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Cage Homes and Internet Restrictions – a Turning Point for Human Rights in Hong Kong?

In recent weeks and months, thousands, and at times, maybe around a million Hong Kong citizens have come out to march on Hong Kong streets in peaceful protest. On 23 August, a 30-mile human chain was formed by protesters holding hands. Recently, some of the protests have erupted into violence. Why are Hong Kong people marching and why is there violence?

Hong Kong is a city state, geographically and politically part of the People’s Republic of China, but is run with a different legal and political system to mainland China under the “One Country, Two Systems” approach, that was set up in 1997 when the UK handed Hong Kong back to China after 150 years of rule.

In Hong Kong, people can freely access internet and news via platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Google or CNN. There is freedom of assembly, and organisations such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty are able to have offices and staff stationed in Hong Kong.

Meanwhile in China, internet is severely restricted behind the so-called “Great Firewall”. Mainland Chinese face the risk of arrest for unrolling a protest banner, by sitting in peaceful protest in Tiananmen Square in Beijing or other public places, or for blogging about the Tiananmen square massacre, or recent labour abuses.

Under the One Country, Two Systems agreement, Hong Kong is supposed to eventually resort to full Chinese rule in 2047, but back in the 1990s, when this agreement was made, it was assumed China would have opened up to new democratic freedoms by 2047, and that the two “systems” would be closer.

Unfortunately, recently the reverse has been true. China’s current leader President Xi Jinping extended his term to unlimited and brought in draconian non-democratic steps such as jailing human rights defenders including labour rights lawyers, and democracy advocates.

The internet has faced further restrictions, with jokes about Winnie the Pooh being blocked, as, at one point, the children’s character was used as a euphemism for Xi Jinping. Serious human rights violations are occurring as reports of one million innocent Uighur people are being held in detention camps in Xinjiang province in north western China.

Bearing this in mind, and knowing that in recent years a Hong Kong bookseller who sold a book criticising the Chinese leadership was kidnapped to mainland China and allegedly tortured, it is not surprising that earlier this year, when Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam put forward a bill to the Hong Kong legislative council to allow extradition to China of anyone in Hong Kong at the request of the Chinese government, the people of Hong Kong took to the streets.

The timing also happened to coincide with the 30th anniversary of the Tiananmen square massacre, when, on 4 June 1989, hundreds of students were killed by the Chinese army. In Hong Kong, a candlelight vigil is traditionally held in remembrance of this tragedy, gathering well over 100,000 calling for justice.

This annual, peaceful evening of singing together in a large park, has brought the voices of Hong Kong pro-democracy political party leaders, labour rights activists, and other human rights advocates together, as has the growing gap between rich and poor in Hong Kong, which has sparked a new wave of activist movements.

Almost 100,000 people are thought to live in so-called “cage homes” or “coffin homes” – a metal fence enclosed bunk bed in a room shared with 10-20 others – which is emblematic of the increasing divide.

Activists, NGOs and charities have helped to advocate for improved living standards and better housing, but under an extradition bill, their freedom to operate could be threatened, as well as that of reporters, independent trade unions and pro-democracy parties. In mainland China, freedom of expression is severely limited, and many reporters and activists are in jail.

During the protests over the last three months, most people have peacefully walked the streets in black shirts, some with umbrellas, and holding signs calling for the extradition treaty to be reversed, for Hong Kong’s democratic process to be improved and for investigations into police violence that has escalated in recent weeks.

There have been reports of some protesters having lashed out in violence, but most have remained peaceful, simply demanding that the fundamental human rights they rely on to express, advocate and realise policy change remain respected in the modern, highly-developed city-state with a legal system generally seen as one of the least corrupt in Asia.

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