Explainer: Why people are protesting in Hong Kong

Hundreds of thousands of protesters have taken to the streets of Hong Kong in one of the biggest mass demonstrations in the city’s history. Here’s what you need to know.

Why are people protesting in Hong Kong?

The protests are centred around proposed changes to Hong Kong’s extradition law that would allow suspected criminals to be sent to mainland China, where it is feared they will have few human rights protections. Critics worry Beijing will use the law to target political opponents as well as criminals. But officials say the law is necessary to stop Hong Kong from becoming a haven for fugitives.

For many people in Hong Kong, the issue is about more than an extradition law. In recent years, Beijing has been accused of eroding the special freedoms that Hong Kongers enjoy over their mainland counterparts. In this context, the law is seen by many as the final nail in the coffin for Hong Kong’s semi-autonomy from China.

Hong Kong protests

The protests were sparked by proposed amendments to Hong Kong's extradition law.

Isn’t Hong Kong part of China?

Yes, but it has a unique status as one of two Special Administrative Regions of the People’s Republic of China (the other is Macau, a near neighbour of Hong Kong). It has its own currency and legal system, and people from Hong Kong have their own passport.

Hong Kong’s complicated relationship with the mainland dates back to 1997, when after more than 150 years as a British colony, it was handed back to China. The official arrangement is known as “one country, two systems” — a principle which was supposed to ensure Hong Kong’s political and economic freedoms and way of life would remain unchanged.

The mini-constitution which guaranteed Hong Kong a “high degree of autonomy” — called the Basic Law — is set to expire in 2047. When that happens, the “one country, two systems” framework will need to be renegotiated. But Hong Kongers fear their freedoms will disappear well before this date, as Beijing steps up its dominance over the region.

It is important to note that many people in Hong Kong don’t identify as Chinese, preferring to describe themselves as “Hong Kongers”.

Are these kinds of protests common in Hong Kong?

The last mass demonstration in Hong Kong on this scale was the Umbrella Movement of 2014, which saw tens of thousands of young people take over parts of the city for more than two months, calling for free elections.

That protest — named for the umbrellas which protesters used to defend themselves against police pepper spray and tear gas — was sparked after China’s legislature issued a decision that said candidates for Hong Kong’s elections for chief executive must be pre-approved by Beijing. The protest eventually fizzled out without concessions, and in April this year nine democracy activists were sentenced to prison terms for their role in the movement.

But much like the current demonstration, the Umbrella Movement was not so much about the decision itself as it was about the future of Hong Kong under Beijing’s tightening control.

Hong Kong protests

This is the largest demonstration since the Umbrella Movement of 2014.

How is it all expected to end?

Things took a violent turn on Wednesday as police clashed with protesters, using tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons in an attempt to disperse the thousands of people who had surrounded the government headquarters in central Hong Kong. As a result of the commotion, the second reading of the extradition bill was postponed.

Another mass demonstration was planned for Sunday. But on Saturday, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam made the extraordinary announcement that she had decided to indefinitely suspend the bill. That didn't deter the protesters, however — on Sunday, close to two million (according to organisers) returned to the streets, calling for the bill to be withdrawn permanently. There have also been calls for Lam's resignation. 

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Images: Wikimedia Commons

This article has been updated to reflect the latest developments.

 - Asia Media Centre