That spirit has been on display this week. On Sunday, Hong Kong saw its biggest protests in half a decade, with possibly upward of a million people flooding the streets in opposition to a draft bill that would allow for extraditions to the mainland. A pocket of protesters who attempted to hold a sit-in at Hong Kong’s Legislative Council clashed with riot police and were blanketed with pepper spray.
The legislation’s proponents insist that current legal loopholes — Hong Kong does not have extradition treaties with China or Taiwan — need to be closed. But its critics argue that the bill fundamentally threatens the “one country, two systems” model that has enabled Hong Kong to maintain a degree of political autonomy since 1997. Permitting extraditions to the mainland, they contend, would enable China’s authoritarian leadership to further erode the rule of law and civil liberties in Hong Kong. When a senior Communist Party official in the ruling Politburo publicly offered his support for the measure, it only deepened suspicions in Hong Kong.
“This is the last fight for Hong Kong,” Martin Lee, a pioneering democracy activist, told the Wall Street Journal. “The proposal is the most dangerous threat to our freedoms and way of life since the handover.”
Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing chief executive, Carrie Lam, did not heed the protests and is pressing ahead with the bill’s passage. By Tuesday night, groups of protesters were encamped near the Legislative Council, where elected lawmakers as well as officials handpicked by Beijing were set to debate the bill on Wednesday. The legislative body is widely viewed to be rigged in Beijing’s favor. And so there’s now talk of mass action, strikes, university boycotts and other forms of civil disobedience to force the region’s leadership to reconsider its current course of action.
“Labor unions and small businesses across Asia’s financial capital planned more strikes,” reported Timothy McLaughlin for The Washington Post. “In a sign of the rising stakes, more than 4,000 aviation employees from various carriers, including the flagship Cathay Pacific Airways, signed a petition requesting to join the strikes.”
On Wednesday, thousands of protesters flooded the streets of central Hong Kong near the Legislative Council building. Bowing to public pressure, Hong Kong’s lawmakers decided to postpone the debate of the bill.
Hanging over the current tensions is the legacy of the Umbrella Movement, the mass pro-democracy protest in 2014 that occupied Hong Kong’s main commercial district for 79 days. Despite galvanizing a new generation of young activists, it achieved little in the way of political change. Instead, both China and the local government have clamped down on dissidents and the right to dissent in Hong Kong.
“For the past five years, residents of Hong Kong have fought with much difficulty against the erosion of our freedom,” activist Denise Ho wrote last week in a column for The Washington Post. “Pro-democracy lawmakers have been unjustly disqualified from office, booksellers have been kidnapped, and activists have been sentenced heavily for protesting. It’s obvious that our city’s system is no longer working in the people’s favor.”
In Chinese President Xi Jinping, Hong Kong faces an unmoved, unrelenting overlord. Experts suggest Xi, who has cemented his reputation as one of China’s most ruthless leaders, has little incentive to heed the protests of the Hong Kongers, let alone the complaints of Western governments on their behalf. (In Washington, activists and lawmakers are calling on President Trump to retaliate economically if the measure gets passed.)
“[Xi] will do whatever he can to enforce Beijing’s sovereignty and thumb his nose at Western efforts to interfere with Hong Kong or Taiwan,” Willy Lam, a Hong Kong-based political scientist, said to the Sydney Morning Herald. “He is a tough opponent of the Western order.”
It doesn’t help Hong Kong’s cause that its economic clout has somewhat dipped in the decades since the handover, with business interests and executive talent drifting either toward greater opportunity within China or further away from the increasingly long hand of Beijing. Out of fear for the future, large numbers of families are choosing to leave the city. Earlier this year, the GDP of the Chinese megacity of Shenzhen — once a tiny fishing village in Hong Kong’s backwaters — surpassed that of the former British colony for the first time. Though still Asia’s financial capital, Hong Kong looks tinier and tinier when set against China’s ever-rising colossus.
But those among its more than 7 million residents who believe in Hong Kong’s freedoms aren’t going down without a fight. The current standoff has revived the city’s civil society and pro-democracy movement. “Young people who had checked out from disappointment and frustration are reappearing, and once again actively participating,” Ho wrote.
“Judging by the crowds on Sunday, Hong Kongers’ scorn for the government on the mainland may have reached new heights,” wrote Yi-Zheng Lian, a Japan-based commentator on Hong Kong and Asian affairs. “This cannot be what Beijing wanted.”
On Tuesday, Sunny Leung, 24, was distributing red fliers denouncing the extraditions bill. “Maybe we [Hong Kong] will die, but we will not die in silence,” he told The Post. “We are protesting until the end.”
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