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Mainstream, VOL LVII No 40, New Delhi, September 21, 2019

2019 Protests in Hong Kong and China’s ‘One Country, Two Systems’

Monday 23 September 2019

by Bihu Chamadia


The ongoing protests in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) of China began in June 2019 as an agitation against the Extradition Bill. By August it took the shape of a pro-democracy movement. This paper tries to analyse the reasons why the protests have taken the shape of a pro-democracy movement. While comparing the 2019 protests with other previously held protests, it also analyses the differences regarding the 2019 protests.


Hong Kong is witnessing major protests. These started as protests against the proposed Extradition Bill, but has now taken the shape of pro-democracy protests. The Extradition Bill or The Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill, was proposed by the Hong Kong Government in February 2019. This proposed Bill allows extradition of fugitives to Taiwan, Macau and Mainland China. Protests broke out in opposition to the Bill, which was primarily seen as Beijing’s rising influence over Hong Kong.

The protesters took to the streets and expressed their anger against the rising influence of Beijing that has the potential to eventually erode the ‘one country, two systems’ framework, under which Hong Kong enjoys certain degree of autonomy. Since 1997, the year in which Hong Kong was handed back to China, the relationship between the HKSAR and mainland China has not been very smooth because Hong Kong has often accused China of interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs and the various protests against the mainland have been a testimony to this. To understand the reasons for protests it is important to look at the historical background of the Hong Kong-Mainland China relations.

Hong Kong-Mainland China Relationship

Handover of Hong Kong, 1997

The People’s Republic of China (PRC) and Britain signed the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 1984. The bilateral declaration stipulated the transfer of sovereignty over Hong Kong (including Hong Kong, Kowloon and New Territories) to China in 1997. The declaration delineated that Hong Kong would be returned to Chinese sovereignty based on the ‘one country, two systems’ frame work. The Joint Declaration included the PRC’s basic policies1 regarding Hong Kong. The Hong Kong Special Administrative Region (HKSAR) enjoys independence of legislature, executive and judiciary.

‘One country, two systems’

According to the ‘one country, two systems’ framework, the HKSAR enjoys a certain degree of autonomy in matters apart from those related to foreign and defence affairs. Deng Xiaoping, while formulating the ‘one country, two systems’ framework, had mentioned that there would only be ‘One China’ with its various regions.

Further, the framework mentions that Hong Kong can continue to have its own governmental, legal, economic and financial system. Hong Kong maintains a mini-constitution of its own and a capitalist system as opposed to the rule of the Communist Party of China (CPC) that is in place in Mainland China.

The ‘one country, two systems’ framework defines the Hong Kong-Mainland China relationship. Hong Kong also enjoys a certain degree of autonomy under this system, which the Mainland has been accused of subverting with its interference. There have been several protests in Hong Kong, especially since 2003, against the Mainland’s interference and to save the ‘one country, two systems’ framework.

The Various Protests that the
City Has Witnessed

The 2003 Protests

The 2003 protests were against the introduction of the anti-subversion legislation, which prohibited treason, secession, sedition and subversion against the Chinese Government. After a huge protest the Bill was shelved indefinitely. The protesters were worried that the Bill would clamp down their freedom.

The 2012 Protests

Protests broke out in 2012 in Hong Kong as the authorities tried to change the curriculum of the school system in Hong Kong. Some of the changes that were brought about were the inclusion of topics on China’s history, culture and national identity. For the protesters “it was seen as brainwashing of Hong Kong’s youth“.i On September 8, 2012 it was decided that the schools would have the authority to decide on the implementation of the curriculum, rendering it effectively dead.

The 2014 Protests

The 2014 Umbrella Movement2 was a movement against the decision of the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress (NPCSC) regarding the ‘proposed reforms of the Hong Kong electoral system’. The reforms suggested a pre-screening of the candidates by the CPC for the post of the Chief Executive of Hong Kong. The citizens of Hong Kong termed it as a measure restricting its autonomy. The protests also demanded ‘genuine universal suffrage’. The protests had no major achieve-ments as the Chinese Government did not agree to any of the protesters demands and after 79 days, the protests finally subsided.

