The first demonstration against the Hong Kong government’s plan to amend the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance in order to legalise extradition to China took place on 31 March; 12,000 demonstrators turned out. The second occurred on April 28; 130,000 demonstrators participated. This was already the largest demonstration in Hong Kong since the 2014 Umbrella Movement, but it wasn’t until the demonstrations of June that the matter began to draw international attention and pitch the Hong Kong government and Communist Party control over Hong Kong into crisis.
While the immediate precipitator of the crisis was the extradition bill, from 16 June onwards demonstrators have had anywhere from three to five other specific demands (the resignation of the Chief Executive, that the government and police stop referring the 12 June demonstration as a “riot”, that demonstrators not be prosecuted, that the Chief Executive establish an independent commission of inquiry to investigate policing of the protests and the government’s handling of the extradition bill, and that genuine universal suffrage be implemented in elections for the Chief Executive and Legislative Council). Underlying the demonstrations is the Hong Kong people’s deep dissatisfaction with Communist Party rule and scepticism about any kind of future worth wishing for under it. It’s safe to say that if the Communist Party had granted genuine universal suffrage to Hong Kong in 2014 and 2015, as it is required to do by Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, and by international law, the current anti-extradition protests never would have occurred. The Communist Party and Hong Kong government’s attempt to foist extradition to China upon the people of Hong Kong was simply the tipping point. Frustrations have been building over the past five years. These frustrations have been documented in my articles on Medium and in Hong Kong Free Press and in my book published in March 2019, As Long as There Is Resistance There Is Hope: Essays on the Hong Kong Freedom Struggle in the post-Umbrella Movement Era, 2014–2018.
Never has Communist Party rule over Hong Kong been so challenged, not even during the Umbrella Movement. Hong Kong is coming to a breaking point. While governments in the rest of the world continue to recite like a mantra that all sides must abide by the “one country, two systems” formula, both the Communist Party and Hong Kong people know that “one country, two systems” is already dead, especially as far as the relationship between the Communist Party and Hong Kong government is concerned. What is happening now is a struggle over what is to replace it, with the Communist Party attempting to impose greater control and promote greater assimilation with the rest of the territory under its rule and Hong Kong’s people fighting for self-determination.
Of the 42 demonstrations in Hong Kong between 31 March and 8 August related to the extradition bill, four have been marches organised by the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF); 1.3 million, 2 million, 550,000 and 430,000 people turned out for those marches, and one was a rally organised by CHRF in which 80,000 demonstrators participated. The other demonstrations were organised by various groups, including young people, lawyers, mothers, hunger strikers, journalists, social workers, aviation workers, old people, medical workers and civil servants.
In all, 5,778,621 demonstrators have participated in the demonstrations. These numbers are the reported crowd counts by organisers. Note that I use the term “demonstrators” rather than “people”. Of course, many people have attended multiple demonstrations, but each time a person attends a demonstration, she is counted as one demonstrator. The Hong Kong population is currently 7,392,000 million; 5,778,621 is 72 percent of the Hong Kong population. That does not mean that 72 percent of Hong Kong people have participated in the demonstrations, but it does give a sense of the demonstrations’ enormous scale. To estimate the proportion of the Hong Kong population that has participated, take the 2-million-person march of 16 June as the baseline. That’s 27 percent of the Hong Kong population. So, at a minimum, that percentage has participated. The maximum would be 72 percent, but since it can be safely assumed that many people have participated in multiple demonstrations, the percentage of Hong Kong people who have participated can’t be that high. I think it’s safe to assume that somewhere between 30 and 45 percent of Hong Kong people have participated, though the percentage could be higher.
The 2–million-person march was probably one of the largest single-day demonstrations anywhere in the world ever, and certainly one of the biggest as a percentage of the population. As a whole, it would be hard to find participation rates as high as those in the anti-extradition marches over the period of time — thus far, nine weeks — that they have lasted.
Between 9 June and 1 July, CHRF-organised demonstrations alternated with those organised online, by mostly young demonstrators. The CHRF demonstrations were entirely peaceful and attended by wide swathes of Hong Kong society. The demonstrations organised by young demonstrators tended to be more confrontational and aggressive. Since 1 July, CHRF has organised one demonstration, on 21 July. All demonstrations since 1 July besides that one have been organised by a variety of other groups and individuals. There have been mass marches in Kowloon, Shatin and Yuen Long, the largest ever in both of those locations, and smaller demonstrations in Tuen Mun and Sheung Shui.
It is worth noting that more demonstrators (4,497,621) have participated since Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced on 15 June that she was “suspending” the extradition bill than before (1,281,000). Also, as of the Mong Kok march of 3 August, the number of demonstrators since the 2-million-person march on 16 June has surpassed 2 million.
My work on the Umbrella Movement, resulting in the book Umbrella: A Political Tale from Hong Kong, convinced me that tracking the arrests and prosecutions of demonstrators is essential to holding the government and police accountable. This is perhaps even more the case with the anti-extradition protests.
