In Hong Kong, people have most of the freedoms of a democracy except the right to choose their leaders. The city’s last British governor, Chris Patten, described it as a place that enjoyed “liberty without democracy”.
That has made protests particularly important as a political tool and an expression of Hong Kong identity. For more than half a century, the people of Hong Kong have been taking to the streets to force distant authorities – first in Britain and later in Beijing – to reconsider how they govern the city. This week’s mass demonstrations, over plans for a new extradition law that would allow suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial, is part of that long tradition. And many say they are demonstrating precisely to protect it.
“If this bill passes, we won’t have the right to protest any more. It’s a key part of Hong Kong culture,” said Jason Fong, 19, who has joined the demonstrations with his high school friends.
According to Antony Dapiran, author of City of Protest, a history of dissent in the territory, the first major demonstrations in modern Hong Kong came in 1966 and 1967. People took to the streets initially over a planned hike to the price of ferry tickets between Hong Kong island and the mainland, but “the Star Ferry riots” led to broader protests about labour rights and living conditions.
In 1967, more demonstrations turned violent on both sides, with protesters using homemade bombs and the police harsh crowd-control tactics. Dozens were killed in the worst protest bloodshed the city has ever seen, but the demonstrations had a huge impact on the lives of ordinary Hong Kong residents. “The colonial administration of the time realised they had to start paying more attention to the welfare of the local population,” Dapiran said. “It instituted various reforms including housing, compulsory education and labour rights.”
In the 1970s, protests against a corrupt police chief brought government action on graft. At the end of the 1980s, the Chinese government’s brutal crackdown on protesters in Tiananmen Square made Hong Kong’s right to protest seem even more important.
Memorial gatherings each year still draw large crowds, particularly for milestones such as this year’s 30th anniversary. “It’s the only place in China territory where it is commemorated on a large scale, and that in itself is interesting and important,” Dapiran said.
“Originally the reason for the [demonstration] was to protest for democracy in China. Now it is more to commemorate and bear witness, and as an expression of Hong Kong identity, that we as Hong Kongers are different and going to exercise this right.”
After Hong Kong was handed back to Chinese rule in 1997, with promises that it would be self-governing under a mechanism known as “one country, two systems”, protests have increasingly focused on protecting Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms. Taking to the streets is perhaps particularly important in a city where people have few other outlets for political frustration and grievances. Although there are elections for some seats in the legislature, the system is weighted so people can never choose their own leader.
One of the most effective protest movements after the handover to Chinese rule was the 2003 campaign against article 23, a national security law to ban treason, secession, sedition and subversion.
Pro-democracy lawmakers and their supporters said it would destroy the territory’s rights and freedoms, and more than half a million people took to the streets to oppose it. Authorities were forced to shelve it indefinitely, and the debacle badly damaged the authority of the first post-handover leader of Hong Kong, Tung Chee-hwa.
In 2012, protesters forced the government to make a U-turn over plans to bring in a compulsory national curriculum, which opponents criticised as brainwashing. Those demonstrations helped forge new leaders including the schoolboy activist Joshua Wong, but they may also have alarmed authorities in Beijing.
As President Xi Jinping tightened control of Chinese society, cracking down on campaigners and presiding over widely criticised mass detentions and surveillance in western Xinjiang, Hong Kong authorities have also taken a stronger line on dissent.
The 2014 umbrella protests calling for genuine democracy in the colony were firmly crushed, albeit after more than two months, and prominent leaders and organisers were pursued through the courts.
“Beijing wouldn’t want Hong Kongers to get into the habit of thinking they can get results from protests,” said Dapiran.
Despite the determination of protesters stockpiling supplies on Thursday in preparation for more demonstrations, few analysts expect the government to bow to the crowds over the new extradition law.
“The Hong Kong government seems intent to ramp up rather than back down in its efforts to undermine the city’s autonomy in face of huge public protests,” said Human Rights Watch’s senior China researcher Maya Wang.