Thousands of Hong Kong residents marched on Sunday to observe the 21st anniversary of the territory’s return to China from Britain, a public demonstration of their dissatisfaction with the local government and their fears about the Chinese Communist Party’s growing influence in the territory.
Previously a British colony, Hong Kong was returned to China in 1997 with the promise that it could maintain for 50 years its own political and economic systems, including civil liberties that the Chinese government denies to citizens on the mainland. But many in the city believe that its freedoms and relative autonomy are already eroding. Hong Kong residents march every year on the anniversary of the handover, demonstrating for democratic values and usually calling attention to particular causes. In a first, this year’s march, which was organized by the Civil Human Rights Front, explicitly called for the end of one-party rule in China.
This year, marchers protested the local government’s decision to let mainland Chinese police operate in part of a new train station scheduled to open this year.
Much of the anger is directed at Chinese President Xi Jinping who swore in Hong Kong's new chief executive, Carrie Lam. A chief executive, who is widely seen as someone inclined to defer to Beijing. It's Xi's first trip to Hong Kong since taking office five years ago, and the Chinese government is clearly trying to show its strength while celebrating the handover anniversary.
Hong Kong is part of China but retains a high level of autonomy and rights such as freedom of speech and an independent judiciary. The hope at the time was that this city of seven million people would help make the rest of China more open and free.
Angry protesters marched through Hong Kong against what they described as suppression by Beijing, days after Chinese authorities ruled that part of a city rail station would come under mainland law. Demonstrators scuffled with police at the end of the march and some who refused to leave the protest area were carried or escorted out by security guards.
A string of recent incidents have fuelled concern over the erosion of its autonomy and rule of law, including the jailing of prominent pro-democracy activists. Campaigner Joshua Wong, who joined thousands of protesters at the march, said suppression by China’s Communist Party government had worsened in 2017. Wong, 21, was jailed in August over his role in the Umbrella Movement mass pro-democracy protests of 2014 and is on bail pending an appeal against his six-month sentence. “In 2018, I hope that every Hong Konger can become an avenger, and win back the core values eroded by Beijing,” Wong told AFP.
As mentioned before, many of the protesters were angry at the so-called “co-location” agreement, which would bring part of a new rail terminus in the heart of Hong Kong under mainland law. The high-speed link to the sprawling southern mainland cities of Shenzhen and Guangzhou is due to open this year, with plans for a joint immigration checkpoint that would see mainland police and other officials based in the Hong Kong terminus.
The station is on Hong Kong’s famous harbour front in Kowloon, not on the border with the mainland further to the north.
China’s top legislative body approved the project last week. The final stage before implementation is a vote by Hong Kong’s legislative council, which is weighted towards Beijing. Pro-democracy politicians, campaigners and some in the city’s legal community say the plan is a violation of Hong Kong’s mini-constitution, the Basic Law, which stipulates national laws do not apply to Hong Kong with a few exceptions.
Hong Kong’s pro-Beijing government argues the rail set-up is for the convenience of passengers and both local and Chinese authorities insist it does not impinge on the city’s autonomy.
In his speech before he left Hong Kong, Xi issued a stern warning, saying any challenge to China's sovereignty or central government's authority crosses a red line and won't be tolerated.