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Making sense of the Hong Kong protests

Published 13 Sep 2019
Ben Taylor
Sarah Teitt

International media is alight with stories of peaceful protests, violent riots, police brutality and vandalism in Hong Kong. The turmoil there has captured the attention of many and produced a broad array of perspectives on the complex situation. Dr Sarah Teitt, of the University of Queensland, addressed AIIA Queensland on August 13 to help us to cut through the noise and better understand the political and historical context of the protests.

The beginning of Hong Kong’s ongoing unrest is attributed to February’s proposed extradition Bill ⁠— a piece of legislation that some speculate could be used to expose Hong Kong’s citizens to mainland China’s justice system. Dr Teitt points out that this only tells half the story and that the intensity of the protests stands as a testament to the depth of frustration felt over Hong Kong’s perceived political trajectory. It is frustration born of dwindling prospects of a democratic future and the ever-present encroachment of Beijing’s involvement in domestic affairs.

The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region, which was ceded by the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China in 1997, operates under Hong Kong Basic Law. This is, in practice, the semi-autonomous region’s “mini-constitution’’. Under the “one country, two systems” principle, this authorises independent judicial, economic and political systems. A combination of capitalism, independent trade and immigration policies have seen the region prosper but the spectre of authoritarianism brings context to its cycle of unrest, government overreach and subsequent détente.

The Umbrella Movement of 2014 came about from dashed promises of universal suffrage and greater autonomy as Hong Kong faced the newly consolidated regime of Xi Jinping. Since then, Beijing’s apparent policy shift has seen a clamping down on the region’s liberal underpinnings. From the centralisation of the appointment of lawmakers and imprisonment of activists to the criminalisation of disrespect for the national anthem and barring of political parties on “preventative’’ security grounds, the shift is perceived as a “steady chipping away of [Hong Kong’s] autonomy’’.

This frames the speed with which the intensity of the protests has grown since the release of the extradition Bill, an escalation which, in response to government inaction, has been “driven to a sense of desperation and violence’’. This culminated in the July 1 ransacking of Hong Kong’s legislature which saw the building inscribed with politically charged graffiti, reading: “You taught me that peaceful protest was futile”.

Counter demonstrations have also stoked the fires, prompting speculation over the involvement of many triad-linked counter-protesters. The People’s Liberation Army has conducted some posturing, however Beijing appears to weigh highly the detrimental political costs of any potential Tiananmen-style incident.

Presently, the political situation is at an impasse. Beijing’s wants, as Dr Teitt highlights, are not short-term aims. They hinge on the introduction of patriotic education and on the approach to Hong Kong’s socio-economic development. The protesters call for an independent investigation of police conduct and a revision of Ms Lam’s June labelling of the protestors as “rioters’’. This is an important difference of terms with significant cultural and legal implications in China.

Dr Teitt diligently identified the pro-establishment perspective toward the protests which have indeed included violence and vandalism. This position, she claims, is underlined by a sense of paranoia that concessions made or tolerance shown toward the protesters will open a pandora’s box for China. Moreover, Dr Teitt posits that Hong Kong stands as the “last vestige of (China’s) century of humiliation’’. The unrest is perceived as “not just a threat to the law but an open and symbolic attack’’ on Beijing’s very understanding of its own national narrative.

Members of AIIA Queensland came out in droves to attend Dr Teitt’s concise and even-handed assessment of the political and historical context to the Hong Kong protests. The popularity of the talk is a tribute to both the importance of the issue, the curiosity of the AIIA audience and to the criticality of the speaker’s analysis. The upcoming anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China on October 1 will undoubtedly place the already tense situation under immense pressure. Dr Teitt warns that this is a date that conflict analysts, the world over, will have saved in their diary.