Skip to main content

An unpopular extradition bill has galvanized activists in the Chinese territory who feel peaceful demands for change aren’t enough any more

June 12, 2019: A protester throws a tear-gas canister back at police, which cracked down on demonstrations outside the government headquarters against an extradition bill.ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images

On a sticky Wednesday afternoon, Pauline Yeung found a place to sit on Tim Mei Avenue, on the edge of the crowds that had surrounded this city’s Legislative Council.

It would be another 90 minutes before clouds of tear gas seared the eyes and lungs of those gathered here, as police used baton charges, rubber bullets and pepper balls to clear away tens of thousands of people protesting a proposed extradition bill.

The bill would make it easier for authorities in mainland China to legally seize those they call fugitive criminals, and has raised concern that it could subject people in Hong Kong to justice in courts that answer to the Communist Party of China. Worry about the extradition bill was encapsulated in a single sign posted this week: “First: Canadians Kovrig & Spavor. Next: You & Me?”

But a nervous energy coursed through the air as Ms. Yeung perched on the edge of a planter, thinking about the familiar contours of protest in this place – and how this time, she hoped, things would be different, even if that meant embracing violence.

In China, the Communist Party secured its rule “through guns,” she says. “So if Hong Kong people want to gain back our rights, unless there is bleeding or guns or violence – it’s impossible. Because that’s the way the Chinese government works.”

It was firebrand language, but delivered in a contemplative tone, one born of a demoralization that has darkened the demeanour of a young generation in a city plagued by tensions in recent years.

In 2014, Ms. Yeung spent nearly three months on these streets amid a lengthy protest, known as the Umbrella Movement, to demand greater democratic representation for people in Hong Kong, where Chinese leadership in Beijing holds heavy sway.

Ms. Yeung, 23, was so committed to the cause that she slept on the streets for all but a night or two, showering in a nearby sports centre. For 75 days, she and others called for change in a lengthy demonstration notable for its calm – with students doing homework on the streets and people listening to impromptu lectures on history and politics. But months of peaceful protest failed to achieve anything of note.

Its dissolution was such a defeating event that Ms. Yeung left Hong Kong for a year, moving to Taiwan. When she returned, she became a nurse, determined to contribute to social good.

But on Wednesday, she was back on the streets, and imbued with new ambition. “People are a lot readier to go to fight or to sacrifice,” she said.

A protester is tackled by riot police during Wednesday's demonstrations in Hong Kong.Kin Cheung/The Associated Press

What Hong Kong will do with the extradition bill is unclear. With new protests planned for Sunday and Monday, a legislative schedule included no hearings for Monday and Tuesday, while government advisers emerged to recommend a pause. “Personally, I can see that it is impossible to discuss when there is so much conflict on all sides,” Bernard Chan, a close adviser to Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam, told local radio. “At the very least we should not escalate the antagonism.” Ms. Lam herself has not spoken publicly since Wednesday.

Yet, the prospect of postponement also stood to validate the sense of desperation among young protesters who have concluded that their leadership ignores peaceful demands for change. Convinced the alternative is to watch Beijing erode the distinctiveness and freedoms of their city, they say they see little choice.

“The only way is just go to violence,” said Tony Wong, 22, a student who joined the protest Wednesday. He pointed to the yellow-vests movement in France. “You go to violence and the government will listen,” he said.

At stake is stability in a major world financial hub – a stability that activists argue has been most seriously threatened by an extradition bill that could undermine the rule of law that underpins its international importance, and bring the city a step closer to integration with China’s authoritarian regime. “Hong Kong used to have this reputation as Asia’s beacon of freedom,” said Jeffrey Ngo, a historian who is chief researcher for Demosisto, a pro-democracy party. The extradition bill is “a threat to everyone.”

At the same time, the prospect of chaotic protest has alarmed Hong Kong authorities, after police accused protesters of attacking them with bricks and sharpened metal sticks. “Clearly, this is no longer a peaceful assembly but a blatant, organized riot, and in no way an act of loving Hong Kong,” Ms. Lam said. Chinese state media warned that “radical opposition forces” are jeopardizing the region’s welfare. “Playing with uncontrolled street politics is to push Hong Kong to backwardness and disturbance. This is not a wise direction for Hong Kong,” China’s Global Times wrote in an editorial.

