Amid another round of demonstrations in Hong Kong last weekend - this time over delayed elections - reporter Tommy Walker examines what's changed in 2020.
Over two months since the large demonstration in Hong Kong, protesters were back on the street this weekend, voicing their displeasure at another controversial decision by the government.
The government postponed legislative council elections for ‘no more than one year’, due to rising coronavirus concerns and although the decision to delay the elections was announced in July, the voting was due to take place on Sunday, September 6.
Instead, on Sunday, thousands of protesters took to the streets in anger with chants of “give me my vote back!” heard throughout the day. In response, the authorities came out in overwhelming numbers.
For more on the recent demonstrations, read the full report from journalist Tommy Walker here.
With so much going on in the world, there are very few places that get repeated coverage in the international news. Today, with correspondents dotted all around the globe, and with widespread access to social media, news reports are available more than ever before.
But Hong Kong – for good reasons or bad – has relentlessly taken the world’s attention for over a year. The city is resilient in protecting its own instilled autonomy from when it was under British control. With China’s ever-growing authoritarian power gripping the world, especially with its economical might, Hong Kong's chances are slim.
The clouds of tear gas set the scene for what looked like urban warfare during the widespread city protests last year, labelling Hong Kong as a city in the midst of change. But Hong Kong’s incremental changes have mostly occurred this year, and it’s felt within the city from everyone.
With the Covid-19 pandemic originating in Wuhan, Hong Kong was expected to be hit hard by the spread of the coronavirus. Not only is the former British colony a mere four-hour train ride from Wuhan, Hong Kong’s high population density and cramped living conditions added to the concern the city would be hugely affected.
But prior to any government laws, Hongkongers had already taken their own initiative to protect against the virus. With the 2003 SAR’s virus still recent in their memories, residents sacrificed their lifestyles. Large proportions of the population stayed indoors as much as possible, keeping the streets almost deserted. Furthermore, wearing facemasks almost became mandatory within the community from the turn of the year.
Hong Kong has recorded low cases of Covid-19, allowing some lifestyle privileges to be maintained.
If you think it’s only pro-democracy street protesters and lawmakers at odds with the city's government, you’d be wrong. Expert medical professionals are still arguing with the government over Covid-19 measures.
In February medical professionals threatened to go on strike if borders were kept open with mainland China.
Today, the government is currently implementing a widespread testing scheme, which several medical experts have opposed saying the government are implementing the scheme for a political agenda, whilst there are worries of unnecessary stress and increasing risks of transmission.
Despite the pandemic, the pro-democracy movement has continued on a small scale.
But many reports suggest the mass protests that rocked the city last year were ultimately stifled due to the coronavirus pandemic. Some elements of this may have affected the demonstrations, but in reality, the protests had calmed down in their regularity by December 2019.
After six months of regular, violent clashes between protesters and police, the besiegement of Polytechnic University in November ended the continuous streak of heavy weekly demonstrations.
Whether mass protests will relapse post-pandemic remains to be seen.
Demonstrations last year were sometimes amplified by the knee-jerk reactions from the Hong Kong Police Force. It appeared tear gas was used excessively, building a tense atmosphere and allowing skirmishes to develop. Furthermore, police were often accused of using ‘excessive force’ actions labelled as ‘police brutality', after several controversial incidents.
But this year there have been improvements within the force under the stewardship of new Chief of Police Chris Tang. There is a reduction in heavy-handed tactics overall, that has been replaced with force in numbers. This has allowed the authorities to quickly nullify any mass gatherings about to develop.
National Security Law
The biggest news of the year undoubtedly came in the shape of Beijing rushing to implement a national security law on Hong Kong, attempting to curtail dissent towards the government and China. With subversion, succession, and foreign collusion three of the key violations outlined in the law, it was an attempt to stop protests and further calls for democracy. The law has come widely interpreted so that even now key activists are declining foreign media interviews, whilst even social media posts can be the catalyst for arrests. Even if you were to criticise the Chinese government whilst outside of China, technically you can be held accountable once you enter Hong Kong.
Widely condemned by nations worldwide, including New Zealand, the law has been labelled the end of Hong Kong's unique autonomy.
Amid the new security law, self-censorship has quickly crept into the mentality of all those concerned, including businesspeople, lawmakers, protesters, activists and press.
Protesters have been deleting their social media history to eradicate previous criticism of China. A single sentence or slogan can land anyone in hot water.
Activists are also declining to speak to foreign media in the risk they’ll be deemed as ‘colluding with foreign forces', whilst reporters themselves are in constant worry of overstepping the law with their work.
Hong Kong had always been praised for its openness, but the law has quickly filled the city with anxiety.
In-between Protests And Pandemic
Post protests but mid-pandemic, Hong Kong is finding itself in new territory that it’ll likely never see again. As the protests intensified, visitors worldwide, including mainland China, decreased because of the months of violence. Then the pandemic hit, and most borders were closed for arrivals.
As of June, tourism numbers dropped to 99.7 percent year-on-year, according to statistics from the Hong Kong Tourism Board.
With the arrival numbers significantly reduced, it can be said some residents are appreciating enjoying Hong Kong for themselves. It’s a strange moment in time Hong Kong is enduring, perhaps even creating an illusion of peace.
Staunch protesters have vowed to continue the push for further democracy, but doubters say the movement has passed its peak. Hong Kong isn’t the city of 2019, it’s passed the days of regular, tense demonstrations, at least for now. New battles are taking place within the city’s social and political infrastructure as Hong Kong continues to be ever unsettled.
- Asia Media Centre