Why are there protests in Hong Kong? All the context you need (2023)

By Helier Cheung & Roland Hughes
BBC News

  • Published

Hong Kong has seen several months of pro-democracy protests - and China appears to be tightening its grip.

The protests began in June 2019 over plans - later put on ice, and finally withdrawn in September - that would have allowed extradition from Hong Kong to mainland China. They then spread to reflect wider demands for democratic reform, and an inquiry into alleged police brutality.

Now, China is proposing to introduce a new national security law, which critics believe could be used to crack down on rights and political activists.

This is not all happening in a vacuum. There's a lot of important context - some of it stretching back decades - that helps explain what is going on.

Hong Kong has a special status...

It's important to remember that Hong Kong is significantly different from other Chinese cities. To understand this, you need to look at its history.

It was a British colony for more than 150 years - part of it, Hong Kong island, was ceded to the UK after a war in 1842. Later, China also leased the rest of Hong Kong - the New Territories - to the British for 99 years.

It became a busy trading port, and its economy took off in the 1950s as it became a manufacturing hub.

The territory was also popular with migrants and dissidents fleeing instability, poverty or persecution in mainland China.

Then, in the early 1980s, as the deadline for the 99-year-lease approached, Britain and China began talks on the future of Hong Kong - with the communist government in China arguing that all of Hong Kong should be returned to Chinese rule.

The two sides signed a treaty in 1984 that would see Hong Kong return to China in 1997, under the principle of "one country, two systems".

This meant that while becoming part of one country with China, Hong Kong would enjoy "a high degree of autonomy, except in foreign and defence affairs" for 50 years.

As a result, Hong Kong has its own legal system and borders, and rights including freedom of assembly, free speech and freedom of the press are protected.

(Video) Hong Kong’s huge protests, explained

For example, it is one of the few places in Chinese territory where people can commemorate the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown, where the military opened fire on unarmed protesters in Beijing.

...but things are changing

Hong Kong still enjoys freedoms not seen in mainland China - but they are widely thought to be on the decline.

Rights groups have accused China of meddling in Hong Kong, citing examples such as legal rulings that have disqualified pro-democracy legislators, and the disappearance of five Hong Kong booksellers, and a tycoon - who all eventually re-emerged in custody in China.

There are also accusations that press and academic freedoms have been deteriorating. In March, China effectively expelled several US journalists - but also prohibited them from working in Hong Kong.

The local examinations body also came under fire for a world history question about relations between Japan and China, with the government demanding the exam question be invalidated. The government said it was a professional, rather than political, decision, but many academics expressed concern.

Another sticking point has been democratic reform.

Hong Kong's leader, the chief executive, is currently elected by a 1,200-member election committee - a mostly pro-Beijing body chosen by just 6% of eligible voters.

Not all the 70 members of the territory's lawmaking body, the Legislative Council, are directly chosen by Hong Kong's voters. Most seats not directly elected are occupied by pro-Beijing lawmakers.

Some elected members have even been disbarred after Beijing issued a controversial legal ruling that effectively disqualified them.

Hong Kong's mini-constitution, the Basic Law, says that ultimately both the leader, and the Legislative Council, should be elected in a more democratic way - but there's been disagreement over what this should look like.

The Chinese government said in 2014 it would allow voters to choose their leaders from a list approved by a pro-Beijing committee, but critics called this a "sham democracy" and it was voted down in Hong Kong's legislature.

In 28 years' time in 2047, the Basic Law expires - and what happens to Hong Kong's autonomy after that is unclear.

Most people in Hong Kong don't see themselves as Chinese

While most people in Hong Kong are ethnic Chinese, and although Hong Kong is part of China, a majority of people there don't identify as Chinese.

Surveys from the University of Hong Kong show that most people identify themselves as "Hong Kongers" - only 11% would call themselves "Chinese" - and 71% of people say they do not feel proud about being Chinese citizens.

(Video) Why Hong Kong’s Protests Exploded | The Backstory | The New Yorker

The difference is particularly pronounced amongst the young.

"The younger the respondents, the less likely they feel proud of becoming a national citizen of China, and also the more negative they are toward the Central Government's policies on Hong Kong," the university's public opinion programme says.

Hong Kongers have described legal, social and cultural differences - and the fact Hong Kong was a separate colony for 150 years - as reasons why they don't identify with their compatriots in mainland China.

