Violence and unrest in Hong Kong: Understanding the complexities between the PRC and a former British colony

By: Austin Wright
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On November 11, over five months of Hong Kong protests culminated into an eruption of violence that left one person shot by police and another severely burned by protesters. Protests began in March this year after Hong Kong’s Security Bureau proposed a bill that would allow extradition to mainland China, something many Hongkongers view as an attack on Hong Kong’s autonomy.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam responded to the most recent violence in a statement: “If there is still any wishful thinking that by escalating violence the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region Government, Government will yield to pressure to satisfy these so-called political demands, I am making this statement clear and loud here: That will not happen.”

“These so-called political demands” refers to five demands set by protesters: full withdrawal of the extradition bill, an independent commission of inquiry into alleged police brutality, retracting the classification of protesters as ‘rioters,’ amnesty for arrested protesters, and dual universal suffrage (meaning for both the legislative council and the chief executive).

Understanding the demands and protests means first understanding Hong Kong’s history and its unique relationship with the People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Hong Kong’s history as a British colony

British control of Hong Kong began in 1898 when China leased Hong Kong to Great Britain for a 99-year term. Hong Kong operated as a capitalistic society under British rule, and citizens of Hong Kong were allowed political freedoms that were prohibited throughout the rest of China. 

Great Britain’s 99-year lease ended on July 1, 1997, and China once again regained control of Hong Kong. However, an agreement between China and Great Britain — known as ‘one country, two systems’ — guaranteed that Hong Kong would continue to enjoy a level of autonomy and freedom apart from the PRC for 50 years. 

50 Years of autonomy and a political tug-of-war

Hong Kong has experienced several protests since being handed over to the PRC from Great Britain, including protests in 2003, 2007, 2010, 2012, 2013, and 2014. 

Aside from the current protests, Hong Kong’s last political tug-of-war with the PRC happened in 2014. A pro-democratic movement, often referred to as the ‘Umbrella Movement,’ took place between September and December 2014 after the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) made decisions regarding proposed changes to Hong Kong’s election system. 

Many Hong Kong citizens viewed these changes as an attack on their democratic system. Protestors claimed that the changes gave the Chinese Communist Party the ability to screen chief executive candidates. 

Protestors and police clashed violently throughout the movement, which eventually ended without any concessions being made by the government.

Hong Kong’s identity issue

More Hong Kong citizens are identifying as Hongkongers instead of Chinese.

In 2017, the Public Opinion Programme (POP) of The University of Hong Kong conducted a survey to find out how Hong Kong citizens identified themselves. Sixty-six percent of respondents identified as Hongkongers, whereas only 32% identified themselves as Chinese. 

Of the different identity options listed in the survey, “citizens of the PRC” was the least popular.


Breaking down protest demands

  1. Full withdrawal of the extradition bill — This refers to the extradition bill that ignited the protest. The bill was withdrawn in late October.

  2. An independent commission of inquiry into alleged police brutality — Protesters allege that police response has been overly brutal. Counting Monday’s shooting, a total of three people have been shot by police throughout the protest duration.

    Hong Kong’s police said in a statement that, “Radical protesters posed a grave danger to road users in multiple locations by setting up barricades and dropping heavy objects from heights onto carriageways.

    The force pointed out that rioters also threw petrol bombs into Mass Transit Railway train compartments and vandalized university facilities.

    Due to rioters’ extensive illegal acts, police conducted dispersal and arrest operations.

    During the operations, one police officer discharged his service revolver and shot a man in Sai Wan Ho, while other officers drew their service arms in Sha Tin and Tung Chung.”

  3. Retracting the classification of protesters as rioters’ — Hong Kong police used the term rioters to describe protestors. One example of this term being used can be seen in the statement above.

  4. Amnesty for arrested protesters — Mass amounts of protesters have been arrested throughout the protest on a number of charges.

  5. Dual universal suffrage (meaning for both the legislative council and the chief executive) — Hong Kong’s legislative council controls the city’s laws. Currently, only half of the seats in the legislative council are decided by a public vote.

    The chief executive is elected by a 1 200 person committee made up of Chinese political officials. Currently, Hong Kong citizens have no say in this election.

    Having dual universal suffrage would give citizens a bigger say in the legislative council and introduce the idea of a citizens’ vote in the chief executive election. 

An uncertain future and looming deadline

Hong Kong maintains a certain level of autonomy from the PRC under the One Country, Two Systems agreement, which is set to expire in 2047. After that, Hong Kong’s future and appearance as a capitalistic, democratic region are uncertain.