The Hong Kong Protests Are Becoming More Dangerous — But Activists Aren't Backing Down

Everything you need to know about the protests in Hong Kong

By Jessica Suriano

Tensions are continuing to rise in Hong Kong after months of turmoil.

On October 3, 18-year-old protester Tsang Chi-kin was charged with assault and rioting by the Hong Kong police after he had been shot in the chest by an officer. Hong Kong police commissioner Stephen Lo defended the shooting as “reasonable” and “lawful” because Chi-kin, who had been shot while he swung an iron bar at the officer, did not respond to a verbal warning to back down, Quartz reported.

The shooting came three days before another teenager, whose identity has not yet been made public, was shot in the thigh by a plainclothes Hong Kong police officer. A video of the incident that circulated online showed a group protesters beating and throwing a firebomb at the officer amid the chaos, and medical authorities later confirmed a 14-year-old had been hospitalized after being shot with live ammunition. But even with those developments, on-the-ground news reports say the uprising in Hong Kong does not show signs of losing momentum.

Protests began in June amid fears that recent moves by the People’s Republic of China threatened the people of Hong Kong’s freedoms and autonomy. Since then, both police and protesters have engaged in increasingly violent tactics. Local news reports say violence first began months ago when police in riot gear tried to clear the streets of protesters marching together, resulting in conflict; it’s since become common for police to use tear gas and mass arrests against protestors, whose actions have also escalated to throwing bottle bombs and setting fires to buildings. And as The Guardian reports, over 1,100 people have sought treatment for protest-related injuries at local hospitals.

The protection of anonymity while participating in the protests is also under threat after the Hong Kong government used emergency powers to ban protesters from wearing face masks on October 4, the Hong Kong Free Press reported. (There are exemptions for people who wear masks for professional, religious, or medical reasons.) Protesters have the right to assemble under Hong Kong law, but have taken to wearing masks to conceal their identities for fear that the government will find ways to punish those who participate in the demonstrations. The Hong Kong chief executive defended the ban, hoping that it would “create a deterrent” against the protests and “assist the police in its law enforcement,” according to Quartz. Those who choose to continue demonstrating in masks could go to jail for one year and have to pay a fine of HK$25,000 (about $3,200).

That ban specifically targets the protesters who have been wearing masks to protect their identities from China’s surveillance capabilities; police are still free to mask their identities. One protester told the Washington Post it seemed as if police had “unlimited rights” and that the law was “applied with double standards.”

Here’s what you need to know about the protesters’ list of demands, Hong Kong’s precarious history with China, and why this movement has endured for more than four months.


What is the relationship between Hong Kong and China? 

Hong Kong is a special administrative region of The People’s Republic of China.

In 1984, Britain and China signed a Joint Declaration agreeing that Britain would return Hong Kong to China in 1997, as long as Hong Kong could retain its capitalist economy and separate government for 50 years after the transfer of power, until 2047. While this agreement should have guaranteed Hong Kong its rights to press, assembly, and other freedoms, the Chinese government hasn’t always respected those boundaries of what became known as “one country, two systems.”

Aside from fearing their rights are being jeopardized, Hong Kong citizens have felt China tightening its grip in other ways too. Hong Kong’s election committee of 1,200 people chooses the leader of Hong Kong, known as the chief executive, for a five-year term, but that committee is filled with Beijing elites. In 2014, China proposed that it would grant Hong Kong universal suffrage — one person, one vote — as long as China could vet the people nominated and allowed to run for chief executive, sparking the 2014 Umbrella Revolution. Eventually, the local legislature rejected the proposal. The 1,200-person committee elected the current chief executive, Carrie Lam, in 2017.


Why did the most recent protests start? 

The pro-democracy protests of the past four months are the latest example of resistance by the people of Hong Kong to the Chinese government’s power in the region. The protesters began speaking out  over proposed amendments to an extradition bill that would authorize the chief executive to send people arrested in Hong Kong to another place for their trials, including mainland China.

Many people have expressed fear that these amendments would enable the Chinese government to target any person in Hong Kong and extradite them to China for trial. Such a possibility raises all the more flags given the current regime has a poor track record of protecting human rights.

The Hong Kong government defended its support for the amendments behind a specific case of a Hong Kong man accused of murdering his pregnant girlfriend in Taiwan and stuffing the body in a suitcase before returning home. Hong Kong doesn’t have an extradition treaty with Taiwan, so he couldn’t be forced to face trial in the country where the crime was committed. According to local media, Lam argued the amendments were necessary to fix “loopholes” of Hong Kong’s extradition law.

