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A year of Hong Kong protests: Is Beijing finally regaining control?

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Hong Kong protest. 

Hong Kong protest.  (AP photo)

A year ago, a million Hong Kongers streamed into the streets of the city to protest against a planned extradition law. While the Hong Kong government has since withdrawn the proposed legislation, Beijing has now altered the facts on the ground in this Chinese special administrative region.

At the end of May, China's rubberstamp legislature, the National People's Congress, gave the green light for a new national security law that's to be incorporated into Hong Kong's Basic Law. The measure allows for prosecution of Hong Kong residents organizing anti-Beijing protests or making statements that are critical of the Chinese leadership.

Charges for "undermining the authority of the state" could be brought against the critics, as is customary on the mainland.

Beijing sees need for action

The mass protests over the past year have apparently prompted Beijing to seize greater control of the situation in Hong Kong. The election victory of Beijing-critical figures in the city's local elections on November 24, 2019, when they won the majority in 17 of 18 district councils, may also have played a role.

The appointment of a new head of the Beijing Liaison Office in Hong Kong should also be seen in this context. President Xi Jinping has held on to the embattled Chief Executive Carrie Lam, but to the surprise of many, he has appointed 65-year-old Luo Huining to the de facto most important post in Hong Kong.

Luo, who comes to Hong Kong from "outside," has rendered outstanding services in "cleaning up" the corruption-ridden Shanxi province. There is no doubt that Xi expects him to make progress in "taming" the unpredictable conditions in Hong Kong. The new security law provides the basis for this.

Opposition to extradition

Last year's protests, in fact, began in mid-March, when a small group of pro-democracy activists had occupied the lobby of the Hong Kong city administration in the central district. "Carrie Lam has betrayed Hong Kong!", "Stop the Extradition Act," they chanted.

Although the protests were nominally against the proposed extradition legislation, the core issue — as with the umbrella protests in 2014 and the "Occupy Central" movement — was how much Beijing should and may intervene in Hong Kong's affairs. It was also about the question on who should shape the territory's future: Hong Kong voters or the authoritarian regime in Beijing?

The governing principle of "one country, two systems," which is valid for 50 years, is expected to expire in 2047. "What then?" is the question the younger inhabitants are confronted with.

In February 2019, Chief Executive Lam introduced the draft of a proposed extradition legislation to the city's legislature. For the first time, it would have made it possible for criminal suspects in Hong Kong to be handed over to the mainland law enforcement agencies.

For many Hong Kongers, this was absolutely unacceptable, because the memory of the "disappeared" booksellers and businessmen — some of whom made "confessions" that were later broadcast on Chinese state television — was still fresh.

Protests inside and outside the legislature

On April 3, 2019, the first reading of the bill took place in the city parliament (LegCo). There, the representatives critical of Beijing expressed their displeasure about the "sell-out" to Beijing. The presentation of the bill was interrupted 11 times by loud interjections and screams in the chamber.

On the streets outside, people voiced their protest against the bill. On June 9, more than a million people demonstrated on the streets, according to activists. The reason for the massive protest was that the second reading of the bill in LegCo was planned for June 12. For seven hours, the protesters marched peacefully through the government district.

But the demonstration ended with violence between protesters and police officers. Similar scenes repeated on June 12, when demonstrators blocked access to the parliament building in order to prevent the second reading of the extradition bill.

Late in the evening, some 2,000 demonstrators, mostly young people, gathered in front of the LegCo for a nightly vigil. The second reading was postponed.

Carrie Lam gives in — a little bit

Public pressure on Carrie Lam grew, forcing her to back down on June 15. "The government has decided to suspend the bill," she said. But that wasn't the end of it. Once again there was a mass demonstration, with organizers claiming that there were 2 million participants, while police put the figure at 330,000.

On July 1, the anniversary of the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule, more than half a million people took to the streets. Thousands of protesters gathered to demonstrate against the annual flag ceremony. Others tried to storm the parliament. They broke windows of the government building and tried to enter it by force.

Escalating confrontation

In the second half of 2019, the demonstrations became more decentralized, frequent and "creative."
Flight operations at the international airport, the most important aviation hub in Asia, had to be suspended several times.

Hong Kong police now took tougher action against the demonstrators; tear gas and rubber bullets were used, including water cannons. In order to identify the rioters, the Hong Kong government issued a ban on face coverings. At times there was speculation over whether the central government would send People's Liberation Army soldiers stationed in Hong Kong to restore order. However, this did not happen.

The protesters have long demanded an independent investigation into allegations of police brutality. In their view, police used disproportionate force against the demonstrators. They also sought Lam's resignation and, as in 2015, called for free and fair elections.

On November 17, a 12-day occupation and siege of the Hong Kong Polytechnic University campus began. While rioters threw petrol bombs at the police and set parts of the buildings on fire, the police drove up in armoured vehicles and shot with tear gas.

After those holed up in the campus gave up, police seized more than 3,800 petrol bombs and 500 bottles of poisonous chemicals. 1,377 people were arrested, not many of them students of the Polytechnic University. The personal details of 318 minors were recorded, who were then allowed to go home.

What happens in 2020 and beyond?

The civil war-like escalation of the conflict between pro-democracy activists and security forces did not, as might have been expected, lead to a strengthening of the pro-Chinese camp. The outbreak of the novel coronavirus on the mainland and the concern and uncertainty it has caused have temporarily relegated the protest movement in Hong Kong to the background.

But the protests against the new security law and the disregard for the ban on assembly on June 4, the commemoration day of the Tiananmen Square massacre, have once again highlighted the tense situation in Hong Kong.

Prominent Hong Kong politician and democracy advocate Martin Lee says he is both optimistic and pessimistic when it comes to Hong Kong's future. He believes that Beijing will also bring Hong Kong's previously independent courts under its control, just as it already controls the executive and legislative branches.

"They (Hongkong's young people) should have the willingness to drag out this fight. They are younger than the Chinese leaders, so they have the advantage. Very importantly, they now have the support of the international community. A lot of the older people are also on their side. That’s why whenever there is a skirmish, people in the neighborhood would come out," said Lee.