As dramatic images of tear gas being fired at protesters in Hong Kong campaigning against a controversial China extradition bill were beamed around the globe this week, it seemed that a city best known for its financial markets was fast gaining a reputation for its political protest culture.
Protest leaders have since announced plans to hold a another protest on Sunday afternoon. But to those who live in the city this isn’t anything new.
In the words of former governor Chris Patten, Hong Kong is a city of “liberty without democracy.” Hongkongers are not able fully to elect their own government and the city’s leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, is granted a mandate not from the general populace but from the 1,200 business leaders, professionals and other elites who form the “election committee” that elected her.
Yet, Hongkongers do enjoy freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. This last freedom, in particular, Hongkongers exercise frequently, with vigor and, sometimes, to the effect of political change.
Some of the biggest protest movements in Hong Kong’s recent history share a common theme: The desire to safeguard Hong Kong’s unique identity. The issues that threaten to impinge upon that identity – whether by curtailing the precious rights and freedoms the city enjoys or chipping away at its cultural heritage – provoke the most visceral reactions from Hongkongers.
There is no reason to expect that will change.
The Star Ferry and Leftist riots (1966-67)
In 1966, a proposal to increase fares on the Star Ferry – then, one of the only ways to cross the harbor between Hong Kong Island and the Kowloon Peninsula – led to public outcry. One young protester, So Sau-chung, began a hunger strike at the Star Ferry Pier in Central. His arrest led to four days of rioting, looting and arson, which was brutally put-down by the colonial British police force.
The following year, a strike by workers at the Hong Kong Artificial Flower Company triggered labor unrest that spread across the territory, with the support of the Chinese Communist Party-affiliated Federation of Trade Unions. As the protesters turned their focus from labor rights to the British Imperialist administration, strikes and work stoppages brought the territory to a standstill.
This was followed by a campaign of terrorist bombings across Hong Kong and pitched battles between protesters and police. Fifty-one died throughout the turmoil, including 10 police officers.
In the wake of the 1966-67 protests, the British administration introduced a series of reforms to improve workers’ rights as well as social welfare in Hong Kong. New public housing programs, compulsory free education and deeper government engagement at the local community level were all the result of government attempts to temper the discontent in Hong Kong that had fueled the protests.
June 4 vigils (1989 onwards)
The Sino-British Joint Declaration on the Question of Hong Kong was signed in December of 1984. With Hong Kong’s fate decided, preparations began for the “handover” of Hong Kong from Britain to China on 1 July 1997.
In the spring of 1989, however, the world was captivated by student pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square. Hongkongers, anxious about their future under Beijing’s rule, watched intently, many providing financial support to the students. On Sunday May 21, 1989, the day after martial law was declared in Beijing, over 600,000 Hongkongers took to the streets to express solidarity with the Beijing protesters.
The following Sunday, May 28, with rumors swirling of an imminent military crackdown in Beijing, 1.5 million people marched in Hong Kong – part of a worldwide day of protest. Hongkongers watched the events of the following weekend, June 3 and 4, with one thought in their minds: “That could be us.”
Every year since, Hong Kong has hosted a vigil on June 4 to commemorate the Tiananmen Square protests. In recent years the vigils have become an outlet to express anxiety about the state of Hong Kong and its future. This year, on the 30th anniversary of 1989 and with the government’s extradition bill looming, tens of thousands of people attended.
Opposing Article 23 (2003)
The years immediately after 1997’s handover were challenging for Hong Kong: the Asian Financial Crisis from 1997 to 1998 prompted a collapse in the Hang Seng Index and Hong Kong’s property market – both took years to recover. The global economic slowdown following the burst of the dotcom bubble and September 11 attacks took their toll, and the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (“SARS”) epidemic killed hundreds in Hong Kong, devastating the economy.
By 2003, unemployment was high and discontent with the first post-handover leader Chief Executive Tung Chee-Hwa was simmering. The government’s proposal to pass a law criminalizing acts of sedition and subversion against mainland China – referred to as “Article 23” – was the last straw.
On 1 July, over 500,000 marched to demand the Article 23 law be withdrawn and that Tung step down. The protest was successful. The legislation was withdrawn and, after another large demonstration the next year, Tung resigned.
