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IOHR calls on China and Hong Kong authorities to exercise restraint

On Sunday 18 August, over 1.7 million people – a quarter of the population – gathered at a pro-democracy protest in Hong Kong, amid increasingly severe warnings by Beijing. Activists and police have clashed over the past 11 weeks, but this weekend’s protest remained peaceful.

Many protesters wore black, the colour now associated with the anti-government movement, carried signs and chanted slogans as they moved slowly forward: “Stand with Hong Kong! Fight for freedom!”

One of the marchers, Mr Wong, told the BBC: “We have been fighting for more than two months, but our government has no response at all. We could just come out again and again.”

Why are there protests in Hong Kong?

The protests were sparked by a controversial bill that would allow extradition from Hong Kong to the Chinese mainland. Critics argued that the proposal would undermine the territory’s judicial independence and could be used to target those who speak out against the Chinese government. The bill, which was introduced in February, was suspended following mass rallies in June.

The former British colony has a special status, with its own legal system and judiciary as well as rights and freedoms not seen in mainland China. For example, it is one of the few places in Chinese territory where people can commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown.

Protests have been going on now for the past two and a half months and over 600 protesters have been arrested. The violence has intensified in the past few weeks and police have frequently fired tear gas and rubber bullets. Last weekend activists occupied the airport, leading to hundreds of flights being cancelled and there were further clashes with police on Tuesday.

According to a New York Times investigation, Hong Kong police have fired more than 1,800 rounds of tear gas and a review of dozens of episodes involving tear gas show the police force, at times, has used methods that experts describe as “indiscriminate and excessive”.

“I would find this to be completely unacceptable under American standards,” Mr. Bueermann, a former police chief who advises law enforcement agencies, told the New York Times. “You are now taking a less-lethal tool, the tear gas, and making it a potentially lethal object.”

What are the protesters calling for?

Protesters want the bill withdrawn altogether, but it has also morphed into a broader movement demanding democratic reform and an investigation into alleged police brutality.

Their current demands are:

  • Complete withdrawal of the extradition bill
  • The withdrawal of the “riot” description used about the 12 June protests
  • An amnesty for all arrested protesters
  • An independent inquiry into alleged police brutality
  • Universal suffrage in elections for Hong Kong’s chief executive and Legislative Council

Some also want the resignation of Carrie Lam, the current chief executive, whom they view as a puppet of Beijing.

What has been China’s response?

The Chinese government has strongly criticised the protesters and tensions reached a new level last week as state media outlets published videos showing armoured Chinese troop carriers purportedly driving into Shenzhen, the south-eastern state that borders Hong Kong.

It was reported that members of China’s paramilitary People’s Armed Police force have been training there for days, including on Sunday morning, fueling speculation that they could be sent in to suppress the protests. But unless China declares an all-out state of emergency or war in Hong Kong, Chinese military intervention can only come at the request of the Hong Kong government.

Chinese officials have also released a series of threatening statements about Hong Kong’s protesters, with one claiming “terrorism” was emerging in the city after flights were cancelled.

“If Hong Kong’s situation deteriorates to a point uncontrollable by the Hong Kong government, the central government will not sit by and watch,” Chen Wen of the Chinese embassy in London told BBC Radio 4. “We have enough powers and enough solutions to quell any unrest within the limit of basic law.”

Twitter has been allowing promoted tweets, essentially targeted ads, to be placed by China’s state media, attacking pro-democracy protesters in Hong Kong and blaming those campaigners for the escalating violence and civil unrest.

What has the international reaction been?

US President Donald Trump warned on 18 August that if China were to carry out a Tiananmen Square-style crackdown on the protesters in Hong Kong, it would make a trade deal between Washington and Beijing increasingly difficult.

“I think it’d be very hard to make a deal if they do violence, I mean, if it’s another Tiananmen Square,” Trump told reporters in New Jersey. “I think it’s a very hard thing to do if there’s violence.”

On 9 August, Dominic Raab, the UK Foreign Secretary, called Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, to discuss his concerns about the situation in Hong Kong. He stressed the need for “meaningful political dialogue and a fully independent investigation into recent events as a way to build trust” in the territory and “condemned violent acts by all sides but emphasised the right to peaceful protest”. He underlined that the violence should not cloud the lawful actions of the majority.

In a video broadcast at a rally in support for the protesters in the UK, Tom Watson, deputy leader of the Labour party, said:

“The UK must not sit idly by as Hongkongers lose their rights and freedoms.” He called on the British government to “scope out the steps it can take” to apply pressure.

Experts say a growing international response could make a difference. Reacting to police tactics last weekend, the UN human rights office said on 13 August that it had seen “credible evidence” that Hong Kong law enforcement was violating international norms.

In July, IOHR spoke to Chris Yeung, Chairperson of the Hong Kong Journalists Association, who shared his insights into the recent escalation of protests in Hong Kong. Watch the interview here.

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