Protesters and human-rights groups, meanwhile, denounced police for a gratuitous response, which included firing rubber bullets at people’s heads, an act Nathan Law, a prominent student leader, deemed “really close to murder.” More than 80 people were injured, some seriously. What took place this week “is not a good sign for Hong Kong,” said Sonny Lo, a political commentator and author. The city’s youth have become “politically alienated, socially frustrated but also strategic.”

“If some of the protesters see peaceful struggle as a failure, then we may anticipate the recurrence of violent protests in the coming years.” Because, he added, “the people who protested were not only young, but they appear to believe in a kind of perpetual confrontation with the police.”

But if there is confrontation, it’s not for nothing, argued Cheung Choi-wan, a translator who quit her work with Ming Pao, a Hong Kong newspaper that published an editorial calling this week’s confrontation a “riot.”

“People in Hong Kong are hoping for peace for our city, but we are not willing to exchange our freedom and human rights for this so-called ‘peace,’ ” she wrote in an article explaining her decision. “The peace we want is not only peace of the flesh, but what we want even more is peace of conscience.”

July 1, 1997: Hong Kongers hold a pro-democracy protest hours after the former British colony reverted to Chinese rule, sparking fears of curbs to civil liberties.Bobby Yip/Reuters

Oct. 28, 2014: Protesters open their umbrellas, symbols of the pro-democracy movement, in Hong Kong's central financial district.Damir Sagolj/Reuters

June 12, 2019: Protesters face off with police after they fired tear gas on the demonstration near the government headquarters.ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images

Protest has been a pillar of politics in Hong Kong for at least half a century. Denied the fullness of democratic representation by the British, then provided only a limited ability to vote under Chinese rule, people in Hong Kong have long made the streets their ballot boxes.

“If the government closes off every other alternative way of participating in the political process, then protests is all that’s left,” said Antony Dapiran, a lawyer and author. And history has shown that public noise often achieves its goals. “Hong Kongers have been conditioned to view protest as an effective means of forcing political change,” Mr. Dapiran writes in his book City of Protest.

Over the decades, rounds of protests have brought people out to oppose transit-fare increases, protect historic landmarks, block urban redevelopment and demand democratic reforms. Hong Kong police keep detailed statistics on “public order events.” They show 12,627 public processions in the past decade – 24 a week, on average, in a city of 7.5 million.

The birth of protest in the city was bloody. In 1966, after a proposed hike in ferry fares, four days of fiery riots left 26 injured and one dead. The following year, a lengthy campaign of terrorist bombings that occurred after a company owned by Li Ka-shing – now one of Hong Kong’s most prominent billionaires – said it would cut worker wages resulted in 51 deaths and 832 people injured. Police discovered more than 1,000 bombs.

In the decades since, however, the defining feature of the city’s street actions has been remarkable peace. On May 21, 1989, 1.5-million people – a quarter of the city – marched to support the democracy movement then under way in China. Hundreds of thousands gather every June 4 to commemorate the Tiananmen Square crackdown in candlelight vigils so orderly that demonstrators scrape away wax drips on the asphalt. During the 2014 Umbrella Movement, students organized trash-disposal brigades. And on Sunday, in what may be the biggest protest since 1989, hundreds of thousands – perhaps more than a million – peacefully occupied three kilometres of streets to oppose the extradition bill.

But that protest, too, ended in unrest, with police using batons and pepper spray to clear away demonstrators.

Hong Kong democracy activist Martin Lee, left, is shown in March of 2019 beside Jimmy Lai, founder of Next Media.TYRONE SIU/Reuters

In the hours that followed, Martin Lee, an octogenarian who is among the city’s most prominent democracy activists, was furious that late-night ugliness had marred the march. “Why would you guys be so stupid?” he recalls thinking to himself. “We had a lovely demonstration, a million people. Why ruin it at the end?”

Then he read a news account about a high-school student at the march who said he was ready to sacrifice himself – even if that might mean imprisonment. “And it woke me up,” Mr. Lee said. His generation had embraced a sense of hope that Hong Kong’s liberties and uniqueness could be maintained and enhanced. And over the years, the region’s authorities have given way on a series of issues – including, in the past two decades, abandoning a draconian piece of security legislation and relenting on a bid to impose a patriotic education curriculum meant to inculcate greater youth loyalty toward China.

