The Spirit of Hong Kong, The Power of Civil Society

Protest day.

You might’ve seen news of Sunday’s march in Hong Kong against China’s extradition bill, a protest which drew over 1 million people. Truly historic, this immense of a demonstration hasn’t been seen in the city since the marked Umbrella Revolution in 2014.

yeah, we really thought we took the train down far enough to be able to exit.

We were there.
But first:

What is this all about?

Granted, I’ve only been in Hong Kong for four full days, so I am no expert. However, it’s incredible how much you can learn simply by experiencing something firsthand and learning from those so wholly committed to their civil society. In the days leading up to the protests, many groups set up in public spaces, handing out pamphlets and informing passersby of the organized protest; here’s what I’ve gleaned.

One of the pamphlets handed out leading up to the protest

The Hong Kong Security Bureau submitted a proposal to amend the extradition (extradition: sending someone back to the country or state where they’ve been accused of a crime) ordinances that currently don’t apply to “other parts of the People’s Republic of China”; in this case, Taiwan. Earlier this year, Taiwanese authorities were unable to prosecute Chan Tong-kai, a Hong Kong teenager accused of murdering his girlfriend in Taipei before fleeing to Hong Kong. If the extradition bill is adopted, it would allow the government to hand over fugitives to places with which the city hasn’t signed a bilateral extradition agreement—including mainland China and Taiwan.

On the surface, this seems like no big deal.

So then why did 1 million+ people take to the streets on Sunday?

Hong Kongers (yup, that’s what they’re called. can you think of something better?) feel their personal safety is at stake, because this bill exposes them to the risk of being prosecuted by Chinese authority. To them, the government has been manipulating the Taiwan homicide case to increase their own ability to encroach on them. The eroding freedom in Hong Kong is not new; many journalists, activists, academics, you name it! in China have been(/still are) prosecuted for “inappropriate speech,” “illegal operations,” and “illegal publishing.” Many of them fled mainland China to Hong Kong.

How’s freedom of speech lookin’ for them?

Picture opportunity for passerby and spectators

Not any better, for this extradition bill adds 37 extraditable crimes charged by Chinese authorities. An individual of any nationality, who is physically in Hong Kong, could be extradited and face judgment in territories outside of Hong Kong (aka mainland China), should this individual commit any of the crimes listed in the amended ordinance.

Surely the courts can stand by as gatekeepers, see the obvious manipulation of these cases.

Except they can’t. Courts in Hong Kong can only hear the case based on prima facie evidence provided by the Chinese government— prima facie is a legal term used to mean that the evidence you’ve got (basic facts) prove something, but that your proof can be refuted; except that the court can’t actually cross-examine the witness nor doubt the validity of the evidence. Simply by the evidence provided by the Chinese authority, police have the ability to arrest and extradite the “fugitive offender” to China; their property in Hong Kong is then up for search and seizure.

Do you get the sense that the people of Hong Kong can hardly have a fair trial? People fearful of the encroachment have already begun to leave Hong Kong.

The depicted woman with tasteful communism regalia is
Chief Executive Carrie Lam

Who’s left are despondent groups from the Umbrella movement, nearly an entire generation lost politically, and also radicalized localist groups–upon which the government has already cracked down, by banning those parties, and disqualifying people from those parties who were elected to legislative council. The pro-democratic groups were the ones encouraging everyone in Hong Kong to oppose the extradition law amendment, and to protect Hong Kong from becoming a hub for totalitarian judiciary.

The nature and pace of democratization in Hong Kong from 1997 to the present is an important trend to observe, as Mark Sheldon points out. China, as far as HKSAR (Hong Kong Special Administrative Region [of People’s Republic of China]–its formal title) is concerned, emphasizes one country, to keep things under control. The people of Hong Kong seek two systems; they want more democratic autonomy, more self-governance.

Legislative Council Headquarters, the end destination of the march

Wednesday the legislative council is set to vote on this bill…and I believe it’s a second hearing? Not quite sure how that process works. But hopefully the voices of these 1 million are heard.

Being on the streets as they took to the streets:

Pro tip: Have any plans on Protest Day?
Cancel them.

It was already nearly impossible to reach Central itself, let alone Causeway Bay, the starting point of the march. Take a look at the masses we had to conquer simply at the train stations:

On the bright side, we didn’t have to worry about balancing on the train, or finding something to hold on to! There was no way you could move with how many people were squeezed in there. It’s like the train was a can and we were some type of fish…

Because of these crowds, we actually ended up standing near the march’s end, so we got to witness the first inklings of the crowd as they approached. The numbers only grew, and the flow of people seemed never-ending. I’ve gotta say, the sheer amount of people walking past on such a hot day, all in solidarity with one another, was enough to give me chills. Of course, standing there, I had no idea just how historic of an event I was witnessing; I could just tell it meant a lot to a lot of people. There was no cause for complaint toward bus lines being down, traffic jams leaving us at a standstill for more than an hour, trains being packed…because it was just one day. One day of demonstrated commitment to activism. Our pre-departure reading was City of Protest by Anthony Dapiran, and we got to see that city in action.

Of course, not everyone was participating. After standing by the march for a bit, and Mark joining in the march, we decided to break off to get lunch at the Five Guys near us (culturally in-tune, right); the closed streets really made pedestrian travel a breeze on this day. It was an odd feeling, though, walking in to this Five Guys. It was maybe a two minute walk from the heart of the march, but felt like a different world entirely. One side of the park, people voicing their opposition, on another, people eating burgers. I felt my status as a visitor blaring in this moment as I was able to walk away from a fight that wasn’t mine to a lunch that I kind of regretted (really overdid it with the fries). In a sense, I was kind of grateful that our plans for the rest of the day were disrupted as the city’s traffic and movement of all kinds were slowed to complete stops (the heat and big crowds were tricky though, water was our best friend). The entire city served as a reminder to what’s really going on out there; there was no ignoring it. By the end of the day, even though we literally hadn’t done anything except tried and failed with public transport, we were drained.

What’s most interesting to me is my opportunity to see a fight for freedom on multiple fronts. This protest shows that the Hong Kong people are seeking better, but there is another group withing Hong Kong also seeking basic freedoms and rights, albeit with more caution and certainly more difficulty: the foreign domestic workers. How seriously is their front being taken?

But that’s for a future blog post (coming up: my first few days interning at Mission for Migrant Workers).

This doggo doing marching right.

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