Struggling to keep up with what’s happening? Here are some key questions, answered.
Why did the protests start?
Protests kicked off in June over concerns that Hong Kong was set to pass a bill that would allow individuals to be extradited to China. Since the British handover in 1997, Hong Kong and China have been party to a “one country, two systems” agreement that offers residents of Hong Kong a greater degree of independence than they would have in China.
Those who opposed the bill said it jeopardized Hong Kong’s semiautonomy from China and, if passed, would endanger Hong Kong-based critics of Beijing, who could suddenly find themselves facing the Chinese legal system, where human rights groups have documented arbitrary detention and torture.
Hong Kong officials initially defended the bill, saying it would protect Hong Kong from criminals fleeing legal systems elsewhere. And Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam insisted the bill would not apply to issues of free speech. But protesters were unconvinced.
On Sept. 4, Lam formally withdrew the bill. But for the protesters, it was too little too late.
The movement quickly adopted five key demands for Hong Kong’s government: to withdraw the extradition bill; to officially retract descriptions of the protests as a “riot;” to drop charges against protesters; to launch an investigation into police force during the protests; and “universal suffrage,” which would allow Hong Kong voters to directly pick their leaders rather than the current process that includes Beijing’s involvement.
How much have the protests escalated?
In early June, hundreds of thousands of people took to the streets to protest. Police then responded with force, using tear gas and batons to disperse the crowds. The response inspired more protests. In mid-June, 2 million people are believed to have joined the streets for what was probably the largest protest in Hong Kong’s history.
In late July, more than 1,000 protesters gathered in the airport, warning travelers they were not safe in Hong Kong. Early in August, thousands of people took to the streets for yet another rally — the first in which civil servants joined as an organized bloc, shouting, “Hong Kongers, fight on! Civil servants, fight on!”
On Aug. 5, a strike shut down much of the city, with disruptions to public transit and airline operations. As The Post reported, “even the happiest place on Earth was not immune: Dozens of workers at Hong Kong Disneyland went on strike, disrupting rides.”
In mid-August another airport strike further increased tensions between protesters and the government. By the end of the month, Hong Kong authorities were escalating arrests of protest leaders.
Through September, demonstrations continued and have become increasingly violent. Riot police have frequently fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and water cannons at demonstrators. Protesters have thrown bricks, bottles and molotov cocktails at the police.
“If they respect us, then we will respect them,” Michael, a 28-year-old protester who works in the banking industry told The Washington Post. “But if they don’t respect our democracy or human rights, then why do I need to respect them?”
In September, protesters shifted towards a new target: businesses with China connections — or those with the perception of being pro-Beijing.
“The new tactic showed a simmering anger toward the city’s business elites, a relatively small group of tycoons and cronies who have accumulated enormous wealth and political clout, often through cozy relationships with the mainland,” Timothy McLaughlin and Casey Quackenbush reported in The Post.
Hong Kong’s subway system -- once the pride of the city -- increasingly became a battle field: Police have targeted protesters there, while demonstrators have vandalized subways and accused the rail operator, MRT Corp., of conspiring with the government.
By the first of October, Hong Kong police used live ammunition during clashes for the first time. The escalation coincided with Chinese celebrations marking 70 years of communist party rule. Lam responded by invoking emergency powers to ban face masks and face paint, used to hide protesters’ identity.
November added another dimension: “Derogatory language — with protesters terming officers dogs and gangsters, and police calling demonstrators subhuman and cockroaches — has become a hallmark of Hong Kong’s protests as clashes have escalated,” The Post’s Shibani Mahtani and Timothy McLaughlin reported from Hong Kong.
Tensions rose November 8th when 22-year-old Chow Tsz-lok, a computer science student in Hong Kong, died after falling from a parking garage earlier in the week. “Chow’s death could be the first directly connected to a police confrontation with protesters, but the details of what exactly happened in the lead-up to the fall are not clear,” The Post reported.
Days later, on November 11th, a police officer shot a 21-year-old, reportedly unarmed protester at point-blank range. The officer claimed the incident, caught on camera, was self-defense. The day became even bloodier when, hours later, a 57-year-old man who had reportedly been criticizing protesters for vandalizing a rail station was doused with flammable liquid and set on fire.