On the one hand, ever since the police used overwhelming, disproportionate and excessive force to clear 100,000 demonstrators (almost all of whom, with the exception of a few hundred, were entirely peaceful), people from across Hong Kong have been calling for an independent commission of inquiry into policing. Similar calls were made in regard to policing of the Umbrella Movement, in particular the eight-hour-long tear gas attacks of 28 September 2014 that triggered it, and in regard to the clashes between police and protesters in Mong Kok in February 2018, the most violent since the 1960s. In both cases, government and police refused. That’s how we got to 12 June, when police apparently acted in full confidence of complete impunity.
On the other hand, the Hong Kong government and police have at various points labelled demonstrators “rioters” and threatened “hundreds of arrests”, especially in regard to the Legislative Council break-in of 1 July.
There is simply no way to reconcile these diametrically opposed views of police and demonstrators. The arrests are, among other things, political acts meant to impose the government and police views of the demonstrations. Both demonstrators and the government and police invoke the “rule of law”.
The question, from demonstrators’ point of view, is how we can really speak of the “rule of law” in a context in which the government itself is literally illegal because it was not elected according to the principles of genuine universal suffrage, as required by both the Basic Law and international law.
In such a context, in which the Communist Party and Hong Kong government refuse to abide by the law, how can Hong Kong people get their basic rights? The principle of the Umbrella Movement was nonviolent civil disobedience. While the movement defeated the Communist Party’s fake suffrage plan, it didn’t bring about genuine suffrage. Over 1,000 demonstrators were arrested, over 250 were prosecuted, and some 120 were convicted. Four are currently serving prison sentences. This background may help to explain why, up to now, the millions who have marched peacefully have for the most part been supportive of and sympathetic with the mostly young demonstrators who have been more confrontational and aggressive in their actions and tactics, and why many believe the government and police will use arrests politically to avoid accountability and avoid addressing the underlying issues of governance and policing that are the root causes of the mass uprisings of the Umbrella Movement and anti-extradition campaign.
There have been fewer arrests during the current protests than during the Umbrella Movement, but the number is quickly growing. In the Umbrella Movement, there were a little over 1,000 arrests in 79 days. In the current protests, there have been 443 in 60 days, but 361 of those arrests have occurred since 14 July, and 148 were arrested on 5 August alone. After 1 July, the Hong Kong government and police came out aggressively, saying they would pursue those who broke into the Legislative Council and hold them legally accountable. They spoke of “hundreds of arrests”. This was part of a propaganda ploy to shift the narrative. When they failed to do this and most people continued to support the young demonstrators, they decided to hold off on mass arrests for the time being, but that prospect still very much hangs over the movement. Since 1 July, there has been one single arrest related to the Legislative Council break-in, and there have been 17 after-the-incident arrests. That is to say, the vast majority of arrests have been on-site, not a result of post-event investigation.
On 28 July, police arrested 49 people in Sheung Wan. On 31 July, 45 of them were brought before the court. Forty-four were charged with rioting and one with illegal possession of an offensive weapon. This has substantively changed the situation. Before 31 July, only one of the 199 so far arrested had been formally charged with a crime. Not only that, but rioting is a serious and controversial crime, with a maximum sentence of ten years in prison. The average sentence for those convicted of rioting in relation to the Mong Kok police-protester clashes of February 2016 was three years, with a few getting sentences as heavy as six and seven years. The Hong Kong government has charged the 44 with rioting, in direct defiance of two of the protesters’ demands to not prosecute protesters and to stop labelling protests “riots”, and in doing so, is doubling down on a strategy ordered by the Communist Party: to insist on a narrative of the protests as only about ‘law and order’ and to refuse outright to even so much as entertain or engage substantively with any of the protesters’ demands. The decision to prosecute 44 on rioting charges is blatantly political. Prosecutors in the Department of Justice sent the Secretary for Justice an extraordinary letter (never before in Hong Kong have public prosecutors publicly accused their boss) saying that she has made prosecution decisions based on political factors. Instead of ordering an independent commission of inquiry into policing or the government’s handling of the extradition crisis, instead of looking into the triad attacks in Yuen Long that left 45 members of the public hospitalised, instead of accepting any kind of responsibility or accountability for the political and governance crisis through resignations of secretaries, the police commissioner or any top leaders, the government, under the orders of the Communist Party, is trying to push the story that this is all about “violent rioters”.
On 5 August, the day of the general strike, the Hong Kong government held a press conference in which it adopted a stern tone towards demonstrators and voiced full support of police. This appears to have coincided with an even more aggressive policy regarding arrests. That day, 148 were arrested, nearly triple the highest number of arrests in a single day up to that point.
Kong Tsung-gan is the author of Umbrella: A Political Tale from Hong Kong and As Long as There Is Resistance, There Is Hope. A version of this article appeared on Medium, under the title “Hong Kong Anti-extradition Demonstrations and Arrests”.