There has also been a rise in anti-mainland Chinese sentiment in Hong Kong in recent years, with people complaining about rude tourists disregarding local norms or driving up the cost of living.

Some young activists have even called for Hong Kong's independence from China, something that alarms the Beijing government.

Hong Kongers know how to protest

Image source, AFP

There's a rich history of dissent in Hong Kong, stretching back further even than the past few years.

In 1966, demonstrations broke out after the Star Ferry Company decided to increase its fares. The protests escalated into riots, a full curfew was declared and hundreds of troops took to the streets.

Protests have continued since 1997, but now the biggest ones tend to be of a political nature - and bring demonstrators into conflict with mainland China's position.

While Hong Kongers have a degree of autonomy, they have little liberty in the polls, meaning protests are one of the few ways they can make their opinions heard.

As a result, many see taking to the streets as their only way of forcing change.

And, in the past, some protests have been successful. In 2003, up to 500,000 people took to the streets to protest against a controversial security bill the Hong Kong government was trying to pass. The local government also backed down over "patriotic education" classes following rallies against the move.

However, the Chinese government has adopted a harder stance in recent years, particularly with any movements it views as a direct challenge to its own authority.

In 2014, demonstrators took to the streets peacefully for several weeks, demanding Hong Kongers be given the right to elect their own leader. But the so-called Umbrella movement eventually fizzled out with no concessions from Beijing.

How did the latest crisis escalate?

In June 2019, protesters took to the streets again, demonstrating against plans to allow extraditions to mainland China. This time, clashes between police and activists became increasingly violent.

(Video) The Hong Kong protests explained (explainity® explainer video)

The bill was halted, and later fully withdrawn, but demonstrations continued for months, with demands for full democracy and an independent inquiry into police actions.

In April this year, Hong Kong police arrested 15 of the city's most high-profile pro-democracy activists for taking part in unauthorised assemblies.

In May, Hong Kong's police watchdog said it found no significant wrongdoing on the police's part during the 2019 protests - in a report that was criticised by many rights groups and external experts.

The street protests have mostly died down during the coronavirus pandemic, although some small demonstrations, including singing protesters in shopping malls, have started again as restrictions are gradually eased.

Now, China is proposing to introduce a new national security law in Hong Kong, which could be similar to the one withdrawn in 2003. It says the legislation is "highly necessary" and would "safeguard national security in Hong Kong".

However, the new proposal is also controversial because it is expected to circumvent Hong Kong's own law-making processes - leading to accusations that Beijing is undermining Hong Kong's autonomy.

More on this story


Why are there so many protest in Hong Kong? ›

The founding cause of the 2019–2020 Hong Kong protests was the proposed legislation of the 2019 Hong Kong extradition bill. However, other causes have been pointed out, such as demands for democratic reform, the Causeway Bay Books disappearances, or the fear of losing a "high degree of autonomy" in general.

What was the purpose of the Hong Kong protests? ›

The Anti-Extradition Law Amendment Bill Movement, also known as the 2019 Hong Kong protests, or the 2019–2020 Hong Kong protests, were a series of demonstrations from 15 March 2019 in response to the introduction by the Hong Kong government of the Fugitive Offenders amendment bill on extradition.

Why are students protesting in Hong Kong? ›

Petition asks for legal and financial support, condemnation of police brutality. Student protesters in Hong Kong, China, are forcing local universities to consider their roles in the ongoing standoff between citizens demanding greater democratic representation and the city's authorities.

Why is there conflict in Hong Kong? ›

The cultural and economic differences are widely considered as a primary cause of the conflict between Hong Kong and mainland China. The differences between Hong Kong people and mainlanders, such as language, as well as the significant growth in number of mainland visitors, have caused tension.

When did Hong Kong start protesting? ›

The period from March to June 2019 in the 2019–2020 Hong Kong protests is considered the early stage of the movement. Until the first mass demonstrations in June, protests were focused on the withdrawal of the extradition bill.

How many people protested in Hong Kong? ›

“We want Hong Kong to continue being Hong Kong,” said Alice Wong, 24, a biology researcher who stood among protesters gathered at Victoria Park. “We don't want to become like China.” As many as 800,000 people attended the march, according to Civil Human Rights Front, an advocacy group that organized the gathering.

What kind of protest was the Hong Kong protest? ›

Hong Kong has been rocked by pro-democracy, anti-government protests for more than six months now, with escalating violence and anger on all sides. What began as peaceful mass marches has exploded into the city's biggest political crisis in modern times. It's also become a geopolitical mess with worldwide implications.

