What do the Hong Kong protesters want?

By Lucas Niewenhuis | November 18, 2019
Additional reporting by Hugh Bohane

Hong Kong is now paralyzed on a near-daily basis by violent clashes between anti-government protesters and police. How did we get here, and what is it, exactly, that the protesters want?

All illustrations by Derek Zheng. Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam has been in hot water all year for the ill-advised decision to propose allowing extradition procedures with mainland China. As that crisis blew up, old and new political grievances came to the fore of protests, culminating in the “Five Demands.”

Mass protests began in Hong Kong on June 9, 2019, with over a million taking to the streets to protest an extradition bill that would have connected the city’s judicial system with the opaque and Communist Party–controlled courts of mainland China. That protest was focused on the complete withdrawal of that single piece of legislation, with crowds rallying around the slogan “No extradition to China, oppose evil law” — 返送中, 抗恶法 (fǎn sòng zhōng, kàng è fǎ). Still today, perhaps the most common name for the protests is the anti-ELAB (extradition law amendment bill) protests, or #antiELAB.

Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam (林鄭月娥 Lín Zhèng Yuè’é) would, over the course of the next three months, use a series of phrases that have nothing to do with a formal procedure to completely withdraw a bill in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council to try to appease public anger. As Kai Yui Samuel Chan and Elizabeth Lui wrote for The Diplomat: First, Lam said the bill was “suspended,” on June 15; then, she pledged to “put a stop” to the bill on June 21; then, on July 9, she would emphatically state that the bill was “dead.” But the Cantonese versions of these statements were consistently less precise than the English version, and none of them yet meant the bill would be formally withdrawn.

The withdrawal of the bill was only announced on September 4, nearly three months after protests began, and it was not formally withdrawn until October 23.

Carrie Lam announces on September 4, nearly three months after mass protests began, that the extradition law amendment bill would be withdrawn.

Over the course of all that time, public sentiment toward the Hong Kong government soured, while protesters began to see the police as an enemy. Protesters objected to tactics used in a police crackdown on June 12, three days after the first million-person protest, and held another massive rally on June 16. That second protest was so large that crowds flooded not just one or two streets but entire districts of the city. Organizers said it was attended by nearly 2 million people, making it the largest protest in Hong Kong’s history.

Within even that first week, protesters began to rally around multiple demands beyond simply #antiELAB, which within a few more weeks would universally be known as the “five key demands” (五大訴求 wǔ dà sùqiú). A common rallying cry, particularly since the withdrawal of the extradition bill was finally announced in early September, has been “Five key demands, not one less” (五大訴求,缺一不可 wǔ dà sùqiú, quē yī bùkě).

So what are the five? Here, we will give a quick explanation of each one, clarify what Hongkongers are not demanding, and cover how Beijing — and ordinary people in mainland China — have reacted to the protests.

Demand 1: Complete withdrawal of the extradition bill

This is the only demand that has been met, as explained above. It is notable that it took three million-strong protests in a city of less than 7.5 million people — on June 9, on June 16, and a third peaceful rally on August 18 — before the government finally announced that it would do precisely what the people were demanding. Protesters widely perceived the concession as “too little, too late.” 

For more context on the legal structure of Hong Kong, and what the implications of the extradition law amendment bill would have been, listen to this Sinica Podcast: Jerome Cohen on the Hong Kong protests and the law

Demand 2: An independent investigation of police violence

Street clashes between protesters and police have become increasingly common and violent over the course of the protests.

Between June and September, the Hong Kong public’s trust in police was completely shattered. Before the protests and street clashes, only 6.5 percent of the city reported it had no trust in the police; by early September, nearly half of the city had lost trust in the police.

After the initial police crackdown on protesters on June 12, the most significant event that broke public trust in the police was the thug attacks in Yuen Long on July 21, during which the police were nowhere to be seen. Anger at the police grew further after August 11, when police first shot tear gas into a subway station, and shot a beanbag round into a group of protesters that blinded a female medical volunteer in one eye.

The Hong Kong police force has used copious amounts of tear gas, rubber bullets, and pepper spray, among other methods, to disperse protesters. On August 13, the UN Human Rights Office said that it “has reviewed credible evidence of law enforcement officials employing less-lethal weapons in ways that are prohibited by international norms and standards.” A few days later, a New York Times analysis of tear gas launches by police in Hong Kong came to the same conclusion.

