Steve Shaw sat down with political activist Edward Chin in Hong Kong to discuss how the protests taking the island by storm have a different feel from those which occurred five years ago.
When protestors in Hong Kong occupied its central business district in 2014, calling for elections without Beijing screening candidates, one of the leading campaigners was Edward Chin.
He stood out as one of the city’s few financial professionals to publicly back the Occupy Central movement and became well-known for publishing open letters to Chinese President Xi Jinping, urging him to give Hong Kong “true democracy”.
Despite his efforts, the movement failed. But its impact can be felt some five years on as a renewed protest movement surges through the streets of the island week after week, leaving the authorities desperately fumbling for a solution.
“This time it is bigger than in 2014,” Mr Chin explained. “Back then, we were fighting for one person, one vote, without pre-screening by Beijing. This time, it has gone from being about an extradition bill to being about fighting for Hong Kong’s freedoms. It is like a cultural revolution 2.0 or Tiananmen.
“Hong Kong was under colonial rule for about 150 years and is definitely part of China, no doubt about it, we are not pro-Hong Kong independence but we believe in ‘one country, two systems’.
“I would like to see that, after 2047, this arrangement continues for another 50 years, then another 50 so it is like gentleman’s agreement. But no one is playing like a gentleman in China. They are just trying to lessen Hong Kong’s freedoms.”
The roots of the 2019 protests began in February when the city’s government, led by Chief Executive Carrie Lam, announced that it wanted to make it easier to extradite suspects to China. The move was criticised for infringing on the city’s autonomy and many feared that it would put critics of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) at risk.
China had already given Hong Kong’s residents good reason to fear the policy, most notably in 2015, when five staff members from a Hong Kong bookshop were abducted after selling books about politicians that had been banned on the mainland. Beijing later confirmed that the men had been detained in China and Britain’s then Foreign Secretary Philip Hammond called it “a serious breach” of the Sino-British Joint Declaration, which guaranteed that China’s political system could not be implemented in Hong Kong until at least 2047 when Britain handed the island back to China in 1997.
The disappearance of the booksellers was among several violations of the agreement later highlighted in a landmark assessment of China’s crackdown on human rights, published in 2016 by the UK’s Conservative Party Human Rights Commission. The report noted that there had been a “rapid erosion of basic freedom in Hong Kong” and freedoms of the press. The freedom of publication and of academic thought were also said to be under threat. The city’s government was described as being “more bent on pleasing the central authorities than standing up for Hong Kong and its core values”.
It was these issues and many more that drove protestors back onto the streets in June and why they continue to hold mass demonstrations while facing thousands of rounds of tear gas, rubber bullets and arbitrary arrest. Hong Kong’s police force, once entrusted to protect the population, is now operating with almost no accountability. A wealth of video and photographic evidence showing police brutality has emerged over the past three months and has been completely ignored by the authorities.
Mr Chin claims that part of the problem is that clashes with protestors is a lucrative business for police officers. “The police are paid crazily,” he said. “Those who would usually be making around $28,000 Hong Kong dollars per month, they are suddenly making $80,000 or even $90,000 per month – this is like $12,000 US dollars per month. It is what I call ‘stabilisation money’ from the mainland, a way to make Hong Kong people fight Hong Kong people. That is their tactic.
“We now see the police acting like they are on drugs. They madly fire tear gas and bash people. I don’t know what they are thinking.”
The combination of policing without accountability and the government’s refusal to listen to the people has resulted in once-peaceful protestors also employing violent tactics. Many no longer run from charging riot police. Instead, they pick up sticks and charge back. Others, who have lost all respect for the police, tease and intimidate them, making confrontations more likely and more dangerous.
Clashes have also broken out between pro-Beijing demonstrators and pro-democracy protestors, resulting in mass brawls in the streets in broad daylight with each side violently assaulting the other. Even here, the police conduct is questionable, with pro-Beijing protesters instigating the confrontations and then being allowed to walk away without any threat of arrest, while the pro-democracy protesters are chased, beaten and detained. Pro-Beijing demonstrators have even gone as far as to create a website where they have published photographs and personal details of anyone spotted taking part in the pro-democracy protests.
The chaotic scenes are worsening by the week and highlight just how significantly the authorities have failed to address the problems raised by Hong Kong’s citizens.
Hope for change is now being placed almost entirely on America due to the tough stance President Donald Trump has taken with China over trade. A number of pro-democracy demonstrators march in the streets carrying American flags, play the US national anthem and paint graffiti showing Trump in heroic poses as he confronts Beijing.
Displays of this kind have led to a range of conspiracy theories – often peddled by Chinese state media – in an attempt to reduce the legitimacy of the Hong Kong people’s grievances to nothing more than being part of a US intervention policy. Although these claims are largely untrue – and the anger and fear among protestors is certainly real – there are some groups who have been beneficiaries of funding from America’s National Endowment for Democracy (NED) organisation. This “soft power” group has gained a reputation for being involved in funding numerous opposition political groups all around the world, with many heavily aligned with the US’ foreign policy goals.
But Mr Chin dismissed claims that America is manipulating millions of people to take to the streets and protest. “Young people don’t have an allegiance to China and, because they were born after 1997, they have no ties with the colonial days so what they think of is more of a generic icon that represents freedom and democracy, so they think of the US flag,” he said. “It is not true that the US is using the young students.”
Another reason that such hope has been placed with the US is because of the proposed Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. This piece of legislation, which could soon be passed by US law-makers, would allow sanctions to be placed on Chinese officials and require yearly assessments of whether Hong Kong is sufficiently autonomous from Beijing, with the outcome impacting decisions on trade. To young protestors, this legislation will be vital and many believe it could change the situation in Hong Kong for the better.
For Mr Chin, a man who is older and has his family’s safety weighing heavily on his mind, things are not so hopeful. “I left Hong Kong and lived for some time in Canada and then came back,” he explained. “I’ve been back for 19 years and I do not want to leave, I want to fight… [but] I can only see the next 12 months or so getting worse.”