But Mr. Lee, too, has been struck by the inability, or unwillingness, of Hong Kong’s leadership to depart from Beijing’s dictates in the past five years. It’s given him sympathy for the frustrations of the young generation.

On Wednesday, he walked through the crowd of protesters, some of whom were pulling up sidewalk bricks. He urged calm. “They weren’t listening,” he said. Mr. Lee has spent his own life attempting to prevent such acts. But this week, he struggled to muster much condemnation.

“They have not armed themselves with dangerous weapons. So it’s just sacrifice,” he said, adding that police were well-protected even against bricks. As for the protesters, “of course we are concerned for their safety. But these people appeared to me that they already decided that to not follow us in our peaceful ways may bring some good result. May. But following us, won’t.”

Hong Kong, Thursday. Bricks and other debris lie on the ground near the government headquarters a day after the demonstrations.ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images

Vehicles drive past police standing guard at barricades near the Legislative Council building.ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP/Getty Images

Notes speaking out against the extradition bill are seen near the legislature.TYRONE SIU/Reuters

Early Thursday afternoon, barely 24 hours after he joined crowds chanting “withdraw,” Avery Ng arrived at the High Court in Hong Kong, dressed in a slim-fitting navy jacket and jeans. The chairman of the League of Social Democrats, a radical party, he did not carry a bag. He knew he might not be going home. “Tonight I may be free or I may be in jail,” he said in an interview before walking to the court, where he would learn whether his appeal of a four-month sentence – imposed after he was accused of disclosing details of a corruption investigation – would be accepted.

He had already made the preparations, setting aside some reading material, including Nineteen Eighty-Four, which he was keen to reread. China, he said, could easily be substituted for George Orwell’s fictional Oceania. He grinned as he spoke over tea, betraying no sign of anxiety.

“Because it is not uncommon for us to go to jail any more,” he said.

In some ways, the path to this place began in 2012, when the Hong Kong government attempted to obligate local schools to use a moral and national educational curriculum. Critics warned it would amount to brainwashing, an attempt to instill in young minds a loyalty to Beijing, in much the same way schools in China use a patriotic curriculum as a tool to further communist rule.

Opposition sprang up from an unexpected place, led in part by a 15-year-old student, Joshua Wong, with a group called Scholarism that helped to marshal an outpouring of protest. For 10 days, tens of thousands gathered around the legislature, until then-chief executive C.Y. Leung backed down, saying schools would not be required to use the curriculum.

“Our occupation of the government headquarters ends now,” Mr. Wong said that day, in September, 2012. “But our fight against it will go on and on.”

Pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong speaks in front of Hong Kong's high court on May 16.ISAAC LAWRENCE/AFP/Getty Images

But only two months after the students declared victory in 2012, Xi Jinping became General Secretary of the Communist Party, making him China’s paramount leader. Mr. Xi has overseen a dramatic shift in Chinese policy, which has been marked by an intolerance toward internal dissent, an increasingly assertive foreign policy and, in Hong Kong, a hardening official position toward the demands of a generation of young protesters. Beijing, according to a white paper released in 2014, asserts “overall jurisdiction” over the region, granting Hong Kong “the power to run local affairs as authorized by the central leadership.”

Two years later, Beijing refused demands from the Umbrella Movement to provide people in Hong Kong the right to select their own chief executive. When a group of student leaders then decided to run for office, some were declared ineligible because they were too young. Others who won election were booted from office, some because they were found to be insincere in swearing oaths of office.

Authorities subsequently began legal prosecutions against pro-democracy leaders, accusing many of participating in violent actions. By the beginning of this week, 17 had been jailed, including Joshua Wong, who is currently serving a third prison sentence.

For young activists, one of the major questions in the past half-decade has been “do we work within the system or do we denounce the system as illegitimate and work outside of it?” said Kong Tsung-gan, author of As Long as There Is Resistance, There Is Hope, which examines the struggles of young activists.

The fact that so many people entered politics suggested a desire to work inside formal channels. The disqualifications and prison terms have placed that into question. “In a way, the government made the decision for them – that is, we will not allow you in the formal political system,” Mr. Kong said. “And that effectively disenfranchised a significant portion of the Hong Kong population overall – and a very large portion of the Hong Kong young people who are already incredibly disaffected.”

On Thursday, the court rejected Mr. Ng’s appeal. He spent the night behind bars.

