The New Normal in Hong Kong

One of the exits of Wan Chai station was on fire on September 29, 2019.

Several oversea friends and family members have been getting in touch after watching media reports of the unrest in Hong Kong. After speaking to many, I see that despite their best intentions, there is a lack of understanding of the political situation in Hong Kong. Honestly, I have been rattled by what’s been happening in the city I’ve called home for the last seven years. My mother has been warning me not to write anything political in these turbulent times, but I can’t help myself (sorry Mama). I have decided to write a personal account of what’s been happening here. I hope to provide some information alongside my personal anecdotes.

Leading up to National Day on October 1, while mainland China was gearing up to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the violence in Hong Kong escalated. Thousands of Hong Kongers marched and chanted on the major thoroughfares throughout the city, some vandalized public properties, set barricades on fire, and trashed storefronts. The raptors, which are the tactical unit of the Hong Kong Police Force (HKPF), would eventually storm out from their hiding places and start throwing tear gas canisters, bean bag rounds, and rolling out the anti-riot vehicle spewing blue water. Many Hong Kongers, most of them young, were arrested. Tension peaked on National Day–the streets were the most violent I’ve seen in the recent months. It hit close to home too. There were tear gas canisters fired on my street and Derek and I had a painful time trying to get home.

A member of the raptor surveying the protest. Photography by @an_american_in_china.

Just when the situation couldn’t seem to get any worse, hell broke loose shortly after Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, announced the anti-mask law on Friday, October 4th, 2019. The protests and the accompanying violence intensified. For the first time since I’ve lived in Hong Kong, and probably for the first time in recent Hong Kong history, the MTR Corporation shut down all MTR services. This whole weekend has been a virtual lockdown–with the paralysis of the public transportation system, many malls and stores have shuttered and the usually bustling city of Hong Kong seems like a ghost town.

What happened to the free-wheeling city of Hong Kong? To get the story straight, I need to go back to 1984, when the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland (U.K.) signed the Sino British Joint Declaration in Beijing. This declaration laid out the stipulation of the then British Hong Kong’s return to China on July 1, 1997. At this time, both the U.K. and the PRC agreed that Hong Kong will fall under the constitutional principle of “one country, two systems” and the socialist system of PRC would not be practised in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) for a period of 50 years. Based on this agreement, Hong Kong maintains its capitalist system and its currency. Its way of life would remain unchanged until 2047.

Graphic design by Derek Matthew Auxier Black.

Under this “one country, two systems,” Hong Kong is supposed to have a great level of autonomy. Hong Kong is to operate under the Basic Law, the constitution of the HKSAR and national law of the People’s Republic of China. Furthermore, Hong Kong’s legal, legislative, and judicial systems are separate from those in the PRC and the rights to freedom of speech and assembly remain. Furthermore, the Basic Law also stipulates that Hong Kong will have universal suffrage by 2017, allowing its citizens to elect their own Chief Executive.

In 2014, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress (NPCSC) of 31 August 2014 prescribed a selective pre-screening of candidates for the 2017 election of Hong Kong’s chief executive. This led to the umbrella movement that lasted 79 days. Various groups set up barricades in the central district of Hong Kong and camped out in tents to protest against the decision. Sadly, this movement did not achieve universal suffrage and most of the leaders and organizers have been arrested since. However, it sparked a new generation of politically-minded protestors concerned about their future and freedom.

The major event to ignite the recent protests is when Carrie Lam proposed the extradition bill in early 2019 as a response to a gruesome murder that took place in Taiwan. If passed, it would have allowed Hong Kong to surrender fugitives to be extradited to other countries it does not have agreements with, including Taiwan, Macau, and mainland China. There isn’t an inherent problem to extradite a murderer from Hong Kong to Taiwan, both countries have functioning courts. However, the prospect of being trialled in mainland China is terrifying–its courts have a dubious track record for respecting human rights and have a 99.9% conviction rate. This bill opens up the possibility that anyone Beijing deems unsavoury, such as activists, journalists, or even business executives, could face the opaque justice system in mainland China. This is why Hong Kongers started protesting.

The first anti-extradition bill protest I participated in 2019 was at Victoria Park on June 4, 2020, a peaceful sit-in that coincided with the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Massacre. The Hong Kong government ignored people’s peaceful requests to scrap the bill, and they continued to do in the subsequent protests. Over the next several months, the protests have escalated. During the early summer, the protests in my neighbourhood of Wan Chai were orderly. People, young and old, families with their strollers marched and chanted along Hennesy Road, one of the major roads connecting Victoria Park to the government buildings in Central. There was a sense of optimism in the air, the people of Hong Kong hoped that Carrie Lam would hear them.

However, Carrie Lam not only ignores the peaceful protests, but she also condemns them and calls them rioters. She’s been hiding behind the shield of the HKPF, using them as sticks to strike the protestors who are merely practicing their rights as outlined in the Basic Law. Over the course of several months, many people have been hurt by the police and the reputation of the HKPF has fallen to an all-time low as the Hong Kong people no longer trust the police. People are enraged. All they wanted was the scrapping of an unjust law. Carrie Lam, under the “one country, two systems,” should have the power to do so. But she dragged her feet and refused to do so. Until it is too late.

After months of protests, it is clear that Carrie Lam has no autonomy to govern Hong Kong. What has been suspected all along is true: The “one country, two systems’ principle is a sham; Carrie Lam is merely a puppet of the Communist Party of China. The mood in the protests has taken a turn. After months of not being heard, and knowing that they will probably never be heard, the young protestors are losing patience and are starting to resort to violence. In early September, Carrie Lam did formally withdraw the extradition bill–but it seems to be too little, too late. Now Hong Kongers have five demands and unless they are all met, they are going to continue to protest. Can you blame them? If this was my only home and my future is at stake, I’d be out there protesting with them too.

Protesters in Wan Chai.

Chaotic weekends have become the new normal in Hong Kong. The public transportation of Hong Kong has been paralyzed. What used to be normal, like meeting friends outside of one’s district, has become a challenge. Many shops and malls have been closed, along with movie theatres, restaurants, and other types of entertainment, forcing many inside all weekend. Having said that, the unrest does not threaten my physical well-being. To me, this whole situation is more of a mind fuck than anything else. One day, the city is seemingly trashed and burning, but overnight, the diligent city workers clean up the city and repair damaged properties to allow people to return to work in the morning. The next day, it is business as usual, and all traces of the unrest, besides a few graffiti here and there, have been erased. I feel like I live in parallel universes, and my mind can’t reconcile the two realities.

Many people in Hong Kong, locals and expatriates alike, have been impacted by the recent turmoil. While many are supportive of the young people of Hong Kong, others are dismayed by the loss of income and the inconveniences brought on by the closure of roads and disruption of the public transportation system. I’ve also experienced frustration and anxiety, but I don’t lose sight of the fact that I, as an expat living in this great city, can choose to leave. On the other hand, the people who are out protesting are fighting for their freedom in the only home they have.

Despite my anxiety, I can’t help but to be proud: Hong Kongers are the only people in this world who are openly defying China right now. (Yes, the Uyghurs and the Taiwanese have been defying China too, but not in this in-your-face kind of way– these are topics for another post for a different day). I don’t know how long they will last and how much impact they can make, but I admire the resilience of the Hong Kong people. Add oil, Hong Kong!

If you have any comments or questions, please post them below.

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2 Replies to “The New Normal in Hong Kong”

    1. Hi Julius, thanks for your comment. I found the mistake and corrected it. Hong Kong Free Press (HKFP) is a great publication!

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