including China, by the way,” and he’s sent some alarmist tweets about military amassing at the Hong Kong border. But he’s mostly just made the whole thing about himself, complaining on Twitter that “many are blaming me, and the United States, for the problems going on in Hong Kong. I can’t imagine why?”
Trump did say in August that he was concerned about Hong Kong, but then suggested that if Xi “sat down with the protesters, he’d work it out in 15 minutes,” seemingly unaware of how Xi, the Chinese government, authoritarianism, or protests work.
Maybe Trump’s strongest statement in defense of Hong Kong came during his speech to the United Nations General Assembly in September. “The world fully expects that the Chinese government will honor its binding treaty made with the British and registered with the United Nations in which China commits to protect Hong Kong’s freedom, legal system, and democratic ways of life,” Trump said. “How China chooses to handle this situation will say a great deal about its role in the world in the future. We are all counting on President Xi as a great leader.”
Part of the president’s hands-off approach to the situation in Hong Kong almost certainly has to do with his desire to make a trade deal with China and end the trade war before the 2020 election. If that means he has to ignore sensitive subjects like Hong Kong (and China’s repression of its Uighur Muslim minority) to cut a deal with Xi, then so be it.
It might put Trump at directly at odds with Congress, which overwhelmingly approved the Hong Kong Freedom and Democracy Act in November. The bill requires the Secretary of State to assess whether Hong Kong should still be granted special trade status under US law, based on whether Hong Kong’s government is still autonomous and honoring the rule of law. It also calls on the president to impose sanctions on officials who violate human right sin Hong Kong.
It’s not clear if Trump will sign it into law though, mostly because of those trade talks. On November 22, Trump told the hosts of Fox & Friends that “we have to stand with Hong Kong, but I’m also standing with President Xi.”
“But I stand with Hong Kong,” he added. “I stand with freedom. I stand with all of the things that we want to do, but we also are in the process of making the largest trade deal in history. And if we could do that, that would be great.”
The bill passed both the House and the Senate with veto-proof majorities, so Congress could defy Trump if he does reject the bill. But Trump’s noncommittal approach diminishes the strong statement that lawmakers on Capitol Hill just made.
The United Kingdom also has a historical stake in Hong Kong, as it negotiated the joint declaration with Beijing that preserved Hong Kong’s autonomy in the first place. But the UK is dealing with its own political crisis right now in Brexit, and if the UK does break up with the European Union, it’s not going to want to totally risk isolating China and its economy.
Hongkongers have also put their hopes on the international community getting involved. In June, during the G20, activists took out full-page ads in newspapers in 10 countries, pleading for international backing. Hong Kong protesters have also waved American flags at protesters, and sung the US national anthem, part celebration of democratic ideals, part appeal to the United States.
Calls for international support for Hong Kong’s democracy have been mostly met with silence. But the tens of thousands of protesters who continue to flood the streets of Hong Kong week after week refuse to be silent, even if no one else will stand up on their behalf.