Unmasking the Hong Kong Riots

Samantha Liu ‘22

For four months now, protests peaceful and violent have wracked Hong Kong in reaction to the Chinese government’s extradition bill. The first instance was a peaceful march on June 9th rejecting the bill. But just three days later, demonstrations turned barbaric as protestors surrounded the legislative building and attacked police officers, who retaliated with pepper spray, tear gas, and batons. The largest march in Hong Kong history occurred on June 16th, with two million protestors taking to the streets. Within two months, the region faced some of its most severe riots as a subversive group launched a full-out assault on the Legislative Council. Smashing windows with bricks, they went on to destroy the property: one graffiti image read, “It was the government who taught us that peaceful protest is useless.”

On September 4th, in response to the Legislative Building mob, Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam gave in and announced the withdrawal of the bill. She pledged her support to the people for whom Hong Kong had become “an unfamiliar place.” Still, her declaration was met with mostly skepticism. Protestors doubting the genuineness of her loyalties have found new grounds of contention: the demanding of amnesty for the arrested, investigation of police brutality, and even free elections for Hong Kong. 

The proposed bill gives the Communist party jurisdiction over certain Hong Kong criminal suspects.  For the mainland, it is a mechanism to bring justice to people wanted in countries that do not have a formal extradition agreement with the city. China Communist Party Vice Premier Han Zheng asserts that the measures are beneficial to Hong Kong, preventing it from becoming a “haven for fugitives.” 

However, for Hong Kong, the bill represents a breach of its democracy, forcing it to surrender dissidents to the notably Communist court system. Activist organizations like Amnesty International fear Beijing’s past violations of rights to a fair trial, finding instances of torture and arbitrary arrest. Hong Kong business professionals and groups also believe Beijing will abuse this law and seize fugitives on its own political agenda. The bill represents the increasingly authoritarian tendencies of President Xi Jinping as he encroaches on the territory’s free court and news, especially ominous when put in context with the recent abductions by mainland security forces: in 2015, five Hong Kong prominent journalists, who published banned political scandal stories about Chinese leaders, were taken into custody by mainland officials. Two years later, billionaire Xiao Jianhua was escorted out of a Hong Kong hotel in a wheelchair with his head covered. China’s ministries have refused to comment on the case, yet Xiao, who built his fortune from dealings with Communist leaders including President Xi himself, has not been seen since. Taken together, the picture that unfolds is chilling.

Thus, even after the withdrawal, rallies continued to sweep Lam’s streets. Hundreds banded together around the legislature building to hold a “people’s press conference” and threatened to continue until all their demands were met. The police have resorted to teargas and rubber bullets while rioters responded with handmade bombs. Scenes of chaos emerged at shopping malls, subway stations, and even bystanders have been caught in the crossfire. In a “kill or be killed” mentality, when protestors set fire to a subway station in Yuen Long, police commanders reckoned with whether the situation called for live ammunition. 

A large part of the issue lies in the hand of Chief Executive Lam. Put in power by Beijing, she has been contested repeatedly as her citizens demand free elections amidst the discriminatory election committee mostly comprised of elites loyal to Beijing. Her most recent act sparked controversy when she invoked the Emergency Regulations Ordinance to prohibit masks at public gatherings, allowing police to arrest anyone wearing one of these masks in a public rally. This applies to the trademark black face masks worn by protestors, as well as the gas masks they use to protect themselves. The obvious rationale was twofold: one, to demoralize protestors with a new threat of arrest; two, to strengthen police authority in quelling protests. 

Her ruling was met with significant backlash. Some dissidents argued the unethical principles of the Emergency Regulation Ordinance, which grants Lam virtually unlimited power. Some believe it further foreshadows China’s encroachment on their public liberties and life. Others find it simply ineffective, only inciting more conflict while jeopardizing the safety of protestors. Regardless, the new law has brought Hong Kong to a crossroads: what comes next for Lam, along with her people, may very well decide the fate of Hong Kong as it remains a Chinese territory. 


[1] https://www.cnn.com/2019/09/22/asia/hong-kong-protest-violence-intl-hnk/index.html

[2] https://www.scmp.com/comment/letters/article/3031849/hong-kong-protests-carrie-lams-face-mask-ban-has-only-added-fuel

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/world/asia/hong-kong-protests-arc.html?searchResultPosition=2

[4] https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/09/world/asia/hong-kong-extradition-protest.html