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The Last Protests? Has Beijing Finally Stifled the Flame of Freedom in Hong Kong?

Tommy Walker reports with eyewitness accounts of this week’s demonstrations in the former British colony and explores what Boris Johnson’s offer of refuge means to the residents of Hong Kong

A woman washes her eyes of pepper spray during protests in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong on 1 July 2020. Photo: Tommy Walker

The Last Protests? Has Beijing Finally Stifled the Flame of Freedom in Hong Kong?

Tommy Walker reports with eyewitness accounts of this week’s demonstrations in the former British colony and explores what Boris Johnson’s offer of refuge means to the residents of Hong Kong

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Thousands of protestors took to the streets of Hong Kong this week after Beijing passed its controversial national security law ending the city’s autonomy and the ‘one country, two systems’ agreement.

Coinciding with the 23rd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from Britain to China, street protests lasted for the majority of Wednesday, leading to police firing pepper spray, pepper balls and using water cannons.

At least 370 people were arrested including 10 who had violated the new national security law, according to reports.

Police pin down a protestor for arrest during street protests in Hong Kong on 1 July 2020. Photo: Tommy Walker

The national security law came into effect on the 30 June, but the details in its fine print were not released until 11 pm that night. The law prohibits secession, subversion, terrorism and foreign interference. Anyone who breaks those violations faces a maximum life prison sentence with a minimum of three years.

Of equal concern is the lack of specifics over how the law can be broken, leaving it open to the interpretation of the authorities. ‘Inciting hatred’ of China’s Government is included, whilst damage to public transport can be regarded as ‘terrorism’. National security cases can even be held without a jury, while laws can be broken on foreign soil even by non-residents.

To provide Beijing with an inside presence, a special national security team is due to be stationed within the city.

Police warn surrounding protestors that they are breaching the new national security law in Wan Chai, Hong Kong on 1 July 2020. Photo: Tommy Walker

The Promise of Freedom

Last year, an unpopular extradition bill quickly developed into a pro-democracy movement, targeting anger towards the Chinese Government over fears that further freedoms in Hong Kong could be eroded.

Beijing argues that the new law is in place to prevent those scenes from happening again. 

However, in 1997, when the UK handed the city back to the Chinese, Hong Kong was promised 50 years with a high degree of autonomy. Almost exactly 23 years on, it looks like those promises have been broken.

Jimmy Lai. Photo Tommy Walker

Jimmy Lai, the owner of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy newspaper Apple Daily, believes Beijing planned all along to tighten its grip on the city.

“Their long-term plan has been definitely to control and subdue Hong Kong. Especially [Chinese the President] Xi Jinping, he doesn’t like the Hong Kong system,” he told Byline Times.

Since the law came into force, the residents of Hong Kong have become extremely anxious. While some are actively seeking to emigrate, others are erasing their social media accounts.

“My parents want me to leave Hong Kong,” one student told Byline Times. “I’m looking at studying in the UK or Taiwan.”

Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s biggest pro-democracy activist group Demosisto has lost all of its leaders. Agnes Chow, one of the four co-founders, quit her leadership position on the day the law was passed. Joshua Wong, Jeffrey Ngo and Nathan Law all resigned too.

Nathan Law is reported to have left Hong Kong entirely. He was quoted by local reports as saying: “To leave the place where you grew up and not knowing when you will ever return is difficult. We must continue to speak up and advocate for our cause on the international stage. Be Water, as we like to say.”

A Day of Protest

Ahead of the 1 July protests, the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF) submitted an application for the demonstration to be approved. It was rejected by authorities, which cited Coronavirus social distancing laws and previous violent encounters.

But, with the CHRF’s record of attracting big numbers to rallies, protests against the new law were always likely.

Police standby in Hennessy Road as protestor groups look on in Wan Chai, Hong Kong on 1 July 2020. Photo: Tommy Walker

Hennessy Road – one of the widest thoroughfares stretching across the northern centre of Hong Kong Island – is usually a place for shoppers and leisure, with the glitz of the SOGO shopping mall and the glamour of Times Square taking centre stage.

For the past 12 months, it has become a well-trodden battleground and a venue for an aggressive game of cat-and-mouse between protestor and police.

Although the 1 July march was planned for two pm, crowds formed early at the mall. Protesters gathered while police, press and first-aid volunteers looked on. What unfolded next felt inevitable.

Activist Lee Cheuk-Yan argues with police after being pulled down from addressing crowds in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong on 1 July 2020. Photo: Tommy Walker

On a hot day in the city, the numbers continued to grow. Activists were standing by street stalls and on makeshift podiums addressing the crowds by microphone. Politician Lee Cheuk-Yan, who was apart of the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 in Beijing, spoke to those gathered.

It was only a matter of time before the police intervened, pulling Cheuk-Yan down to the ground. Pepper spray was propelled toward the gathering protestors and press, setting the tone for the rest of the day.

Police argue with protestors to disperse in Causeway Bay, Hong Kong on 1 July, 2020. Photo: Tommy Walker

As protestors began to march away from the area, police strategically blocked off most of the exits. This didn’t deter the chanting protestors, who peacefully changed direction to other areas of the district.

Most protestors were only marching, though some more hard-line activists attempted to block roads. When the police came to clear these roadblocks, they chased down protestors to arrest them.

Soon, police were deploying pepper balls, pepper spray, water cannons and tear gas to defuse protestor groups. In the district of Wan Chai, a water cannon knocked some protestors and reporters to the ground, while a special tactical squad gave chase to fleeing protestors. Several arrests were made.

Police detain residents during street demonstrations in Wan Chai, Hong Kong on 1 July 2020. Photo: Tommy Walker

A protestor, driving his motorbike towards the police, crashed as he steered it away. In a separate incident, a police officer was stabbed in the arm with a knife by a hardline activist. A 15-year-old female was arrested for another infraction.

By nine o’clock in the evening, the intensity of the protests had died down. 

What Next for Hong Kong?

As the dust settles now the new law is in place, thousands of Hong Kong residents are deciding on their future.

Though the mass demonstrations of the past year are expected to subside, the pro-democracy front will sustain itself as an underground movement. With the city’s Legislative Council elections due to take place in September, this is likely to be the next political event of note.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Boris Johnson has announced that UK will offer an escape route for Hong Kong residents looking to flee, opening the doors for citizenship to approximately three million people. 

Around 300,000 residents are British National Overseas (BNO) passport holders, while 2.6 million are still eligible if they were born before the 1997 handover. They would be allowed to stay in the UK for five years and could then apply for British citizenship.

A woman holds up a British passport during demonstrations in IFC Mall, Central, Hong Kong on 29 May 2020. Photo: Tommy Walker

Hong Kong’s evolution to a thriving international city was a miracle by any standard. A mix of cultures and practices from both Asia and the West turned Hong Kong into one of the most cosmopolitan cities in the world. 

But many of its residents are once again anxiously waiting to see what the future holds now that their beloved city is under an even tighter grip of the Communist Party in Beijing.

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