The last few weeks in Hong Kong have been riddled with political turmoil following the election. This came to a head on the 6th November when protesters marched from Wan Chai to Sai wan in Sai Ying Pun district. The cause of this protest? Two of Hong Kong’s elected lawmakers are being barred from standing, as they refused to swear the oath to Beijing correctly: mispronouncing words at their swearing-in ceremony in a way that China deemed offensive or disrespectful. They also held up signs during the ceremony which said ‘Hong Kong is not China’. The politicians are pro-independence for Hong Kong and want to prevent the total assimilation with China in 2047, hoping to resist Beijing’s control indefinitely.
For anyone not versed in Hong Kong’s history: Hong Kong was ceded to the British following the first Anglo-Chinese War (1839–42) by the Qing Dynasty. The British had been exporting opium from India to China, against the will of the Chinese government. After the Chinese publicly destroyed their stocks in Canton – following the trader’s unwillingness to abide with tightening legislations – the British needed to form a new trading port from which to negotiate trade with China. The Nanjing Treaty was signed with China, stating that Hong Kong would be under British rule until 1997 and then be returned to Chinese sovereignty.
the government are exerting control they are not supposed to take
When the time came, the return of Hong Kong was countered by a Sino-British Joint Declaration which ensured certain guidelines. Hong Kong would be able to retain its capitalist economic system, separate currency, legal and legislative system, and the people’s rights and freedoms for 50 years. This would be called ‘one country, two systems’. In 2047 Hong Kong will cease to be a Special Administrative Region of China and officially be taken under Beijing’s control. However, many people in Hong Kong feel that Beijing is already infringing too far on Hong Kong politics in breach of this treaty. By refusing to approve elected Hong Kong politicians unless they are loyal to Beijing, the government are exerting control they are not supposed to take.
Hong Kong’s people have little power to defend against this, especially since the people they elected to represent them have not been allowed to run. This has compelled them to protest by occupying public space around government buildings. This was first seen two years ago in the Umbrella Movement. The Umbrella Movement of 2014 began with the name ‘Occupy Central’, but the umbrella became a symbol when they were used en masse to protect against tear gas attacks. The sit-in street protests between the 26th September and 15th December were a response to changes in the electoral system, which were perceived as restrictive and limiting Hong Kong’s independence. The yellow umbrella became a lasting symbol for this movement, which prompts some students to bring one onto the stage at their graduation ceremony as a sign of ongoing resistance. The umbrella symbol was resurrected on the 6th November 2016, when they were used again during the street protests.
On the Tuesday the 8th, two days later, there was another protest. An estimated 2,000 lawyers and lawmakers, dressed in black, formed a sombre progression through the streets. They marched silently from the high court to the court of final appeal: a melancholy contrast with Sunday’s protests, which had involved clashes with police and pepper spray.
The first I heard about Sunday’s protest was when my flatmate from Mainland China announced there was ‘a parade outside’. The protest had been stalled in Sai Ying Pun, minutes away from Sai Wan. 700 policemen were on the streets with riot shields and protective gear. The protesters had started off 8,000 strong at 3pm and had now – at 11pm – reduced. Police lines blocked the roads around the group, forming tight-knit barriers with riot shields touching. People crowded around the police, taking photos of them and trying to get a view of the protest behind them.
My friends and I walked down an alleyway, trying to see the lines on the other side but arriving instead in the middle of the protest. It was the most inexplicable scene I have witnessed: police lines passively bordered the crowds on all sides with riot shields; people had huge stocks of bottled water and boxes of face masks, in case of tear gas; in the centre of the protest a metal fence had been arranged to block the road and was covered with different coloured umbrellas. People crouched behind the fence, making sure that the umbrellas remained fully open; while TV crews and all manner of photographers took continuous footage of the fences. On the roofs of surrounding shops, TV crews waited with tripods open. To halt the movement of people into the protest, buses and trams had been stopped in the middle of the road. These empty vehicles remained idle amongst the crowd of people. I spoke to one person who said that the metro had also been closed prematurely, and everyone asked to leave the station: the same had happened during the 2014 Umbrella Movement to limit people joining the protest.
The traffic lights in Hong Kong make a constant stream of noise, changing in pitch when the lights are green: above the crowd of stationary people and empty buses, the lights continued to whir and change colour. Shops were closed and when we walked down the street, one man shouted at us and gestured emphatically for us to move away from his shop as we approached. It was obvious the bottled water had been taken from small shops: there were only a few of each brand of water, suggesting they had emptied a fridge in a shop with and taken a few of each variety. A face mask was handed to us in case of tear gas or pepper spray, with the warning that we couldn’t wear it outside of the protest in case the police used it as an excuse to assume our association. I left at midnight, but some of my friends stayed until the police started dispersing people at 2am: they were stuck in the crowd for 2 hours while the protest was managed by the police. Two policemen sustained minor injuries, but few arrests were made and the situation did not escalate.
Beijing have not changed their mind about blocking the lawmakers, but its impossible to say how the situation in Hong Kong will progress from here.