What human rights are being violated in Hong Kong? ›

Significant human rights issues included credible reports of: arbitrary arrests and detention; political prisoners or detainees; politically motivated reprisals against individuals outside of Hong Kong; serious problems regarding the independence of the judiciary in certain areas; arbitrary interference with privacy; ...

Is Hong Kong safe during protests? ›

“Especially anything near a government facility, a police station or an MTR station where protesters gather. As long as people avoid those venues, Hong Kong as a whole is still typically safe.”

What was the largest protest in Hong Kong? ›

In 2019, the anti-extradition bill protest on 16 June broke the record of largest protest in Hong Kong with nearly 2 million marchers. The 1 July march in the same year with 550,000 marchers, was the largest 1 July march.
Hong Kong 1 July marches.
Yue: Cantonese
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1 more row

Is Hong Kong losing freedom? ›

Over the past year, the People's Republic of China (PRC) has continued to dismantle Hong Kong's democratic institutions, placed unprecedented pressure on the judiciary, and stifled academic, cultural, and press freedoms.

What was the biggest protest in history? ›

The one in Rome involved around three million people, and is listed in the 2004 Guinness Book of World Records as the largest anti-war rally in history.

How many protestors were killed in Hong Kong? ›

Hong Kong: Two dead

Some key questions, answered. Two protesters have died in incidents related to demonstrations.

Is Hong Kong gender equality? ›

Under the Sex Discrimination Ordinance in Hong Kong, it is unlawful to discriminate based on sex in employment terms and conditions. However, the gender pay gap still exists.

What challenges does Hong Kong face? ›

Extreme weather, heat and humidity, heavy rain and typhoons 2. Waste management – especially the challenges of waste from households and ships leading to problems with landfill.

How human rights are protected in Hong Kong? ›

Both the Basic Law and the National Security Law stipulate the respect for and protection of human rights and all lawful rights and freedoms of Hong Kong residents, but no rights or freedoms are absolute and they must be exercised within the limits prescribed by law.

Is Hong Kong safe for girls? ›

Hong Kong is regarded as one of the safest cities in the world. With low crime rates, well maintained infrastructure & roadways, and well trained police and medical services, you shouldn't have much to worry about.

Is Hong Kong a safe country to live in? ›

Hong Kong is an advanced economy with very low rates of crime across the city. That's not to say crime doesn't happen. Thefts, assaults and burglaries occur as in any other city, and organised crime is a wider issue for the city. However, overall, crime levels are comparatively low and decreasing.

What did police do to protesters in Hong Kong? ›

HONG KONG — Police fired rounds of tear gas, used a water cannon to disperse protesters and arrested more than 100 people opposed to Beijing's plan to impose a sweeping national security law in a return to the demonstrations that defined this city last year.

Why are people leaving HK? ›

The city's population has now dropped from 7.41 million in mid-2021 to 7.29 million in mid-2022, according to the latest data from Hong Kong's Census and Statistics Department. This exodus over the past year is mainly due to Hong Kong's strict COVID-19 policies and political unrest, multiple China experts told VOA.

Is Hong Kong still a good place to live? ›

As long as you can cope with the density of population, a low crime rate, high standard of living, excellent infrastructure and low costs all cement Hong Kong's reputation as one of the world's most hospitable cities for foreign workers.

Is HK a good place to live? ›

Hong Kong is a fantastic destination for expats and their families, with wonderful food, a vibrant culture and so much opportunity. Just make sure you are well prepared, with a job offer secured, international health insurance prepared and an apartment ready to help you settle in quickly.

What is the problem with public housing in Hong Kong now? ›

There are three main aspects – first, soaring property prices and a lack of affordability for middle- and low-income residents; second, insufficient supply of public rental flats for grass-roots residents; and third, very limited housing options for residents who are waiting for public housing.


1. Antony Dapiran On The Hong Kong Protests
(USC U.S.-China Institute)
2. 'We need to elect our own government' Joshua Wong Interview (2/2)
(DW News)
3. The real truth behind Hong Kong protests
4. China’s Digital Nationalism, Hong Kong protests, and the Challenge of COVID: Dr Florian Schneider
(Australian Institute of International Affairs)
5. Sharron Fast: Covering the Hong Kong Protests ...
6. Dodwell: Congressional support of Hong Kong protesters "can't really be seen as helpful"
(CNBC Television)
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