Protests began as peaceful marches against the extradition bill. But once police began using tear gas on protestors, activists started addressing other issues, such as police accountability and fair political representation. On June 9, more than 1 million people flooded the streets of Hong Kong, marking a tipping point in the process. The legislature was slated to debate the bill on June 12; protesters were reported to be throwing bricks and bottles at police, who responded by using tear gas for the first time. By the end of that week, 2 million people marched in the streets, and the protesters’ list of demands had grown.


What happened to the extradition bill? 

Lam suspended it in June, and formally withdrew it in September. However, protesters believe the bill was the tip of the iceberg of problems Hong Kong needs to solve to retain freedom from China. They have a list of five demands, and the withdrawal of the extradition bill was only one of them, per the Washington Post.

Protestors are also calling for the establishment of an independent commission to investigate police brutality. Accusations of police using excessive force began in June, when crowds of protesters were met with batons and 150 canisters of tear gas. By October 3, it’s estimated police have fired over 3,000 rounds of tear gas at the protests. The recent shootings of protesters have only deepened feelings that police are becoming “trigger-happy.”

Next, the protesters want authorities to stop using the word “riots” to characterize the protests, given that such a classification can lead to a 10-year jail sentence. Many people believe such a categorization is not only an attempt by authorities to control the narrative, but also an attempt to charge arrested protesters with rioting under Hong Kong law.

The third demand is true universal suffrage in Hong Kong elections without China’s condition of retaining the power to choose nominees. Finally, the protesters want police to free arrested protesters and drop the charges against them. As of October 3, more than 2,000 people had been arrested.


Who is leading the protests? 

Hong Kong’s youth have used social media and secure messaging apps to organize gatherings, and in one instance, helped shut down Hong Kong International Airport for an entire day in the name of defiance toward the government.

On September 1, protestors gathered at the airport, which serves more than 70 million people a year, and blocked passengers from boarding their flights. The protesters chose the airport not only because it is an economic source for the Hong Kong government, but also to broadcast their mission on a global stage to a wider audience, CNN said.

The demonstration also shut down most public transportation, so volunteer drivers used the hashtag #backhome on the Telegram messaging app to help protesters leave the scene, the Washington Post reported.

On September 9, thousands of students also held hands and formed human chains around their schools in acts of solidarity, Time reported. The chains were meant to disprove the narrative that they were rioters.

The Atlantic reported that student unions in Hong Kong have always been on the forefront of political activism, and the past few months have been no exception. Someone recently erected a temporary statue at the City University of Hong Kong; the piece shows a female protester in a gas mask and hard hat holding a black revolutionary flag and an umbrella.

Such activism goes beyond symbolism, too. On August 6, police arrested Keith Fong, the president of the Hong Kong Baptist University student union, for possessing laser pointers, according to the New York Times. Police had deemed laser pointers “offensive weapons” because protesters were using them to distract officers. He was later released without charges; the following day, activists gathered near the Hong Kong Space Museum to make their own makeshift laser show with the devices.

Until the protests against the extradition bill started, the teenager shot in the chest by police was not always tuned into the political landscape of Hong Kong, according to interviews the New York Times conducted with his friends. Those interviewed said that Chi-kin started participating more in protests and in online forums about politics around June of this year.


What does the future of the protests look like? 

So far, the movement has been fraught with violence. In one instance, police allegedly fired a beanbag round into a crowd, shooting a woman believed to be a volunteer medic in the eye. Hong Kong police told local news it was investigating the cause of the injury and has not blamed an officer for it. In another incident, a taxi cab driver drove into a crowd of protesters and injured three people so severely that they were hospitalized, CNN reported.

According to Facebook, Twitter, and Google, the Chinese government launched disinformation campaigns about the protests on the platforms too; all three organizations plan to take action to remove them, as reported by Recode. All three platforms are blocked by China’s internet censorship.

The outrage over the recent mask ban seemed to sustain protestors’ animosity toward the Chinese government, and many are still choosing to march in the streets, with their faces covered.

“I'm not sure how many more chances we'll get to fight for freedom,” an 18-year-old protester named Hazel told BBC News. “I don't think it'll have a big impact on the government's stance, but I hope we gain international attention and show the world we won't get used to this evil law.”