Hong Kong Protests, One Year Later

One year ago on Tuesday, hundreds of thousands of demonstrators in Hong Kong gathered for a march that became the start of the semiautonomous Chinese city’s biggest political crisis and the broadest expression of public anger with Beijing in decades.

In the months that followed, protesters filled the city’s streets, broke into the local legislature and vandalized it, staged sit-ins at the airport, and turned a university campus into a fiery battleground. Earlier this year, the demonstrations quieted amid the coronavirus pandemic.

But Beijing’s push to impose national security laws over the territory has prompted some protesters to return to the streets. It is a reminder that many thorny issues — including the demonstrators’ demands for greater official accountability — remain unresolved. Here is a look at how we got here.

Organizers estimate that a million people marched on June 9, 2019, against a proposed law allowing extraditions to mainland China. The rally was mostly peaceful, though some protesters and police officers clashed after midnight. Three days later, the police fired tear gas at protesters who had blocked a major highway outside the local legislature. The heavy-handed response prompted another June march that organizers said drew nearly two million people.

On July 1, hundreds of thousands of people marched to denounce police brutality and Beijing’s growing influence over the city on the 22nd anniversary of Hong Kong’s return to China. A group of demonstrators also smashed their way into the local legislature using metal bars and makeshift battering rams. That confrontation reflected a wider attempt by the protest movement to target symbols of authority, including local police stations and the Chinese government’s liaison office in the city.

Street clashes between black-clad protesters and the police became routine. Increasingly, protesters coordinated their actions on the fly using encrypted messaging — an effort to evade the police and new restrictions on public gatherings. Some began carrying makeshift weapons, attacking opponents on the streets and vandalizing businesses seen as supporting the police and the government. A slogan from the movie series “The Hunger Games” — “If we burn, you burn with us” — became a call to arms.

On July 21, after protesters vandalized Beijing’s liaison office in Hong Kong, a mob attacked a group of protesters in a train station. Dozens were injured, including journalists and a pro-democracy legislator. The appearance of police inaction that night would fuel widespread anger toward the Hong Kong police force, and suspicion that officers were unwilling to protect antigovernment protesters.

By August, Hong Kong’s sleek and efficient airport was the center of protesters’ focus. First there were days of sit-ins by demonstrators who wanted to voice their complaints to some of the tens of thousands of travelers who move through the airport each day. The protesters then blocked some travelers, snarling flights and causing hundreds of cancellations. After protesters attacked two men from mainland China, the airport obtained a court injunction barring access to its terminals to anyone expect employees and travelers bearing flight tickets.

The protest movement earned a stunning victory in late November as pro-democracy candidates captured most of the seats in local elections for district councils, one of the lowest elected offices in the city. It was a vivid expression of the city’s aspirations and its anger with the Chinese government, and the protests subsided for several weeks after that. On New Year’s Day, demonstrators returned to the streets in full force in a protest that started peacefully but descended into violent clashes with the police.

Early this year, after the coronavirus emerged in the Chinese city of Wuhan and spread around the world, the protests eased as residents stayed home and social-distancing rules were imposed. But demonstrators pressured the government in other ways, notably through a union of hospital employees who went on strike to force the government to slow travel from mainland China to lessen the risk of spreading the coronavirus.

Lunchtime rallies re-emerged this spring, though on a much smaller scale than the protests by office workers and others that brought traffic to a halt in key business districts last year. Last month, protesters took to the streets to vent their anger over Beijing’s plan to impose new national security laws and a bill in front of the local legislature that would ban the disrespect of China’s national anthem. The police, who have taken a more aggressive approach to clamping down on protests after a new commissioner was installed last year, arrested at least 180 people.

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