How has Hong Kong’s government responded?
In July, Lam partly backed down from the extradition bill, saying it “is dead.” That terminology wasn’t enough for protesters who accused her of using “wordplay” to trick listeners into thinking the bill was formally withdrawn.
When Lam finally officially withdrew the bill in early September, protesters were unimpressed; the movement and its demands had grown beyond one piece of legislation.
That month Lam held a dialogue session with randomly selected members of the public. It was something of a disaster. She faced a barrage of criticism, as protests erupted outside the building where the event was held.
“Citizens have no trust in you or the police,” a member of the audience told her.
Hong Kong’s police force has been accused of using excessive force to quash the protests. Human rights groups and U.N. officials have called for an investigation into the authorities’ tactics.
Lam, however, has insisted on tasking the Independent Police Complaint Council with looking into the police force’s actions. The organization has come under scrutiny though — it doesn’t have the power to call witnesses, and critics say it’s staffed by Lam loyalists.
As the violence has escalated, so has Lam’s rhetoric. In November she called protesters “the people’s enemy” and warned they are “destroying society.” She doubled down on not bowing to pro-democracy protesters, dismissing their political demands as “wishful thinking" and saying she would “spare no effort in finding ways and means that could end the violence."
Now Lam and her backers in Beijing need to decide whether to hold local elections on November 24th. “If the vote is not held, many protesters would view it as another sign of the power they wield from the streets,” The Post reported. Lam’s government has already barred Joshua Wong, a key pro-democracy activist, from running. Jimmy Sham, another leading candidate and organizer of peaceful marches, was attacked for the second time last month.
How has China responded?
Through all of this, China has stood firm behind Lam, letting her and Hong Kong authorities take the public lead in dealing with the protests while offering reassuring displays of support.
In late July, a military spokesman said that, if Hong Kong officials requested it, China would mobilize People’s Liberation Army troops to restore order to the city.
That’s what Beijing has quietly been doing. While it’s routine for members of China’s military to maintain some kind of presence in Hong Kong, the number of troops is growing. Reuters reported in September that there are up 12,000 Chinese troops in the Hong Kong, including members of a paramilitary force control by Xi.
The prospect of a Chinese military incursion has begun to appear more likely. The nationalist Global Times tabloid tweeted that the People’s Armed Police, a Chinese paramilitary unit, is assembling armored personnel carriers near Shenzhen, a city bordering Hong Kong.
It’s not the only way China’s making its presence felt. In July, dozens of men carrying Chinese flags beat anti-government protesters with clubs in Hong Kong, leaving at least 45 people hospitalized.
The perpetrators were believed to belong to mafia-like groups known as “triads,” although experts cautioned there was no evidence Chinese officials ordered the gangs to attack. Either way, the event became a turning point for some protesters, who told The Post that after the incident they felt their only remaining option was more violence.
Beijing until now has dismissed reports that intends to replace Lam, though in early November the party “issued a statement saying it would “perfect” the system to appoint and dismiss Hong Kong’s leader and top officials,” the AP reported.
What does the United States have to say about all this?
The Trump administration has maintained a distance from the unrest in Hong Kong. Trump has called the standoff “a very tough situation” but also commended Xi for handling things “very responsibly.”
His comments came as the White House continues to negotiate with Beijing for a solution to the U.S.-China trade war.
But in Congress, there is bipartisan support for the protesters’ cause. Several Republican lawmakers, including Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Tex.) and Sen. Josh Hawley (R-Mo.), have visited Hong Kong to meet with activists.
In October, the House of Representatives unanimously approved the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which would impose sanctions on anyone found to be ‘suppressing basic freedoms’ in Hong Kong and treat trade with Hong Kong separately with mainland China. The act would also allow the U.S. State Department to take the coverage and reporting of Chinese media outlets into account when reviewing visa applications for journalists from those outlets. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) has declined to bring up the bill in the Senate.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Geng Shuang called the bill a “naked double standard, which fully exposes the extreme hypocrisy of some people in the U.S. on the issues of human rights and democracy.” He accused the U.S. of trying to undermine China’s development.
The U.S. State Department has said it is watching “with grave concern” and urging Beijing to “honor the commitments” made to Hong Kong.