Freedom isn’t free.
Last week, waves of protests against an Extradition Bill took place in Hong Kong. The first protest gained international attention, as one million demonstrators marched peacefully to oppose this controversial legislative proposal.
As the local government remained indifferent, the protest turned ugly and clashes were seen between the young protesters and riot police. 150 canisters of tear gas, 20 rounds of bean bag bullets, and several rounds of rubber bullets were used to disperse the protesters. Violence erupted at this global financial centre’s protest, and the government decided to suspend the legislation.
Within a few days, two million Hongkongers demonstrated again to demand the withdrawal of the Extradition Bill, resignation of Hong Kong’s leader, and release of protesters being charged with “rioting”. The Hong Kong leader only apologised. The bill wasn’t completely withdrawn.
Between these events, a tragedy occurred. A 35-year-old surnamed Leung climbed up to the rooftop of a shopping mall and displayed a banner, reading “No extradition to China, total withdrawal of the Extradition Bill, we are not rioters, release the students and injured, Carrie Lam steps down, help Hong Kong.” After standing for 5 hours, he fell to the ground and was later certified dead.
Mr. Leung’s death is, perhaps, a symbol of Hong Kong’s bygone legacies. Arguably, Leung has become the first man to die in the name of defending Hong Kong’s core principles of “One Country, Two Systems”, “High Degree of Autonomy” and “50 Years Remain Unchanged” under an international treaty signed between Britain and China in 1984.
Five years ago, tens of thousands of Hongkongers occupied the main transport hubs in Hong Kong for 79 days, demanding the government to grant them universal suffrage to elect Hong Kong’s leader directly. But this “Umbrella Movement” eventually failed to achieve its purpose. Fast forward to today, the unrest that took place last Wednesday reminds both protesters and police about their last confrontation, which began with 87 canisters of tear gas and ended up with almost 500 people injured and 1,000 arrested.
Leung’s tragedy does symbolise the escalation of confrontations between the authorities and masses – this is not just a matter of values, but rather a fight for Hong Kong’s very existence as Special Administrative Region of China.
Five years on, there are only more Hongkongers afraid of Hong Kong’s high degree of autonomy being eroded. After the parliamentary election in 2016 and the 2017 Hong Kong Chief Executive (the head of government) election, Hong Kong’s political institutions have become less people-oriented.
Hongkongers’ demands to preserve the natural environment (over reclamation), cancel the Territory-wide System Assessment (which allegedly caused dozens of school children to commit suicide) and review the jurisdiction dispute of the Guangzhou-Hong Kong Express Rail Link were all ignored by the incumbent.
The Hong Kong governors further Beijing’s interests over Hongkongers’ interests. Leung’s heart-wrenching decision to end his life does not come from nowhere. Hongkongers have already lost too much. Hong Kong is no longer as vibrant as it used to be.
Twenty-two years after the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China, this territory finally had to give a life for the political awakening of Hongkongers. The “system” has changed faster than one can imagine. The number of peaceful demonstrators swelled from one million on 9 June to two million on 16 June. This is 27% of the entire population of Hong Kong.
As the public is responsive to the change of political system, the “silent majority” of the apolitical Hongkongers have started to realise that the arrest of hundreds of protesters and the death of Leung are not too far away from their daily lives.
The escalation of conflicts between protesters and police is evident from the police’s use of batons to attack the unarmed protesters in 2014 to their inappropriate use of tear gas, bean bag bullets, and rubber bullets against protesters, journalists, and even medical volunteers. Leung’s act means more than just another suicide. His tragic death symbolises the death of Hong Kong’s basic freedoms.
In Asia’s World City, the price of freedom is, perhaps, more volatile than its shrinking stock market, which is reacting to massive demonstrations and political instability.
Iverson NG is a second-year master’s student of EU-Russia Studies at the University of Tartu.