“What’s happened here is a disaster. The police shot the students! I can’t believe it’s happening in Hong Kong.”
As anger over a deeply unpopular extradition bill with mainland China erupted into the most serious violence Hong Kong had seen in years, one protester, Hailey Kok, found herself amid clashes between police armed with rubber bullets and beanbag rounds outside the territory’s parliament building.
“My parents came from China, they took a big risk to bring me to Hong Kong and escape the fear,” she told me. “And now what’s happened? Where is the freedom to speak out?”
Five years after the 2014 Umbrella Movement brought parts of the city to a standstill, anger has returned with a vengeance. Back then, it was students who were demonstrating for the right to elect Hong Kong’s leader. This time, it wasn’t just the young teeming the streets.
The protests, which have now been going on for a fortnight, have electrified the city and saw two million marchers all clad in black flood the canyon-like streets of Hong Kong Island on 16 June. That’s almost a third of the population. So overwhelming were the numbers, they killed the bill stone dead. Carrie Lam, the city governor whose determination to ram through the extradition agreement was the catalyst for the protest, has been left with her career hanging by a thread.
The awesome scale of the march did force an apology from Lam, but the marches have now moved beyond the bill to become a wider expression of malaise about life in one of the world’s wealthiest – but also most unequal, expensive and crowded – cities.
The past five years have seen a steady worsening of many of Hong Kong’s deepest-rooted problems – despite an expanding economy, astronomical cash reserves and one of the world’s biggest budget surpluses.
Inequality is at its highest in 45 years. As Hong Kong’s top tycoons pocket (tax-free) billions in dividends, elderly women are dragging stacks of cardboard through the streets to sell for HK50 cents (5p) per kilo. The housing crisis, too, is intensifying. More and more people are being forced into squalid, illegally subdivided flats. With one in five people below the poverty line, many are reduced to living in notorious ‘cage’ homes, enclosed by wire mesh with only room for a single bed.
There has been precious little political will to confront any of this; Asia’s financial capital is at pains not to hurt its reputation as the world’s freest economy. And it has all fuelled the growing impression of Hong Kong as a once futuristic city now stuck in the past.
Its extraordinary post-war boom is now but a memory. Year after year, in e-commerce and the digital economy, it falls further behind the Mainland, which boasts the rise of tech giants and financial markets in Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. It has also been left trailing by Singapore in areas such as fintech.
Hong Kong built its glittering wealth on its unique status as a city which enjoys the rule of law and freedom of speech on the doorstep of the world’s second largest economy – which allows neither. Yet the city’s future expansion is focused on integration with the Mainland, and in particular the fast-growing province of Guangdong which borders Hong Kong. How the tension between integration and independence is resolved will be pivotal.
Beijing, in concert with the Hong Kong government and leader it effectively appointed in 2017, has been cracking down in the years since the Umbrella Movement, as it steps up attempts to integrate ahead of 2047, when the “one country, two systems” agreement expires.
Leaders from 2014 have been jailed, one foreign journalist expelled, pro-democracy lawmakers disqualified and a party advocating independence banned. But combined with the chipping away at the agreement that was designed to guarantee the city’s autonomy for 50 years after its return to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, the extradition bill proved a step too far.
As Tom Lai, a 23-year-old protester told me, “The government is no longer a Hong Kong government, it is a China government. They are not thinking about Hong Kong people.”
This partly explains why, for a society that remains conservative in many aspects, the marches of the past two Sundays have been far more diverse than their 2014 predecessors. The young and the old, students, families, office workers and manual workers, those living in homes they own and those in public housing – this affects them all.
Their activism has been about defending something Hongkongers already have: the supremacy of the common law system, which has underpinned the city’s prosperity and freedom for decades and which stood as a beacon for millions of refugees who fled to the city from the chaos of Mao’s China. That’s why so many hundreds of office workers walking home on the network of high-level walkways spontaneously chanted their support to demonstrators honking car horns on the streets below.
It’s unclear, though, where the movement on the streets of Hong Kong goes from here. Organisers have insisted the marches will continue until Lam steps down, but she would only be replaced by another Beijing apparatchik. Antony Dapiran, a lawyer and author of City of Protest: A Recent History of Dissent in Hong Kong, said all eyes were on the administration of President Xi Jinping, which has repeatedly backed the bill, on how it responds to the current volatile situation.
“There is a feeling that ultimately Beijing decides what happens,” he said. The central government could either react aggressively as it did after 2014, or seek to build bridges as happened after mass protests in 2003 against a proposed national security law.
There is, he adds, “no sign Xi Jinping will back down over exerting control within China’s borders, or even beyond”.
But nor is there any sign that the new generation of protesters is willing to stand down. “It’s the youngest activists, the younger generation who are the future of Hong Kong in the coming decades, who have shown themselves to be the angriest and the most radical,” Dapiran said.
“They have a huge appetite for change, and no trust in Beijing.”
With the Communisty party fixating on national sovereignty, unity and control and a new cohort of Hongkongers resisting, who knows how far either side will go. As Lai told me last week: “We will still fight. This is Hong Kong, this is my home. We must protect it.”