Opinion

The tension in Hong Kong started long before the extradition bill, and will continue to fester long after

The real key to unraveling the long protests lies in the question of whether the "one country two systems" can last until 2047, when the promise of 50 years without change reaches its end.

These demonstrations have all revealed the extent to which Hong Kongers are determined to guard their system

The real key to unraveling the long protests lies in the question of whether the "one country two systems" can last until 2047, when the promise of 50 years without change reaches its end. (Kin Cheung/Associated Press)

At the beginning of September, Hong Kong leader Carrie Lam announced that she would formally withdraw an extradition bill that would have allowed the extradition of any criminal suspects to mainland China, a bill that sparked months of protests in Hong Kong. Obviously, she hoped that the move would bring calm to the region. 

However, many protesters felt the move came too late and offered too little. They have continued to hold demonstrations, insisting that the government accept their other four demands: an independent investigation of police brutality, the removal of the "rioters" label, the release of the arrested without charges, and universal suffrage electing Hong Kong leadership. 

Carrie Lam announced earlier this month that she would formally withdraw an extradition bill that catalyzed massive protests over the summer. (Tyrone Siu/Reuters)

Whether or not Carrie Lam, being a proxy of the Beijing government, will accept their call is undoubtedly pertinent to the present crisis. She held a town hall last week, but it did little to diffuse tensions.

In any case, the real key to unraveling the long protests lies in the question of whether the "one country two systems" can last until 2047, when the promise of 50 years without change reaches its end. The protests over the extradition bill were a symptom the tension that existed long before the bill was proposed, and will most likely exist long after this flare-up settles down. 

Basic Law protest

Back on July 1, 2003, the first large-scale demonstration since 1997 (when Hong Kong was returned to China from the United Kingdom) took place, when hundreds of thousands of people protested against a proposed national security law, under Article 23 of the Basic Law.

Among other measures, the law would've expanded police powers, and protesters worried the changes threatened Hong Kong's unique status under the "one country two systems" arrangement. Many other small and large protests have taken place in Hong Kong since then, including the most recent ones.  

These demonstrations have all revealed the extent to which Hong Kongers are determined to guard their system. Though not a democracy, this system has been functioning to protect their basic rights under the rule of law established during British colonial rule. The demand of freedom and universal suffrage in the 2014 umbrella movement — a response to Beijing announcing it would vet candidates in the 2017 election — is another notable case in point. 

Seen in this light, these most recent large scale-protests that began in early June represent the extension of these previous demonstrations, with the same aim of defending the Hong Kongers' rights and their system promised in the Basic Law. 

Nevertheless, the scale and length of these anti-extradition bill protests are such that Hong Kong over the past several months has been in great turmoil. The prolonged protests have paralyzed the normal operation of many important public services of the city and resulted in a profound loss of trust between millions of protesters and the police.

No one really knows how this round of Hong Kong protests will end, but the struggle will most probably continue on in some form. (Kin Cheung/Associated Press)

Reports already show the decline of tourism and the dim prospects of the city's economy. Lives would have been saved if Carrie Lam had agreed to the protesters' original demand to withdraw the bill in mid-June.

That said, it's hard to hold Carrie Lam individually responsible for this present crisis. After all, she likely didn't have any autonomous power to make any important decisions, but her eagerness to serve the Beijing government clearly impeded her ability to see how this would spiral out of control. And though China has tried to blame "hostile foreign forces," meaning the U.S., any basic analysis of the relationships between China and the U.S., as well as Beijing and China, should prove that untrue.  

Ongoing struggle for freedom

A song called "Glory to Hong Kong," composed recently by a young musician, explains the anguish of these young protesters and explains why they felt compelled to come out in defence of their city. It describes how they felt they had no choice but to protest so that freedom and the rule of law will return to their beloved city, and thus bring "glory to Hong Kong" once more.

No one really knows how this round of Hong Kong protests will end or what will happen to those protesters, but their struggle will most probably continue on, no matter how or when it may be suppressed.

As a liberal democracy, and with so many Hong Kong-Canadians still maintaining close ties with their relatives and friends there, it is only right for Canada to give our moral support to those courageous protesters who continue to fight for democracy.


This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.

About the Author

Josephine Chiu-Duke is Associate Professor of Chinese Intellectual History in the Asian Studies Department of the University of British Columbia. She has written, edited, co-translated, and co-edited many works on Chinese history and culture.

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