Daily protests in Hong Kong have been going on for more than two months, leading a top Chinese official to declare that the city is experiencing its worst crisis since the former British colony returned to China in 1997.
Here is what you should know about Hong Kong and the recent pro-democracy demonstrations:
1. Hong Kong is a territory located on the south coast of China. The land is comprised of a peninsula and more than 200 small islands. Although Hong Kong is roughly the size of San Antonio, Texas (426 sq. mi.), it has four and a half times as many people (7 million), making it one of the most populous areas on Earth.
2. Hong Kong was a territory of China when the British Empire seized part of it during the First Opium War in 1842. In 1898 the Chinese government leased the rest of Hong Kong (known as the New Territories) to the British for 99 years. Under British control, Hong Kong became a flourishing economic region. Today, it’s one of the world’s leading financial centers, behind only New York and London.
3. Before the lease expired and the territory returned to China on July 1, 1997, the British negotiated a “one country, two systems” agreement. As the BBC notes, this meant that while becoming part of one country with China, Hong Kong would enjoy “a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defense affairs” for 50 years. As a result, Hong Kong has its own legal system and borders, and rights including freedom of assembly and free speech are protected.
4. While Hong Kong has managed to retain most of the freedoms guaranteed by the British agreement, the Chinese government has recently begun encroaching on the rights of people in the area. This has created tension with people who already distance themselves from mainland China. Only 11 percent of the people in the territory identify as “Chinese” (most identify themselves as “Hong Kongers”), and over two-thirds (71 percent) say they do not feel proud about being Chinese citizens.
5. In 2014, students in Hong Kong launched a series of sit-in street protests, often called the Umbrella Revolution. That protest began after the legislature issued a decision regarding proposed reforms to the Hong Kong electoral system that were seen as giving the Chinese Communist Party pre-approval of the candidates for the chief executive of Hong Kong. The 79-day protest ended without resolution and is considered a precursor to the latest demonstrations.
6. The latest protest was sparked on the last day of March after the government of Hong Kong proposed the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill. The legislation would allow the Hong Kong government to detain and transfer people wanted in countries and territories with which it has no formal extradition agreements, including Taiwan and the Chinese mainland. Human rights activists worry that dissenters and critics of the Chinese regime could be extradited to a location where they might be subjected to abuse and torture.
7. Christians comprise only about 11 percent of the population of Hong Kong. Yet as the New York Times observes, “Hong Kong’s Christians have long played an important role in the politics of the semiautonomous Chinese territory, on issues like religious freedom, democracy and human rights.” Christians have participated in the protests as well as provided food and shelter at demonstrations. “Many protesters, even those who are not religious, have embraced the teachings and messages of Christianity to denounce a proposed law to allow extraditions to mainland China,” reports the Times.
8. Christians in the country have joined the protest because they believe the Chinese government could use the extradition measure to impose restrictions on religious freedom that are found on the mainland. A number of Hong Kong’s top human rights dissidents are Christians, and the hymn “Sing Hallelujah to the Lord” has become the unofficial protest anthem.
Joshua Young, one of the city’s most prominent young political activists, told the New York Times that “some Christians, including me, are afraid that if the extradition bill is passed, it could affect freedom of religion in Hong Kong and freedom of religious activities.”
9. Although the extradition bill has been suspended, protestors worry that it could be resurrected. Demonstrators are demanding a permanent withdrawal of the bill, the resignation of the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, investigation of claims that the police used excessive force, and amnesty for those arrested during the protests. The activists have also begun calling for direct elections to choose legislative council members and the chief executive in the future.
10. During the latest phase of the protests (starting around August 5), protesters waged a major citywide general strike. They also disrupted the transportation network by barricading roads and paralyzing train lines. Hong Kong International Airport was also affected as ground staff, maintenance workers, and air traffic controllers refused to show up for work. In response, the police have escalated the confrontation with protestors by firing 800 rounds of tear gas in one day—almost as many as the 1,000 rounds they fired in the previous two months—and discharging 140 rubber bullets in the crowds. Authorities also arrested 148 people, consisting of 95 males and 53 females aged between 13 and 63 years old.