On the morning of 1st July, Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s beleaguered Chief Executive, clinked champagne flutes with two of the city’s past leaders on stage in a cavernous convention hall. The ceremony, marking the 22nd anniversary of the territory’s handover from Britain to China, was moved indoors for the first time, officially because of bad weather.
Outside, no rain was falling. Just a few miles away though, tens of thousands of protesters were mobilising for yet another public rebuke to Lam—and her purported masters in Beijing. Over the previous month, protesters had occupied major thoroughfares, twice laid siege to police headquarters and held record-breaking marches. Later on that same day, a group stormed the offices of Hong Kong’s legislature after hours spent pounding on tempered glass doors and windows. For many here, it was an understandable—if not condoned—show of frustration towards a government that refuses to listen.
The upheaval began when Hong Kong’s 70-seat legislature, dominated by a pro-Beijing bloc, attempted to fast track a bill that would allow for case-by-case extraditions to mainland China. The fear among an unusually diverse swath of the city’s population—business executives, social activists and religious leaders alike—was that the bill represented a death knell for Hong Kong’s relative autonomy from China. This semi-autonomy was guaranteed under the “one country, two systems” framework that the territory was promised would operate for 50 years after the 1997 handover.
Lam eventually proclaimed that the bill was “dead,” though it was not immediately withdrawn and protestors wanted to see it buried. Everything Lam and her government has done to pacify demonstrators has been dismissed as insincere. Their demands have quickly grown to include calls for police to be independently investigated for their use of force, for charges against arrested demonstrators to be dropped and for Lam to quit.
An undercurrent of these protests is the deep fear that Beijing is working to subdue Hong Kong, erase its unique and fiercely defended identity, and create a neutered populace that can no longer exercise its rights and freedoms. At a rally in the Kowloon district in early July that organisers claimed drew 230,000 participants, one 33-year-old said: “In the end, there won’t be any Hong Kong people anymore.”