Two recent police shootings of protesters with live bullets, on October 1 and November 11, have further soured the public’s perception of the Hong Kong police force. Both caused severe injuries but were not fatal.

Carrie Lam attempted to respond to this demand by saying an internal, existing oversight commission called the Independent Police Complaints Council (IPCC) would investigate the police force’s handling of protests. But protesters do not see this commission as impartial, and international experts have questioned whether the commission has the requisite powers to properly investigate police violence. Legal experts like Jerome Cohen have called for a new, independent citizens commission as the only way to credibly address the chasm of trust between the public and the police.

Demand 3: Retraction of the “riot” characterization

Protesters were incensed by Carrie Lam’s characterization of the protests on June 12 as an “organized riot,” in a city where being convicted of rioting carries prison terms of up to 10 years. In response to the overwhelming perception that the government had bungled the handling of the extradition bill and the initial response to the protests, Lam gave a “most sincere” but unspecific “apology to all people of Hong Kong” on June 18 that did not retract the riot characterization.

Instead, Lam has since only doubled down on this language, and recently has framed demonstrators as “enemies of the people.” The government has given no hint that it will consider changing the use of this language. 

Demand 4: Amnesty for arrested protesters

An early demand in the protests beyond withdrawing the extradition bill was to “absolve the students” who had been arrested. The famous pro-democracy activist Joshua Wong (黄之锋 Huáng Zhīfēng) also called early on for the government to “drop all political persecutions.” Wong himself had been sent to jail for “unlawful assembly” in 2017 for his role in leading the 2014 Occupy protests. He was coincidentally released, after a protracted and failed appeal, on June 16, the same day as the second massive march. 

Thousands of protesters have been arrested, and the rate of arrests is increasing rapidly. Between June and October, 2,000 protesters were arrested. By mid-November, that number had doubled to over 4,000. Many people in Hong Kong saw the previous prosecutions of activists like Joshua Wong as politicized, so they have little faith that the government will treat arrested protesters fairly this time. 

Carrie Lam has dismissed this demand out of hand. “You have to take the consequences after breaking the law,” she said in a town hall in September. In a policy address in October, Lam elaborated, “The demand for amnesty is totally against the rule of law in Hong Kong and is actually illegal as far as the Chief Executive is concerned because I have no power to interfere with the prosecution as well as the judicial proceedings in the courts.”

Demand 5: Universal suffrage for the Legislative Council and the Chief Executive

This was the primary, unfulfilled demand of the 2014 Occupy Central protests, also known as the Umbrella Movement. Universal suffrage for the Chief Executive of Hong Kong is an unfulfilled condition of the Basic Law, or mini-constitution, of the city that was put in place in 1997, when Beijing regained sovereignty over the territory from Great Britain. 

Carrie Lam has stated that it is “not feasible to relaunch a debate on universal suffrage now,” according to comments she gave to an EU representative in October.

What is not in the demands

At times, especially in the beginning of the protests in June, Hongkongers demanded Carrie Lam’s resignation, but this did not become part of the widely accepted and reproduced “five demands” listed above. Instead, protesters have focused their efforts on the fifth demand, which calls for more sweeping reforms of the process to select the Chief Executive. 

At no point has independence for Hong Kong been a central or key demand of protesters. That is not to say Hong Kong doesn’t have an independence movement, or that it isn’t growing. To learn more about the politics of independence, autonomy, “self-determination,” and “localism” in Hong Kong, read on SupChina: The panda in the room: Hong Kong’s independence movement

How Beijing has reacted to the protests

A screenshot from a militaristic propaganda video released on July 31, which featured a People’s Liberation Army officer shouting in the local Cantonese language, “All consequences are at your own risk!”

Official statements from Beijing and propaganda in state media have generally ignored the substance of the five demands of Hong Kong protesters, and instead spread conspiracy theories and threatened crackdowns in an attempt to discredit and demoralize the protesters.

Occasionally over the months of protests, China has rattled its saber, threatening military force to quash the protests. The first example of this is from July 31, when the Hong Kong garrison of the People’s Liberation Army released a militaristic propaganda video in which crowd control drills were interspersed with footage of missiles and snipers in action, as a soldier declared over a loudspeaker in Cantonese, “All consequences are at your own risk!”

Later, movements of Chinese police units across the border in Shenzhen, as well as in the People’s Liberation Army garrison in Hong Kong, raised concerns. However, observers generally consider it very unlikely that Beijing would deploy these units on the streets of Hong Kong.

