Since mid-June, protesters have demanded that Hong Kong authorities formally withdraw an extradition bill that sparked the initial mass demonstrations, open an independent investigation into police abuses, drop the “riot” characterization of the protests, release those arrested on rioting charges, and reopen a dialogue on genuine universal suffrage as promised in Hong Kong’s Basic Law.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam on Sept. 4 belatedly announced the government would withdraw the extradition bill. By then, protesters had turned from umbrellas to firebombs and the police had resorted to massive arrests and brutal beatings of protesters.
As summer morphed into fall, confrontations spread from the streets to train stations, shopping malls and residential buildings across all major neighborhoods. Police routinely fired rubber bullets, tear gas, pepper spray and water cannons at high velocity and at close range — and used live ammunition on Oct. 1 and Nov. 11. In turn, black-clad people (some were protesters and some could be agents provocateur) stabbed officers, meted out vigilante justice to regime supporters and vandalized pro-Beijing businesses.
2. Two Hong Kong universities came under siege.
A University of Science and Technology student named Chow Tsz-lok died Nov. 8, after an alleged fall from a parking garage that week. This triggered citywide mourning and a new cycle of escalation. As protesters threw debris to block major traffic routes around university campuses, police closed in on Chinese University of Hong Kong on Nov. 11 and then Polytechnic University on Nov. 18. Police retreated from the mountainous Chinese University but have continued to encircle the centrally located Polytechnic University, where an estimated 30 students remain.
Hong Kong analysts suspect that the new police commissioner, Chris Tang, deployed a deliberate strategy to lure hardcore protesters to “defend” Polytechnic — then arrest them all in one sweep. Police arrested more than 1,000 protesters, adding to nearly 4,500 arrests before the siege. Labeling those trapped on campus as “rioters” provoked an angry response from supporters, who attempted a counter-encirclement. The police then rammed their vehicles at high speed into nearby crowds, causing a stampede and more arrests.
3. The Sunday District Council elections were a de facto referendum on Hong Kong democracy.
The District Councils are the only bodies fully directly elected in Hong Kong. District Council elections typically involve local issues like local facilities and community activities. This time, voters made it clear this election was a way to voice their support for protesters, while China’s state-owned media urged Hong Kong people to “vote to end the violence.”
A record 2.94 million voters turned out — out of 4 million registered voters among a population of 7.5 million — undeterred by long lines throughout the day. Pro-democracy candidates included former student leaders and current protest organizers. They took 57 percent of the popular votes, thereby winning 388 out of 452 seats and securing the majority in 17 of 18 districts councils.
4. The elections won’t resolve demands from Hong Kong protesters.
Sunday’s local elections suggest many in Hong Kong remain supportive of the protests. Many of the councilors-elect immediately vowed to press for the protesters’ remaining demands — in particular the call for an independent investigation on police brutality and the push for universal suffrage.
Although the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, promises “one country, two systems,” Beijing has been ruling from behind through the Central Coordination Group for Hong Kong and Macao Affairs, led by Vice Premier Han Zheng. Han has been meting out directives from across the border — it was apparently he who allowed the extradition bill’s suspension in June, and the District Council elections to proceed as scheduled. China’s Communist Party Plenum even formally proclaimed on Nov. 1 that the central government aims to “exercise governance” over Hong Kong.
Hong Kong people believe the only way to stop the erosion of “one country, two systems” is to reform how the chief executive and the Legislative Council are chosen as promised in the Basic Law. Under current arrangements, Beijing effectively handpicks the chief executive through a 1,200-member election committee. Pro-democracy district councilors are now guaranteed all 117 allotted seats in this committee, but they are still in the minority. In the Legislative Council, “functional constituencies” representing different industries and specialized sectors select half of the 70 seats, many chosen by pro-Beijing corporate votes.
The weakness of democratic accountability is what has allowed Beijing to push through any bills, corrupt the local police, roll back freedom of expression and undercut judicial independence. Hong Kong people’s deep fears of the vanishing “one country, two systems” is likely to sustain the protest demands.
5. Will the violence continue to escalate?
Many international observers ask if Hong Kong protesters will return to nonviolent means of protest, in the aftermath of the overwhelming victories at the District Council elections.
That may be the wrong question. Beijing has no tolerance for strikes and boycotts, seeing these as attempts at a “color revolution.” The police stopped granting “no-objection notices” to applications for peaceful marches, and has shown up in force to stop what it considers unlawful assemblies. Police have also harassed and arrested young students who have formed peaceful human chains. The government has further taken down “Lennon Walls” of pro-democracy artwork and messages.
The massive turnout for the elections suggests that Hong Kong people would opt for the ballot rather than confronting bullets. So perhaps the more important question is whether Beijing would open up the ballot box to include genuine universal suffrage for higher offices.
However, if Beijing is intent on controlling Hong Kong rather than honoring the promised high degree of autonomy, then it may well conclude that it should further tighten its grip on Hong Kong. If the ballot box and peaceful means of dissent are closed off, there is likely to be another cycle of violent escalation. As pundits have increasingly warned, Hong Kong could become Belfast.
Editor’s note: This article has been updated to clarify that District Councils are the only bodies fully directly elected in Hong Kong.
Victoria Tin-bor Hui, associate professor in political science at the University of Notre Dame, has examined Hong Kong from the Umbrella Movement to the anti-extradition protests.