Hong Kong, Friday. People paste signs on a wall near the Legislative Council building speaking out against police violence.HECTOR RETAMAL/AFP/Getty Images

People clean up debris from the protests near the legislature building.ATHIT PERAWONGMETHA/Reuters

On Friday night, hundreds of mothers hold placards at a demonstration against the extradition law. Some of their signs read 'If we lose the young generation, what's left of Hong Kong?'Vincent Yu/The Associated Press

Peering out from behind the masks and protective glasses on the streets of Hong Kong this week was a sea of young faces, teenagers and recent university graduates who are members of the handover generation, people born after July 1, 1997, the day the former British colony came under Chinese control. They have only known Beijing as the city’s master, and they have grown up in a place increasingly oriented toward the mainland.

Some 70 per cent of Hong Kong schools now teach Mandarin rather than the Cantonese that is the home language for many in the city. More than half of Hong Kong’s trade is with mainland China, up from 9.3 per cent in 1978. For those growing up in Hong Kong today, it is increasingly difficult to imagine future professional success without China.

Yet, if Beijing was expecting familiarity or economic necessity to breed affection, it miscalculated.

Take Stanley King, 19, a Canadian citizen who completed two years of high school in Kelowna, B.C., and another two in China’s northeastern city of Dalian. His time there fostered in him an affection for people in China. But it confirmed a very different set of views on the Chinese government.

In Dalian, he recalled submitting a history paper on the Tiananmen Square massacre that his teacher would not accept. Another time, he asked his fellow students about Tiananmen. “They said, ‘That really happened? I heard nobody died,’ ” Mr. King recalled. “One said it was all the students’ fault. I was so shocked. How can you say that?”

“It’s true that China has made a lot of economic advancement,” he added. “But that hasn’t changed our mind in going against the Chinese government.”

China, he said, is “too restrictive. They try to control everything, including their media, their education system. There’s no freedom.”

A demonstrator at Wednesday's protest waves a Hong Kong flag.TYRONE SIU/Reuters

Polling by Hong Kong University has found that people in the region most strongly identify as “Hong Kongers,” while the “feeling of being ‘citizens of the PRC’ is the weakest among all identities tested,” according to the most recent results, from December. The PRC is the People’s Republic of China – and identification as Chinese citizens is far lower among young people, some of whom have come to identify with characters in Hollywood struggles. Some compare Beijing to the totalitarian regime in The Hunger Games. Others see themselves as locked in an “endgame” against an occupying villain.

“Hong Kong is a well-developed country. But the Chinese government wants to take over all we have,” said Kobe Ho, 23. His instinctive description of Hong Kong as a “country” is the sort of language that frightens Beijing – as are the examples he cites as inspiration for those seeking their own democratic representation.

“In South Korea, they suffered lots of years to protest,” he said, as he watched other young men in masks and helmets use zip ties to fasten together barricades. It took “lots of death so they could succeed.” He describes a battle against creeping Chinese influence in similar terms. “This is a very serious problem for Hong Kong people. We will be part of China. We will lose all of our freedom,” he said.

Yet in the aftermath of the clashes this week, new calls for calm also emerged. A handwritten sign affixed to barricades still in place near the legislature urged people to register for coming elections. “Blood debts must be repaid with votes,” it said.

Alternatives exist to passive protest that don’t involve use of force, said Denise Ho, a Canadian-Hong Kong pop star who has become a prominent activist in the city. “Because the police are waiting for the moment when it gets violent, so they can use their violence on us,” she said.

There are “many other flexible and smarter ways to do it,” she said. “And that’s what people are learning now.”

She pointed to Wednesday’s protests, which were aided by drivers who staged accidents to block traffic, clearing roads for the demonstration to take place. The protesters themselves organized without leadership, relying instead on groups in the Telegram chat app – one of which boasts nearly 60,000 members – to exchange plans and ideas. In the days since, activists have staged roving protests, including at a subway stop on Friday.

“This is not a one-day fight,” Ms. Ho said. “The Hong Kong government cannot control something like this if it happens every day, and if it’s moving and fluid. They don’t have the skill set to suppress this.”

She sees little cause for pessimism.

“We might be impatient and we might be disappointed or frustrated,” she said. “But I don’t think that Hong Kong is near its death any time in the near future. In fact, it’s coming back very strong. I call this the comeback of Hong Kong.”

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.