Expert reactions: Hong Kong protests

People in Hong Kong have been protesting against an extradition bill that would allow criminals to be handed over to authorities in mainland China. The Asia Media Centre spoke to three Hong Kong experts about what the latest protests in the territory mean.

William Hayward, Dean of Social Sciences, The University of Hong Kong:

"The proximal issue is the extradition law, which removes a legal firewall between Hong Kong and mainland China. It also encompasses the feeling of the public that the Hong Kong government on issues such as this does not listen to Hong Kong people — it is clear that the overwhelming majority of Hong Kong people do not want the law. But it is part of a much longer thread that includes the Umbrella movement protests of 2014 on concerns that Hong Kong is losing its distinctiveness (political, legal, social, cultural, even linguistic) and is becoming more like other cities in China, and that citizens will have fewer legal protections."

"The mood has definitely lifted somewhat but I wouldn’t characterise it as relief. A better word might be resolve. More protesters came out last night [Sunday] than a week ago so the government's statements have obviously not placated them. People want the bill fully withdrawn (right now it is just suspended and can be brought back in the future), they want the police to be held accountable for Wednesday’s violence and arrested protesters released, and they want the Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, to resign."

"Where we go from here is anyone’s guess. Things should be calmer with the government not trying to get the bill read in the Legislative Council (which would have inflamed tensions) but I don’t think Sunday night’s march was the last one we’ll see. Traditionally there is a protest march on July 1 which is the anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from the UK to China — it will be interesting to see what happens there this year."

Manying Ip, Emeritus Professor of Asian Studies at the University of Auckland:

"I am a fifth generation "Hong Konger", with my forefathers going to Hong Kong from South China in 1840 when it became a British colony. Since last Sunday (9th June), the day of the huge demonstration, I've been following all the developments through e-news, WhatsApp, photos, and videos sent by my former students and friends in real time. Many of these were sent while they were on the march. I witnessed their high hopes — somewhat naïve, and certainly very innocent — and their fears."

"Hong Kong people, regardless of their political leanings, are truly worried about how the extradition law might affect them. To put it simply, Chinese law, especially its application, leaves much to be feared. In 1997, the Basic Law promised "one country, two systems", but in recent years, it seems the line between the two systems has been steadily eroded."

"The 2014 Umbrella Movement started with the slogan of "we want real universal suffrage".  Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam was not really elected by popular vote. She came to power with the endorsement of a thousand-strong committee whose members were largely handpicked by Beijing. She never owed her mandate to Hong Kong people per se, and she is definitely beholden to China. This lies at the root of her firm stance in trying to bulldoze the controversial legislation through the Legislative Council in the face of the biggest demonstration that Hong Kong has ever seen."

"As it turned out, the Hong Kong police deployed decisive force against the demonstrators when they surrounded the Legislature on Wednesday. The mood was initial disbelief and genuine shock, followed by hurt and anger. Why would Hong Kong's own police used tear gas, rubber bullets and pepper sprays against youths who were largely peaceful?"

"Hong Kong is now a city of edge, with very unhappy people, and a society badly split/divided.  The mood is dark, angry, and very disillusioned."

Felicity Roxburgh, Director of Business, Asia New Zealand Foundation: 

"I was posted to Hong Kong as Deputy Consul-General between 2012 and 2014. When I first arrived in Hong Kong, I was told by all and sundry that the business of Hong Kong is business. It was not a political place and politics would not be a feature of my time there. But tensions over Hong Kong’s future were bubbling away and while I was there in 2014 there were the Umbrella protests. That was really shocking at the time that people would take to the streets in that way, and that there was such a depth of political feeling."

"Hong Kong is such a hustle and bustle place, where everyone is trying to make a dollar, but the whole central business district was ground to a halt for a constitutional reform issue about the way in which the Chief Executive is elected. I think the mainland government must have been pretty concerned as well to see that level of political agitation. A small number of protesters even waved the British colonial flag, which has resurfaced this time, along with the Union Jack."

"These feelings have clearly only increased since 2014. Hong Kong always had this tension between its institutions, which it inherited from British times, like freedom of the press, rule of law, independent judiciary, and free business. This has been the foundation of its success as a commercial and banking centre — a lot of companies have felt comfortable there because of the democratic institutions, rule of law and transparency. So it’s got that heritage. But at the same time, its future — both politically and economically — is with Beijing."

"Underneath all of that is an issue which is plaguing many societies, which is about the economic prospects for young people. Hong Kong is one of the most expensive places in the world to live. For a lot of young people, one of the gripes was: 'We’re not getting the best out of Hong Kong. Our businesses may be making money from mainland China, but what’s my future as a young Hong Kong person with a high level of student debt in a city where I can’t afford my own apartment?' Those two issues are intricately linked. On the one hand is concern that Hong Kong is losing the special rights it had under 'one country, two systems'. On the other hand, the feeling that benefits from reintegration with Beijing are not evenly shared."

- Asia Media Centre