The catalyst for a new mass movement in Hong Kong was a draft Extradition Bill put before the Legislative Council in the spring of 2019. The bill was technically designed to allow extradition of Chinese criminals in Hong Kong to mainland China. But it raised fears about the future relationship with China and that the law would allow extradition for political dissent. Thousands turned out for a demonstration against the Bill outside the government headquarters on 31 March, 2019. The refusal of Carrie Lamb, the Beijing-backed Chief Executive of Hong Kong, to reconsider the Bill led to an estimated one million on a march on June 9, and two million on June 16.
The issue of extradition had become a focus for a new wave of mass resistance, in 2019-20, and ignited wider demands for genuine democratic elections in Hong Kong and some calls for independence from China. Initially huge demonstrations were impressively disciplined and nonviolent, but increasing police violence against demonstrators (including attacks on the underground on those going home after protesting) provoked acts of sabotage and violent resistance to the police by some protesters in response.
When a group of demonstrators broke into the Legislative Council, and daubed slogans over the walls, on July 1, it was seen as marking a new stage in the struggle. Another key episode occurred in November, when the police decided to end the protest occupation by students of the Hong Kong Polytechnic and threatened lethal force. The students barricaded themselves in and prepared Molotov cocktails. International pressure and internal mediation led to a compromise which allowed many students to leave and others managed to escape the police. So a tragedy was averted.
Growing tension has led to attacks on symbols of China and even attacks on Mandarin speakers. Some residents more sympathetic to Beijing have also publicly opposed the demonstrators. But opinion polls and continuing peaceful protests indicate that a large section of the population supports the goals of the protesters, even if many are unhappy about the tactics used by the young militants. A decisive test of the majority mood was provided by the elections held in late November 2019 to the 18 district councils. These are the only fully democratic elections held in Hong Kong, and almost 3 million (72% of the electorate) voted for pro-democracy candidates.
Carrie Lamb, constrained by Beijing, has made concessions too late to defuse the popular distrust and anger. She refused to withdraw the Extradition Bill until the beginning of September (although she had offered to shelve it earlier in response to mass protests, this was not seen as an adequate guarantee it would not be revived). Moreover, she still refused to hold an enquiry into police tactics. However, the threat of direct intervention by mainland Chinese troops or riot police, which many feared in November, seems to have become more remote.
Early in 2020 Hong Kong was locked down by the Covid-19 pandemic, which spread from mainland China. Political conflict surfaced again in May 2020, when a report by the official police watchdog on the handling of the 2019 protests endorsed police tactics. The police response had involved arrests of over 8,000 protesters, including pensioners over 80 and children as young as 11, and police use of violence in contexts where protesters were acting peacefully or leaving demonstrations to go home. Opposition politicians in the legislature denounced the report as a whitewash. Secondly, moves to pass a law criminalizing any form of disrespect to the Chinese national anthem - a proposal which had led to public resistance in 2017-18 - involved pro-Beijing legislators on 8 May taking control of a key committee chair. Protesting pro-democracy legislators were evicted by guards. Conflict in the legislature was followed by a weekend of public protests, broken up brutally by police, who also attacked journalists. Commentators predicted another summer of political unrest, leading up to elections to the Legislative Council in September 2020.
Beijing Seizes Direct Control through Security Law in May 2020
In late May, however, Beijing intervened to announce that it would impose control over Hong Kong through a new national security law, which would bypass the Legislative Council and would enable Chinese security bodies to be based in the city. The law would punish 'secession, subversion, terrorism and collusion with foreign forces', offences which could carry a life sentence. The law was formally endorsed by the Chinese parliament just before midnight on 30 June, and set up a national security agency to 'guide' implementation of the law in Hong Kong. Beijing's move was seen around the world as a clear contravention of the 'one country two systems' principle, and as heralding a crackdown on protests and on prominent activists, who feared imminent arrest. The vague wording of the provisions of the law increased concern about its potential scope and how it might be used, and both local and foreign journalists sought urgent clarification of how their reporting would be affected.
A number of prominent activists responded by seeking asylum in London, among them Honcques Laus, who had written a book calling for Hong Kong's independence. Nathan Law, jailed earlier for his prominent role in the Umbrella Movement, decided immediately to leave the city to carry on the struggle for democracy from abroad, and the pro-democracy party Demosisto, that he, Joshua Wong and others had founded, closed down. Joshua Wong, however, stayed in Hong Kong and issued a typically defiant statement 'our fight goes on'.