The 2016 Protests

This was the first ever pro-independence protest held in Hong Kong. It demanded complete independence of Hong Kong from Mainland China. The protest was against the banning of six pro-independence candidates from running in the election for the city’s legislature.

The 2017 Protests

In 2017, as Hong Kong celebrated two decades of handing over of Hong Kong to Chinese control, the pro-democracy protesters marched against China’s refusal to grant ‘genuine autonomy’ to Hong Kong and the erosion of the ‘one country, two systems’.

The 2019 Protests

From Anti-Extradition Bill movement to a Pro-Democracy Movement

The 2019 protests against the Hong Kong Extradition Bill are a series of protests taking place in HKSAR. The Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, proposed the Extradition Bill in February 2019.The first series of protests were carried out by the citizens of Hong Kong in March 2019. In continuation, a protest was held on June 9, 2019 demanding abdication of Carrie Lam. Protests again broke out on June 12, 2019, the day planned for the second reading of the Bill. The protesters were met with police brutality and the protests were termed as ‘riots’ by the police. On June 26 and June 28, the protesters gathered in front of the consulates of 19 different countries,ii which were expected to participate in the G-20 summit to attract international attention.

July 1, 2019 was the day to commemorate the 22nd anniversary of the 1997 Hong Kong handover. The protesters demonstrated against the annual flag raising ceremony and broke into the Legislature Council (LeCo) complex. On July 9, 2019, Carrie Lam declared that the Bill was ‘dead’. The protests again broke out on July 14 demanding the full withdrawal of the Extra-dition Bill.

The five major demands raised by the protestors include full withdrawal of the Extradition Bill, retraction of the characterisation of June 12 protests as ‘riots’ and inquiry on the police handling of the protesters.iii The protestors also demand amnesty for all arrested protestors and universal suffrage in election for Hong Kong’s chief executive.

By the start of August, it had become clear that the protests are not just about the Extradition Bill anymore. The protests evolved as an issue of Mainland China trying to subvert the unique identity of the citizens of Hong Kong. On August 3, the protests took place for the 9th consecutive weekend; the protests were violent as the police used tear gas and rubber bullets. On August 5, Carrie Lam delivered a media address and remarked that it was a very dangerous situation that Hong Kong is in.iv

On August 9, the strongest warning from the side of China was issued. It warned the protesters not to “play with fire” and that they should not mistake the Central Government’s “restraint for weakness”.v On August 11, the protestors occupied the Hong Kong airport resulting in the cancellation of flights the day

The anger among the protesters when the protest started was possibly because of the suicides that took place during the protests. The other reason could be the resentment among the young people that stemmed more from their pursuit of universal values and their distrust of the local and Central Government and less from the anxiety over their personal lives.vii The turning of the Anti-Extradition Bill protests into pro-democracy protests could be because of the government’s handling of the situation with brute force.

Similarities between the Protests

The major similarity that these protests bear with the previous ones is the pro-democracy nature of the protests. Even though not laying out the explicit demand for greater democracy, each of these protests are similar in calling out China’s interference in various matters of the city and against the possible erosion of autonomy that it enjoys. The protests have demanded various kinds of freedom of legislature, judiciary, etc., which they thought Mainland China has been trying to subvert.

The similarities between the handling of 2014 and 2019 protests by the government can also be traced. The 2014 protests saw violence on the part of the police, which was present this time as well but was fiercer. The government did not concede to any demands of the protestors during the 2014 protests and looking at the Central Government’s response to the ongoing protest, it is highly unlikely that the government would agree to all the demands of the protesters.

Differences between the Protests

The 2019 Anti-Extradition Bill protests witnessed the use of violence on the part of the protesters. With protesters occupying the Hong Kong airport that caused the cancellation of flights, the 2019 protests are much aggressive in nature than the previous protests. Analysts had observed that the reason for the failure of the 2014 protests was due to the fact that the protests did not harm the economy of the city and if they have to ensure that the future protests are successful, they will need to impact the economy.viii As can been seen during the 2019 protests, the economy of Hong Kong took a blow due to the ongoing China-US trade war and the protests, but the Central Government did not budge for a long time showing that Hong Kong is more than its economy for the Mainlandix and even when the government has announced a formal withdrawal of the Bill,x there has been no statement by the government on the other demands of the protesters. There had been a deployment of the People’s Armed Police (PAP)3 along the border of Hong Kong and Shenzhen to deal with the “rioters” and “terrorists”,xi which had never been the case earlier.

