Pro-democracy protestors in Hong Kong celebrated the six-month milestone of mass demonstrations with the largest protests in weeks. The demonstration, organized by the Civil Human Rights Front, included an estimated 800,000 people (BBC: 2019). This rally, unlike many in recent months, remained largely peaceful. 11 people were arrested prior to the event, one with a loaded handgun which was allegedly intended to be used to frame Hong Kong police for violence against protestors (Leicester: 2019). Interactions between protestors and police remained peaceful, if at times tense, with police stationed around the march without much direct confrontation. Notably, this was the first protest officially sanctioned by the police since August, which can explain the relatively calm nature of the demonstrations (BBC: 2019). There were a few minor incidents including the vandalizing of some shops and a fire set outside of the High Court building (Hernandez & Yu: 2019).
The six-month anniversary offered demonstrators an opportunity to reflect both on the issues which sparked the movement in the first place and the issues which have become relevant in the time since. The protests began in June in response to a proposed bill which would allow extraditions from Hong Kong to mainland China. Though that bill was abandoned in September, protests grew to demand sweeping democratic reforms and guarantees for the future of Hong Kong’s democratic government. The extradition bill was the catalyst for anxieties about gradual Chinese encroachment into Hong Kong, which has preserved its tenuous “One country, two systems” arrangement with China since 1997 (BBC: 2019).
Since the beginning of the protests, pro-democracy groups and their supporters have made some substantive gains. The extradition bill’s retraction was a notable victory and did not placate the protestors. The landslide victory of pro-democracy candidates in recent local elections is also meaningful development, though the actual policy impact of these elections may be small (BBC: 2019). Certainly, protests have commanded attention and responses from the Hong Kong government, though Beijing has been critical of protestors and have shown little interest in meeting the majority of their demands (Hernandez & Yu: 2019).
Despite these gains, demonstrators still feel more is needed to secure democracy in Hong Kong. Specific demands include democratic elections for Hong Kong’s leader and legislature as well as expansion of civil liberties (Leicester: 2019). Some of the most pertinent demands concern the police response to the protests, which many in Hong Kong and abroad have condemned as overly violent and repressive. Approximately 6,000 protestors have been arrested since the beginning of the demonstrations and hundreds injured, including one protestor who was shot last month (BBC: 2019). Police violence has been a key part of recent protestor demands, which call for amnesty for those arrested as well as an independent investigation into police conduct (BBC: 2019). This topic has been especially relevant in recent weeks, as violence between police and students on university campuses has escalated, becoming some of the worst since the start of protests.
There are many parts of this protest that separate it from most and make it especially interesting to those concerned with democracy promotion and protest movements. Relevant to this story is the fact that it has sustained itself for such an extended period of time. Protest movements tend to die out, either through repression or loss of interest, or achieve significant success relatively soon after they begin. That organizers were able to turn out close to a million people six months after the initial movement is unusual and promising. Protesters at this rally also widely expressed a willingness to continue, even escalate, their resistance (Hernandez & Yu: 2019). This may partially be due to the fact that, despite serious concerns about police brutality, this protest movement has not been met with the same level of repression as many pro-democracy protests. Those protests during the Arab Spring that did not achieve their intended goals were usually put down quickly through much more concrete threat of violence. While the level of political violence is certainly worrying, it is notable that no protestors have been killed by military or police.
This protest is emblematic of the reasons why this
movement may continue for some time. The Hong Kong government sanctioned the
demonstration, indicative of the relative restraint it has shown in dealing
with the movement (I know those in Hong Kong do not feel as though the police
have been restrained, but this is a comparison with other democratic uprisings
in non-democratic states). This restraint, combined with the expressed passion
of many of the participants, means that protests are likely to continue.
However, it is unclear what effect demonstrations will have on swaying opinion
or policy in Beijing. Protests have had an adverse economic impact in Hong Kong,
but it is unclear whether this is enough to achieve any meaningful end. China
is unlikely to violently repress Hong Kong due to extreme international
scrutiny, but it may be content to wait it out with protestors, offering a few
nominal changes without significant reform.
Hernandez, Javier J. and Yu, Elaine. “Hong Kong Protest, Largest in Weeks, Stretches Several Miles.” 12/9/19. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2019/12/07/world/asia/hong-kong-protests-us-chamber-commerce.html
“Hong Kong march: Thousands Join Largest Pro-Democracy Rally in Months.” 12/8/19. The BBC. https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-china-50704137.
Leicester, John. “Hong Kong Protests Mark 6-Month Mark with Massive Rally.” 12/7/19. The Associated Press. https://apnews.com/8ef6d7568e2c80c23f1a60c8bb0f3276