By Brendan Niebel*

The current protests and elections in Hong Kong showed how the lack of compromise and police violence promoted by Hong Kong authorities only increased the case for democracy in Hong Kong. Originally, the protests were mainly against the Extradition Bill which would have allowed for the extradition of prisoners in Hong Kong to mainland China, but has now transformed into a fight for democracy. The Hong Kong protesters have five demands: withdrawal of Extradition Bill, an independent probe into police violence used on protesters, amnesty for arrested protesters, halt to categorizing the protests as ‘riots’, and the implementation of universal suffrage [1]. Even as the protesters in Hong Kong damaged the local infrastructure as well as Hong Kong’s reputation as a stable region, their efforts put a spotlight on how the Hong Kong government cracked down on its own people so violently. If the Hong Kong authorities continue the political stonewalling of the five demands of the protesters and use of excessive police violence to quash the protests, then violence in Hong Kong will only be prolonged. As a result, the support for democracy within Hong Kong will only increase, as will international support for the cause.


Hong Kong’s ideological, political, and economic differences were cultivated by their historical experiences with the West. Hong Kong has had a unique relationship with mainland China ever since the British ceded Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China in 1997, under the Basic Law, making it a Special Administrative Region (SAR) [2]. This agreement ensures that Hong Kong would have a degree of autonomy with its own social, economic, and judicial systems for the next 50 years, after which Hong Kong would officially become a part of China and lose its special status. During those 50 years, Hong Kong has its own court of final appeal, a separate judicial jurisdiction, fiscal autonomy, and is able to conduct its own trade relations independently from mainland China [3]. Other advantages include the continuation of market capitalism, which obviously puts it at odds with the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Beijing is already making moves to break down some of the legal and political barriers between mainland China and Hong Kong so that by 2047 the assimilation of Hong Kong into mainland China can go as smoothly as possible [4]. However, 155 years of free market capitalism, Western influence, and autonomy has now made it extremely difficult for mainland China to just remove these privileges without political dissidence from the people of Hong Kong.   


The 2019 protests in Hong Kong were originally driven to stop the Extradition Bill, but have become a full scale political and cultural revolt by the people of Hong Kong. The proposed Extradition Bill would allow for criminals in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China. However, to many in Hong Kong this was seen as an overreach by Beijing. There were fears that the Extradition Bill would lead to Hong Kong citizens being exposed to China’s deeply flawed criminal justice system. In particular, many in Hong Kong fear that journalists, social workers, and human rights lawyers will be put at risk of being imprisoned and sent to mainland China for any number of reasons the CCP sees fit. The impression that is given is that the Chinese government is willing trample Hong Kong’s existing freedoms in the name of security and the expansion of regional influence [5]. Carrie Lam, the first female leader of Hong Kong, originally pushed the bill and ignored the demands of protesters for the first couple of weeks. However, as time went on, the protests became more violent and received more attention from international media. In the beginning of the 2019 demonstrations, the protestors fought against the Extradition Bill, but now these demonstrations have turned into a fight for the preservation of democracy and sovereignty in Hong Kong.


The escalation of violent and extreme methods used by protesters to fight back against the police shows how the protests won’t simply fizzle out, but rather continue into the foreseeable future. On June 12th, tens of thousands gathered outside the Legislative Complex Building in Hong Kong in peaceful protests, but tear gas was still used by police [6]. The next month, on July 21st, hundreds of thousands of people marched in various parts of the city, and when these protests escalated people were shot at directly with tear gas canisters. Protesters have disrupted the everyday functions of the city with large scale protests for months at this point, as well as periodically increasing violence. [7]. For example, on August 5th there was a city-wide strike where 224 flights were cancelled, major subway lines suspended, and key roads blocked. This was the first major move by protesters to disrupt actual major economic functions on the island [8]. Another major disruption caused by the protesters was when they started an initiative they named “Operation Dawn,” where they vowed to continue their strategy of escalating violence and disrupting the working hours of many Hong Kongers where weren’t participating in the protests [9]. By September 15th the protests had entered their 15th week and only showed signs of further escalation [10]. On November 18th, Polytechnic University campus in Hong Kong was literally barricaded by students who were throwing petrol bombs and shooting arrows at riot police and the media.[11]. While an argument could be made that the protesters might not have the stamina to fight the police with the same intensity for an extended period of time, this does not mean that the Hong Kong government is in the clear by any means. 


The Hong Kong police have responded with increasing attempts of violent repression and mass arrests. June 9th was the first large scale protests against the Extradition Bill; approximately one million people took part in a rally in Hong Kong. However, during that protest police used batons and pepper spray on protesters. By August 11th, there were major abuses by police resulting in eye injuries, fractured bones, and other serious injuries. The response from the protesters has been to respond with resistance, and with the same level of intensity. While the police seek to quash the protesters on the ground, it is the politicians and authorities who seek to discredit the protesters in through the media. On October 1st, during China’s National Day, police shot live ammunition into the air when demonstrations were getting out of hand. The next day, on October 2nd, an 18-year-old protester was shot in the chest in Hau Tei Square with a live round from a police officer [12]. After the Hong Kong police stormed the besieged Polytechnic University, 116 people were injured and taken to the hospital and as students fled the university they were being arrested by police [13]. Even after these most recent Hong Kong elections, held on November 24th, the protesters still demand an independent inquiry into police violence and the release of protesters arrested. They show no signs of dropping these demands. 


