Hong Kong: understanding the protests

Saturday 2 November, 14:0015:30, Garden RoomEye on the World

There have been months of protest in Hong Kong. The airport was closed in August after a two-day blockade by protesters. A student protester is reported to have lost an eye after being hit by a baton round fired by police. Tens of thousands of people have occupied streets and businesses in the centre of one of the world’s leading international financial centres.

The protest movement began, it seems, as a response to China’s demand for an extradition treaty between Hong Kong and China. Over recent years, several dissident writers and activists had been seized in Hong Kong territory by Chinese state authorities and hauled back to the mainland for prosecution. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) presumed that a legally binding extradition treaty would be a diplomatic improvement. But millions thought otherwise, launching unprecedented attacks on the government buildings, spraying ‘Hong Kong is not China’ and demanding the resignation of Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam.

In response, the CCP first tried to ignore the protests; then it allegedly sent in thugs to beat up protestors, finally uploading video footage of military troops massing on the Chinese side of the border. In June, Lam announced that the extradition treaty was ‘indefinitely delayed’, but by then the campaign had taken on a new dimension.

From the protesters’ side, the initial campaign was focused against the Legislative Council of Hong Kong and its Chinese stooges. But increasingly, it began to target China itself. What started as a protest for legal autonomy has escalated into a national independence struggle. Or has it? Many protesters are harking back to the halcyon days of British rule, many others are pro-Beijing, and yet more are worried about this economic repercussions of the protests on a country that has been hit hard by the US-China trade dispute. On the Chinese mainland, the authorities have called the actions of protesters ‘intolerable’ and yet have continued to tolerate it.

What’s it all about? Will this fizzle out, or is this a fracture that cannot be mended? What does it mean for authority in China and democracy, not just in Hong Kong, but in Macau and Taiwan, too? And how does this fit with east-west international relations more broadly? This session is a conversation about the history and contemporary politics of the region, but also an exploration of the dynamics of this explosive situation.