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For two years, Minerva has offered seniors the opportunity to be an exchange student at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology (HKUST) for their final year as an alternative to following the standard global rotation. Inna Halik is one of those students and will be writing about the tense political situation there as she sees it.

The big protest marches in Hong Kong started on June 9, 2019 (though there were protests also before) when around a million people participated in a demonstration, and have been going on for 17 weeks. People first took to the streets to show their opposition to the proposed extradition bill that would have allowed mainland China to extradite people accused of or convicted of crimes, which was seen as a threat to dissidents and at large, to Hong Kong’s democracy and business environment

National Day

October 1 is the National Day of the People’s Republic of China, celebrated as a public holiday in China, Macau, and Hong Kong. This year it marked the 70th anniversary of China. Over the weekend, Hong Kong saw a lot of protests and on September 29th anti-totalitarianism rallies in support of Hong Kong were held in many other cities all around the world, including Berlin, Seoul, London, and San Francisco

Posters with information about the anti-totalitarianism rallies in other cities. Photo credit: Inna Hallik

On Monday, September 30, I could see young people from my dorm room window putting up posters and banners on a bridge, which has become very common across the city. This weekend also marked the 5th anniversary of the Umbrella Movement, a protest movement against mainland China meddling with the democratic processes in Hong Kong that began as a response to the decision passed by the National People’s Congress in China that wanted to pre-screen candidates for the Hong Kong Chief Executive elections. 

When walking around the city now and looking at all the posters and flyers that have been glued onto walls, lamp posts, bus station shelters, and the ground, one can find messages that say “we are back”, referring to the Umbrella Movement. 

“We are back” – note seen on a wall. Photo credit: Inna Hallik

Five Demands, Not One Less

While it might seem the protests have become the norm here, they are not all the same. Most of the protests happen on a smaller scale and are peaceful. I have seen students chanting their demands on the HKUST campus, people gathering in malls and parks and marching on the streets, expressing their demands. Most of the protesters dress in black and often wear face masks. While I do not understand Cantonese and thus cannot know exactly what they are saying every time I hear them, it is safe to assume that they are reciting the five demands

  1. Full retraction of the extradition bill;
  2. Investigating police brutality;
  3. Not labeling protesters as rioters;
  4. Amnesty for the arrested protesters; and
  5. Dual universal suffrage – i.e. both the Chief Executive and legislature must be elected by Hongkongers.

I have also seen demands for Carrie Lam – the current Chief Executive of Hong Kong – to step down. All in all, the protesters in Hong Kong want democracy, which, among other things, involves the right to protest without being attacked by the police and labeled as  criminals.

On September 4, Carrie Lam announced that the extradition bill would be formally withdrawn, meaning that one of the demands of the protesters had been finally met. However, protesters are sticking to all the five demands with signs across the city saying “five demands, not one less”. Considering that the protests on October 1 were some of the most intense so far, it is clear that the protesters are not planning to stop, in fact, they appear to be more committed to the movement than ever. 

“Five demands not one less” – poster seen outside. Photo credit: Inna Hallik

Protests on October 1

In order to protest or march, people need to get an approval from the police, but no marches or rallies had been approved for the National Day. While the reason cited was the concern for people’s safety, many take it as a sign of a weakened democracy. Although banned, it was known that there would be big protests — probably because of its symbolic meaning – opposing the Chinese government by showing that there is nothing to celebrate – and the international attention it would garner. HKUST exchange students received emails from the school that warned of the protests, and on October 1 at 9:27 PM an email with “Urgent Message” in its title reported that the police had advised people to stay indoors after the “widespread unrest”. Since I live in the Tseung Kwan O neighborhood, everything was peaceful for me that day. Rallies and big demonstrations happen in the main financial and business districts on Hong Kong Island, but Tseung Kwan O is in a different region of Hong Kong called the New Territories.

Screenshot of part of the email sent to HKUST exchange students. Photo credit: Inna Hallik

Most of the main shopping centers and malls in the shopping and business districts closed in anticipation of the protests, as well as half of the MTR metro stations – 47/94. Two metro lines were shut down entirely — the first time that had happened since the protests began in June. Stations were closed because of the arson attacks and damage the protesters had caused during previous protests, but also to restrict people from getting to the rallies. When I went to Hong Kong Island on the preceding Friday and Saturday, the stations were open, but some of the entrances/exits were not, and armed policemen were positioned in the stations. 

The Twitter feed of Hong Kong Free Press has footage of the protests on October 1, some of it looking like a scene from a battle. They have videos and images of large streets full of protesters and policemen, roads on fire from Molotov cocktails, people holding umbrellas to protect themselves, the police deploying water cannons and tear gas against the protesters, and protesters, journalists and photographers alike wearing gas masks, goggles and helmets — it would have been too dangerous without protective gear. On that day, an 18-year-old schoolboy was shot — he is in the hospital now — another display of police brutality, and perhaps a new figurehead for the protests.

“Eye for an eye” – this became one of the symbols of the protest after the police had injured a protester’s eye (source). Photo credits: Inna Hallik

Sidenote: While I was writing this report, I could hear people protesting outside. It sounded like one person first shouted the demand and then a big group repeated it. I couldn’t see them from the window, so I went outside to see where they were. It turned out the shouts were coming from the secondary school buildings next to my dorm, and students in one building were shouting to students in the other building.