Popular resistance to the Chinese government moves was signalled on the anniversary of Tiananmen Square on June 4, when thousands held a candle lit vigil in Victoria Park in the centre of the city, and others demonstrated in their neighbourhoods, despite an official ban by the authorities on the annual commemoration. There were also immediate protests in Hong Kong after the security bill was passed in Beijing, including a rally of mask wearing demonstrators. But the police arrested over 300 people for breaking the new law on 1st July, and consistently clamped down brutally on protests, so street protests generally ceased by the end of the month. Four students, who had called for independence from China, were arrested on 29 July for 'inciting secession' on social media. By the end of July law professor Benny Tai (active in the Occupy Central movement), had been dismissed from his university post, libraries purged of books, arrest warrants issued for six activists who were outside the territory, and twelve pro-democracy legislators disqualified from standing again for the legislature. (The elections were subsequently postponed)
During August freedom of the press was undermined by the arrest of Jimmy Lai, who owned the tabloid Apple Daily which was prepared to criticize the Hong Kong government and Beijing. Many Hong Kong residents indicated their support for him by buying shares in his company. Alarm about developments in Hong Kong was indicated by an attempt by12 people (including a leading protester) trying to leave in August by boat for Taiwan. They were intercepted and imprisoned in mainland China. The independence of the judiciary is one of the key principles that Beijing officials are challenging, through pressure for harsher penalties for protesters in the courts, and by rewriting school textbooks to omit references to 'separation of powers' between the judiciary, legislature and executive. An Australian judge on the Court of Final Appeal resigned in September over the new national security law. But the chief justice Geoffrey Ma issued a long statement in late September defending Hong Kong's legal system.
The Chinese government's imposition of the new national security law was immediately condemned in the US, where the House of Representatives unanimously passed a bill to impose sanctions on banks doing business with Chinese officials implementing the law. The UK government, responsible for the treaty handing back Hong Kong to China in 1997, promised to allow the 2.9 million Hong Kong citizens born before 1997, who qualify as British Nationals Overseas, and their dependents, to move to Britain. However, the offer only extended the right to stay from the existing six months to 12 months initially, and there were ambiguities about provisions for their right to work in the UK. The offer does not cover many younger people in Hong Kong. It can be seen partly as a gesture of protest against Beijing's actions, and most of those eligible were not expected to take the offer up. Hong Kong legislator Emily Lau described it as a 'lifeboat' to be used in an emergency. The Australian government also suggested it would welcome Hong Kong citizens, and Taiwan (engaged in its own struggle with Beijing) offered them sanctuary.
Beijing Consolidates Control
The Chinese government continued to develop the implications of the new Security Law in 2020-21, by deterring even symbolic forms of protest, arresting prominent activists and passing further legislation to prevent any dissent in the Hong Kong Legislative Council. There were 55 arrests in January 2021 of prominent figures in retaliation for the tactic adopted by opposition politicians and activists in the summer of 2020 of holding advance unofficial primary elections (in which over 600,000 voted) for seats in the Legislative Council. (The scheduled official election was later cancelled.) The decision to arrest the 55 followed statements by Beijing officials that a new electoral system for the Council was needed to ensure that only Chinese patriots were elected. The subsequent court hearings prompted hundreds to demonstrate outside the court on 1 March, in a context where protest had almost ceased. Some Hong Kong residents involved in banking and business, and some originally from the mainland, may have welcomed an end to the disruptive and sometimes violent protests, and displays of hostility to Mandarin speakers, which occurred in the later part of 2019. But the ending of most protest was due to the draconian clamp down imposed by Beijing.
At the end of March the Chinese Parliament passed legislation requiring all candidates for election to the Hong Kong Legislative Council to be screened to ensure their 'patriotism', and reducing the numbers elected - the other members of the Council would be directly appointed under the supervision of Beijing. Beijing also revealed in February 2021 a new education policy, designed to end an educational approach seen as promoting unrest, and replacing it with a new patriotic curriculum. The Chinese official responsible for Hong Kong also made clear that patriotism, which meant loyalty to the Chinese Communist Party, would be a requirement for top posts in the judiciary and that there would be tighter controls on broadcasting in Hong Kong.