By intensifying efforts to combat and condemn the protests, the Hong Kong government has only eroded the public’s trust in the functioning of the Hong Kong government and law enforcement. Cheuk Hau-yip, regional commander of Kowloon West district, said that “other than coming out to surrender, I don’t see, at the moment, there is a viable option for them.” [14] As long as Hong Kong authorities continue to attack protesters, they also come across as attacking the pro-democracy sentiments of the protesters. This, coupled with images of mass arrests and police violence, only seems to fuel pro-democracy sentiments and politicians. For example, none of the five demands made by protesters have been discussed, but were rather dismissed. Even the Extradition Bill has been shelved, but not officially withdrawn. Political attacks on the protesters make the case that the Hong Kong government does not take into consideration the views of its people, but rather favor the desires of the CCP. This all resulted in the stunning wins by pro-democracy candidates in Hong Kong’s most recent elections. The elections took place on November 24th and had the highest voter turnout since Hong Kong began holding district council elections in 1999–4 million registered voters. More than half of the 452 seats flipped from pro-Beijing to pro-democracy candidates [15]. At the same time, it seems as if Hong Kong politicians are having to serve “two masters,” the CCP and the people of Hong Kong. For example, Carrie Lam said China wants to protect its “international profile,” but it has no short-term solution for dealing with the pro-democracy protests. Rather, China is deciding to play the long game of assimilating Hong Kong into mainland China through economic incentives. [16]


As the protests grew more violent, the response of Hong Kong police was to quash the protesters on site and arrest as many people as they could. Meanwhile, Hong Kong’s politicians refused to even discuss the five demands raised by the protesters. Both of these fatal missteps by the current Hong Kong government fueled pro-democracy sentiments in the region, as they were seen by many as representing not the desires of the people of Hong Kong, but those of Beijing. This manifested in the stunning results of the recent district council elections, where pro-democracy candidates made significant gains. Police violence on and condemnation of Hong Kong protesters by authorities increased support for the pro-democracy movements as well as influenced the recent elections in Hong Kong. Due to the fact that the long-term political stability and future of Hong Kong has been put into question, the world is uncertain as to how or if this conflict will come to an end.


[1] Lam, Jeffie. “’Five Demands, Not One Less’: Protesters Cold to Carrie Lam’s Bill Withdrawal.” South China Morning Post, September 5, 2019.

[2] Carroll, John M. A Concise History of Hong Kong. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.

[3] Ibid, 223.


[4] Campbell, Matthew. “What Happens to Hong Kong When ‘One Country, Two Systems’ Expires in 2047.” Bloomberg, August 27, 2019.


[5] Hughes, Helier Cheung & Roland. “Why Are There Protests in Hong Kong? All the Context You Need.” BBC News. BBC, September 4, 2019.

[6] “Patterns of Repression: Timeline of the 2019 Hong Kong Protests.” Amnesty International. Amnesty International, October 11, 2019.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Patterns of Repression: Timeline of the 2019 Hong Kong Protests.” Amnesty International. Amnesty International, October 11, 2019. 

[9] Lam, Jeffie. “Hong Kong Protesters Vow to Continue Paralysing Weekday Violence Strategy.” South China Morning Post, November 13, 2019.

[10] ] “Patterns of Repression: Timeline of the 2019 Hong Kong Protests.” Amnesty International. Amnesty International, October 11, 2019.

[11] Wong, Wilson. “Police Surround Occupied Campus after Day of Fierce Clashes with Radicals.” South China Morning Post, November 17, 2019.

[12] “Patterns of Repression: Timeline of the 2019 Hong Kong Protests.” Amnesty International. Amnesty International, October 11, 2019.

[13] “Hong Kong Polytechnic University: Protesters Arrested as They Run from Campus.” BBC News. BBC, November 19, 2019.

 [14] Kuo, Lily, and Michael Safi. “Hong Kong: Police Say Surrender Is Only Option for Protesters.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, November 18, 2019.

[15] Rebecca, K. K. “Hong Kong Election Results Mapped.” The New York Times. The New York Times, November 25, 2019.

[16] Torode, Greg. “Special Report: Hong Kong Leader Says She Would ‘Quit’ If She Could, Fears Her Ability to Resolve Crisis Now ‘Very Limited’.” Reuters. Thomson Reuters, September 3, 2019.

*Disclaimer: The content contained in the following material is the sole ownership of the author and does not reflect the Towson University Journal of International Affairs nor Towson University in any respect whatsoever.