Save Star Ferry and Queens’ Pier (2006)
In the early 2000s, the Hong Kong government began an ambitious land reclamation project on Hong Kong Island to create acres of new waterfront land, underground bypasses and to expand the subway system. The project necessitated the demolition of the existing Star Ferry and Queen’s Piers.
Built in 1957, the Star Ferry Pier was a gem of mid-century modernist architecture and its iconic Bauhaus-style clock tower was a central landmark. Many Hongkongers had a sentimental attachment to the old ferry pier. Queen’s Pier, meanwhile, had been used by visiting dignitaries to Hong Kong, including Queen Elizabeth II and Princess Diana.
The piers were considered important heritage sites.
Protesters led by young activists marched against the destruction of the landmarks, camping at the site and attempting to block demolition crews. Hong Kong’s current chief executive, Carrie Lam, at the time the recently-appointed secretary for development, played a notable role, attending the Queen’s Pier site to debate the government’s position with protesters.
Ultimately, however, development prevailed over heritage, the protesters were cleared and the piers removed. While the Star Ferry Pier was sent to landfill, Queen’s Pier remains in pieces in a government warehouse, allegedly awaiting reconstruction.
Wedding Card Street (2007)
In 2003, Hong Kong authorities announced a major redevelopment of the Lee Tung Street area in Wan Chai, also known as “Wedding Card Street” thanks to the traditional wedding invitation printers located in the shopfronts.
The old tenement buildings were to be bulldozed and turned into a mixed-use, high-end retail and residential complex.
The plan immediately drew criticism from heritage activists who were concerned with keeping the traditional character of the area and preserving the social networks of the neighborhood and its residents, thousands of whom would be displaced by the scheme.
Activists initially tried to work within the system, appealing to government committees. But after their proposals were rejected, the activists protested, again attempting to block workers from demolishing the site. Their protest was ultimately unsuccessful – The Avenue, a luxury residential and commercial development, stands today on the site of the former Wedding Card Street.
Anti-Moral and National Education Protest (2011)
In May 2011, Hong Kong’s Curriculum Development Council recommended that a compulsory “Moral and National Education” civics course be introduced into all Hong Kong schools. It was seen as a response to comments from China’s senior leaders that Hong Kong youth should be taught to better “love the motherland.”
The proposed curriculum, released in July 2012 and entitled “The China Model,” caused alarm. Parents, teachers and students were outraged at what they saw as biased, inaccurate information about mainland China and sycophantic praise of the central government. The curriculum was, they argued, akin to “brainwashing.”
In July 2011, 90,000 people marched outside the government headquarters where the protesters settled in for an extended occupation, with concerts and rallies over the following months. In September, as the new school year approached, a public protest of 120,000 people ensued.
Eventually, the government relented and the National Education subject was withdrawn. This was the second time in recent history that a protest movement in Hong Kong had won a major reversal from the government.
The Umbrella Movement (2014)
In 2014, a government plan to introduce constitutional reforms that would, for the first time, permit general elections for the chief executive position were highly anticipated.
Current chief executive, Carrie Lam, was then Hong Kong’s most senior civil servant, as chief secretary for administration, and led the task force that spearheaded the proposals.
When those final proposals fell short of the pro-democracy camp’s expectations – the reforms would permit only a limited number of candidates who had been pre-approved by a small-circle “nomination committee” to run in the election – a group calling themselves “Occupy Central for Love and Peace,” announced a sit-in in Hong Kong’s Central business district, inspired by the “Occupy Wall Street” movement.
Before that, students led by Joshua Wong’s Scholarism and an alliance of university student unions, began protests outside the government headquarters.
The two protests decided to join forces and thousands descended on the site, overwhelming police and occupying the roads. Police fired tear gas in a failed attempt to disperse the crowds, stoking popular anger and attracting even more protesters.
This developed into the “Umbrella Movement,” named after the umbrellas protesters used to protect themselves from police pepper spray and tear gas. Protesters blockaded key thoroughfares and occupied the streets in the city for 79 days.
This time, however, the government refused to budge. Their only attempt at public engagement came when a delegation of student leaders participated in a live, televised debate with a group of senior government officials, led again by Lam.
Ultimately, the proposals were voted down by the pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong’s legislature and Hong Kong’s electoral system remains unchanged.