The blaming of the protests on “interference from external forces,” particularly the CIA, began almost as soon as the protests did, though Hong Kong stayed off the front pages of state media websites for many weeks.

Chinese propaganda and official statements about the protests then gradually ratched up in volume, reaching their loudest volume so far in early August, when protesters occupied the airport for days. This smorgasbord of spin, all from early August, has set the tone for Beijing’s rhetoric on Hong Kong to date:

State media has seized on instances when small groups of protesters have gotten out of control to frame the entire protest movement as filled with “rioters,” whom they also describe as “secessionists” or “terrorists.” The most prominent example of this over the summer was on August 13, when protesters at the airport assaulted several men they feared were undercover police or mainland Chinese spies. “Hong Kong terrorists besiege mainland tourists” (香港恐怖分子围攻内地游客 xiānggǎng kǒngbù fènzi wéigōng nèidì yóukè) became a trending hashtag on Weibo for several hours.

One of these men, whom protesters bound with cable ties and interrogated, turned out to be a state media employee working for the Global Times. He was immediately hailed as a hero in mainland China, and state media and millions of Chinese internet users piled on to amplify anti-protester messages.

Most recently, an incident on November 11, in which a man was lit on fire following an argument with demonstrators, has been played on repeat on Chinese state and social media.

How mainland Chinese people have reacted to the protests

Mainland Chinese attitudes appear relatively united against the protests, though we do need to point out that censorship of dissenting views has been pervasive. Any video clips or articles showing protesters in a sympathetic light are subject to censorship, while portrayals of protesters as rioters or even terrorists are allowed or actively encouraged. 

Kiki Zhao, in a piece in ChinaFile titled “China’s government wants you to think all mainlanders view Hong Kong the same way. They don’t,” notes that she has come across “a range of opinion running the gamut from admiration to disdain, confusion, and even indifference” on Chinese social media.

However, the most common attitude among mainland Chinese is strongly defensive about the subject of Hong Kong, and highly critical of the protests. 

One mainland Chinese interviewed by SupChina said, “If people in your country burn the national flag of your country, injure your fellow nationals, insult and yell at the leadership of your country, would you be supportive of this?” She added that the protesters have “built their beliefs on the pain of our people,” referring to the British colonial past. She said it’s understandable that the protesters want to maintain their rights by holding demonstrations, but she can’t accept the destruction of public facilities, subway stations, and shopping malls, and the clogging up of Hong Kong’s streets. 

“They have forgotten that they are Chinese, and that mainlanders are also their compatriots,” she said.

Jie-Song Zhang, who was born in Beijing but now lives in the U.S., has posted about the protests several times on Facebook. In a post on October 11, he wrote:

In principle, my support always goes to those who are fighting for greater equality, justice in their own communities. This said, it should also be understood that the situation in Hong Kong is not a cut and dry matter of protesters presenting themselves peacefully in the name of democracy and being brutally put down by Chinese police.

He continued by bringing up Hong Kong’s colonial past, and how it served as an entry point for the opium that Britain spread throughout China to destabilize the country: 

This is something that Chinese people are extremely aware of and sensitive about to this day, and the context of the mainland’s view of Hong Kong as a symbol of a century of colonial humiliation is completely left out of most people’s understanding of what is happening now. To this day, Jewish people rightfully remember and carry profound feelings about the Holocaust and WWII; the Black American narrative of today remains connected to a visceral sense of the brutality and supreme indignation of African abduction and slavery; Native Americans will never, ever forget and let go of resentment about what happened to their lands and traditions. So can you not also understand the way the Chinese would feel about land that was taken from them through drugging, murder, rape, material exploitation, and humiliation?

Beyond historical grievances, resentment between Hongkongers and mainlanders has been a strong undercurrent in how mainland Chinese have viewed Hong Kong for a long time. Recently, many cases of targeted violence against mainland Chinese living in Hong Kong have been reported. Major Western media outlets like Bloomberg and the Economist have also reported that speaking Mandarin Chinese has become a liability in Hong Kong in this time of heightened tension. 

“Hong Kong’s society needs to heal, we need to come together, this is a crisis and we need to come together in crisis,” a professor in Hong Kong told SupChina. “People need to calm down, and we need to have a rational dialogue between all parts of society. We should think about what’s best for Hong Kong, we should have public forums and public debates, but in a peaceful manner.”

Additional reporting by Hugh Bohane, an Australian freelance writer, photographer and producer.