By Maya Wang
Three years ago today Hong Kong’s longest-running pro-democracy protest began. That today the students who led the peaceful protests are in jail, while the conduct of pro-Beijing protesters and Hong Kong police went largely unexamined, says a lot about the city’s erosion of autonomy.
In these past three years, mainland and Hong Kong police operations in the territory have become more, not less, murky. Hong Kong media and activists have repeatedly flagged opaque operations carried out by China’s notoriously abusive police, including intimidating pro-democracy figures and abducting a billionaire and a bookseller. During President Xi Jinping’s visit in July, the Hong Kong government cordoned off large swaths of its iconic waterfront, after the small pro-independence Hong Kong National Party declared that it would hold a rally there. The official reason for this unusual closure? For “maintenance” – a clumsy excuse at hiding political censorship.
Beijing has also become more, not less, hardline on Hong Kong. Amid growing concerns over the territory’s autonomy under the “One Country, Two Systems” agreement, the chief legal officer at the China Liaison Office in Hong Kong said in April that this constitutional arrangement could be scrapped altogether if the city “fails to actively defend” the sovereignty and national security of China. During Xi’s July visit, he did nothing to address Hong Kong people’s grievances by meeting people across the political divide. Instead, he inspected a parade of the People’s Liberation Army, beaming a message of military might across the city.
But people in Hong Kong continue to demand their rights. After the Umbrella Movement ended, there was a large turnout to vote for Hong Kong’s semi-democratic legislature in 2016. When the Hong Kong government got a court to impose a more serious sentence than a lower court originally set for three students, Hong Kong people took to the streets. And after the Chinese government intervened in ongoing legal proceedings in Hong Kong, removing legislators who promote Hong Kong independence and self-determination, university students hung pro-independence banners across campuses.
Hong Kong may seem quiet today. But its residents’ peaceful quest to be heard, and to have universal suffrage, is alive and well.
Maya Wang is a China researcher at Human Rights Watch.