Through a haze of grayish smoke, blue and red lights with the occasional strobe of green lasers illuminate the night. Shouts and screams shake the streets. In the distance, police sirens wail.
This is not the beginning of a fiction novel. This is what is happening right now in Hong Kong, where people have been taking to the streets in large-scale, spontaneous protests. The police have responded with tear gas, bean-bag rounds, and water cannons.
Hong Kong is a prominent city on China’s southern coast. It used to be a British colony, but in 1984, British and Chinese leaders signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration.
According to the agreement, Hong Kong was to be handed over to China in 1997 under the policy known as “one country, two systems.” The way of life in Hong Kong was to remain unchanged until at least 2047. The right to vote as well as other liberties like free speech and the right to free assembly were to be protected under a mini-constitution called Basic Law.
What happened after the 1997 handover?
Since 1997, Hong Kong has become closer to China economically with initiatives like the “Greater Bay Area” project and a high-speed rail.
Mainland Chinese companies make up a majority in the Hong Kong stock market, and about 70 percent of the city’s tourists hail from the mainland. The flow of mainland Chinese money into Hong Kong has worsened social inequality and made property prices skyrocket.
On the political front, the local government has the backing of China and has disqualified candidates promoting independence. And freedom of the press has declined significantly -- five Hong Kong booksellers who published books on Chinese leaders had disappeared, only to reappear in China. They were subsequently released. Foreign journalists too, who write critically about China, are denied visas.
What sparked the protests?
In February 2019, the local Hong Kong government introduced a controversial extradition bill. It would have allowed the government to send people accused of crimes to mainland China. In other words, Hong Kongers would be exposed to the mainland Chinese legal system, and the independence of Hong Kong's legal system would no longer be guaranteed.
In response to the bill, a million Hong Kongers, young and old, peacefully marched in protest on June 9. As protests escalated and became more violent, the government of Carrie Lam (Hong Kong's leader) backed off from the bill. But the protests are continuing, with protestors calling for an inquiry into police brutality, and demanding changes in the government and the resignation of Ms. Lam.
The Chinese government has become increasingly concerned, and reports claim that it has stationed troops across the border and in the city. In an effort to restore order, Ms. Lam's government introduced emergency measures today, banning face masks that protestors wear to protect their identity and from tear gas. This has further infuriated the protestors. The future of HK is uncertain, and only time will tell.
Sources: BBC, NY Times, Reuters, TheDiplomat, VOA