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Hong Kong Protests China's Tightening Grip: An Explainer

2020-05-27 10:32:34
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The protests in Hong Kong this past week have many of the hallmarks of the antigovernment demonstrations last year that came to define the territory’s biggest political crisis in decades. Protesters have tried to target the legislative chambers. They have marched on the streets and waved banners. They have tried to stop traffic.

This year, there is a key difference. The protests are increasingly a direct challenge to China’s ruling Communist Party rather than to the territory’s leadership.

This latest round of demonstrations, the city’s biggest rallies in months, has been fueled largely by the party’s move this month to impose new national security legislation for Hong Kong.

To China, the rules are necessary to protect the country’s national sovereignty. To critics, they further erode the relative autonomy granted to the territory after Britain handed it back to China in 1997.

Here’s a guide to the protests, and why they have returned.

The rules would take direct aim at the antigovernment protests and other dissent in Hong Kong.

They are expected to prevent and punish secession, subversion as well as foreign infiltration — all of which Beijing has blamed for fueling unrest in the city. The legislation would also allow the mainland’s feared security agencies to set up their operations publicly in Hong Kong for the first time, instead of operating on a limited scale in secrecy.

The legislation has evoked fear that the Communist Party is undermining the freedoms that Hong Kong has enjoyed since China reclaimed the region from Britain. The political framework in Hong Kong, known as “one country, two systems,” ensures the right to assembly and an independent judiciary.

Hong Kong’s mini Constitution, the Basic Law, requires the territory to introduce national security legislation. But the government had not dared to do so after an earlier attempt was stymied in 2003 by huge protests.

Now, Beijing is bypassing the Hong Kong government, and the legislation is instead being pushed by China’s rubber-stamp legislature, the National People’s Congress.

Since then, the demonstrations have morphed into a broader movement calling for increased democracy, an investigation into police brutality and greater autonomy from mainland China. At its core, the movement is aimed at protecting Hong Kong’s autonomy and resisting encroachment from the mainland.

What began as peaceful mass rallies in the streets later devolved into intense and often-violent, drawn-out clashes between some protesters and police officers. The most intense of clashes at times transformed large swaths of the global financial hub into fiery urban battlegrounds.

The protests then quietened. For the first few months of this year, fears of the new coronavirus and social distancing orders kept demonstrators indoors.

The emergence of a mysterious virus in the central Chinese city of Wuhan in late December immediately prompted concerns in Hong Kong. Many residents remember the 2002-03 outbreak of severe acute respiratory syndrome, or SARS, which killed nearly 300 residents.

The mobilization by the hospital workers was one of the first signs of how the protest movement had evolved to pose a more organized challenge to the government.

The public widely credits the travel restrictions for keeping the virus out of the territory, which by late May had recorded just over 1,000 cases of the coronavirus and four deaths.

Though the virus appears to have been tamed in Hong Kong, local officials recently announced that they would be extending social distancing orders and that group gatherings with more than eight people in public places would be banned until at least mid-June.

Chinese officials have seized on the unrest to label the protesters “separatists” and “violent terrorists” backed by “meddling foreign forces.” They have said the demonstrations were evidence that national security legislation was urgently needed.

“The troublemakers in Hong Kong cannot be allowed to collude with foreign anti-China forces to impose sanctions on the city and confront China,” Xie Feng, China’s foreign affairs commissioner in Hong Kong, said at a news briefing in May. “The ‘Hong Kong independence’ separatists cannot be left unchecked, and the extremists cannot have a free pass to commit violent terrorist acts.”

Only a few protesters have openly called for Hong Kong’s independence, however, and Chinese officials have so far declined to produce substantive evidence of official foreign involvement in the protests.

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