One of the peculiar things about the 2019 protests was the large turnout of people. The number of participants in the June 16, 2019 protests was more than what the Victoria Park4 could have held. The estimated number of protesters given by the police was 338,000, while the pro-democracy Civil Human Rights Front claimed that it was nearly 2 million.xii The protests were also held at the less politically engaged area of Kowloon.xiii5 August 18 was the first peaceful weekend in the city after many days.xiv

China’s Response

China has issued statements against the European Union (EU), the United States (US) and Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) as a warning to stop interfering in Hong Kong’s affairs. The EU’s High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy, Federica Mogherini, and Canadian Foreign Minister Chrystia Freeland issued a joint statement on Hong Kong on August 18, 2019. The statement asked all the stakeholders to initiate a dialogue to solve the issue. It also reiterated that the autonomy that Hong Kong enjoys is enshrined in China’s Constitution. In response to this, the Chinese side asked the EU not to interfere in China’s internal matters and respect international law.xv

You Wenze, the spokesperson of the Foreign Affairs Committee of the National People’s Congress of China, issued a statement against the US lawmakers who have accused China of human rights violations in Hong Kong. The statement mentioned that the Hong Kong protesters have gone against the Constitution of the PRC and the laws on China’s national flag and emblem, and hence they must be punished according to the rule of law and that the US should stop meddling in China’s internal affairs.xvi

Although having major similarities with other protests, both on the part of the protesters as well as the government, the 2019 protests are bigger and fiercer in nature. The youth makes up a large proportion of the protestors, which some analysts believe is because of the deadline of the Sino-British Joint Declaration in 2047. The youngsters have grown with democratic values and in a democratic system and the incremental encroachment by the Mainland poses a problem for them.xvii The youth have been at the forefront of the protests and have voiced their demands, and these can have an effect on their as well as on the coming generation. Joshua Wong and Nathan Lawxviii of Demosisto6 xix, the youth leaders at the forefront of the protests are those who were earlier sentenced in 2017 for their role in the 2014 Umbrella Movement. Apart from demanding greater democracy and being frustrated with the economic inequalities in the city, the youth are also concerned over the identity of Hong Kong like never before. The youth and the people of Hong Kong have to make sure that a strong system upholding democracy and freedom is in place, so that it can be resilient enough in case the Mainland tries to put a new system in place after 2047. Although there has been a speculation about the repetition of the Tiananmen Square incidence, the Global Times in an editorial dated August 16, 2019, refuted such claims arguing that China has matured and possess better ways to tackle the situation than military use.xx Mainland China cannot afford to lose its face in the international sphere by using military and police to curb the protests; moreover it could make Hong Kong slip out of Mainland’s hand forever. It can also affect China’s plans to unite with other territories based on “one country, two systems”.


The HKSAR enjoys a democratic system under the shadows of Communist China. The pro-democracy and pro-independence elements have been voicing their concern over the ‘Mainlandi-sation’xxi of Hong Kong. Ever since Hong Kong was handed back to China under the Sino-British Joint Declaration, the 2019 protests have been the most violent both on the part of the protestors as well as the police. The reason for the Anti-Extradition Bill protests turning into a pro-democracy movement can possibly be because of the underlying fear among the citizens of Hong Kong that the autonomy would completely perish if China is successful in bringing about even a single change in the Hong Kong system that it proposes from time to time. The autonomy of the city is closely related to the identity of the citizens of Hong Kong. The protesters think that China’s interference meddles with their identity, which can lead to a situation where this unique identity of the citizens of Hong Kong will cease to exist and be assimilated into that of the Mainland. Even when the HKSAR Government has announced that it would formally withdraw the Bill, the protests are far from over again testifying that every protest in Hong Kong is less about the immediate matter and more about its future and eroding democracy.


1. The Hong Kong Basic Law is a set of policies which makes up the mini-constitution of HKSAR; it delineates China’s basic policies vis-a-vis Hong Kong. It was adopted in 1990 and came into effect in 1997.

2. The 2014 protest in HKSAR is popularly known as the Umbrella Movement because of protestors using umbrellas as a shield against pepper sprays and water cannons used by the police. During the earlier phase the protests were called Occupy Central protests.

3. PAP not People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is used to control the situations like protests.

4. Victoria Park is the largest open and flat area in Hong Kong.

5. The Kowloon area of Hong Kong is also the area where most mainlanders live.

6. Demosisto is a pro-democracy organisation which aims to achieve democratic self-determination for Hong Kong.


i A Brief History of Protest in Post-Handover Hong Kong. (2019). [online] Available at: [Accessed 12 September 12, 2019].

ii Cheng, K. (2019), Dozens of pro-Beijing protesters march to foreign consulates, urging them to ‘stop interfering’ in Hong Kong. [online] Available at: [Accessed August 8, 2019].

iii (2019). Fresh Hong Kong Protests End in Chaotic Clashes. [online] Available at: [Accessed July 22, 2019].

iv Grace Shao, E. (2019). Hong Kong’s leader says the city is verging on ‘a very dangerous situation’. [online] CNBC. Available at: [Accessed August 23, 2019].

v (2019). China warns Hong Kong protesters not to ‘play with fire’. [online] Available at: [Accessed August 20, 2019].

vi Time. (2019). [online] Available at: [Accessed August 20, 2019].

vii Lam, J., (2019), Why are Hong Kong youth angry? [online] Available at: [Accessed July 22, 2019].

viii Headley, T. and Lau, T. (2016). Why Did Hong Kong’s Umbrella movement Fail? [online] The Diplomat. Available at: [Accessed August 16, 2019].

ix Tsang, D. (2019), Political unrest hitting Hong Kong where it hurts — in the wallet. [online] South China Morning Post. Available at: [Accessed August 16, 2019].

x Kuo, L. and Yu, V. (2019), Hong Kong’s leader withdraws extradition bill that ignited mass protests. [online] the Guardian. Available at: [Accessed 12 September 12, 2019].

xi Tiezzi, S. (2019), Will Beijing Use Force to End the Hong Kong Protests? [online] The Diplomat. Available at: [Accessed August 16 2019].

xii Scarr, S., Sharma, M., Hernandez, M. and Tong, V. (2019), Measuring the masses. [online] Available at: 01H/index.html [Accessed July 22, 2019].

xiii Tsang, E. and Yeo, R. (2019), The difference between a Kowloon extradition bill protest and one on Hong Kong Island: it’s more than just fishballs. [online] Available at: bill-protest-and-one [Accessed July 22, 2019].

xiv (2019), Hong Kong protests: Huge crowds rally peacefully. [online] Available at: [Accessed August 20 2019].

xv (2019), Chinese mission strongly opposes EU’s meddling in Hong Kong affairs - People’s Daily Online. [online] Available at: [Accessed August 20, 2019].

xvi (2019), NPC Foreign Affairs Committee spokesperson slams U.S. lawmakers’ wrong comments on HK - People’s Daily Online. [online] Available at: [Accessed August 20, 2019].

xvii Ives, M. and Li, K. (2019), For Hong Kong’s Youth, Protests Are ‘a Matter of Life and Death’. [online] Available at: [Accessed August 19, 2019].

xviii (2019), Twitter. [online] Available at: 8224?ref_src=twsrc%5Etf w%7Ctwcam p%5Etweetem bed&ref_url=http 2F2019%2F08%2F12%2Fmeet-the-millennial-leaders-of-hong-kongs-protests.html [Accessed August 20, 2019].

xix Demosistô. (2019), About Us - Demosistô. [online] Available at: [Accessed August 23, 2019].

xx (2019), Futile for Washington to play HK card - Global Times. [online] Available at: http://www. [Accessed August 20, 2019].

xxi Shiu-Hing Lo, S. (2008), The Mainlandization of Hong Kong. [online] Available at: The_Mainlandization_of_Hong_Kong [Accessed July 22, 2019].

The author has completed her post-graduation in Chinese Language from the Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi. Presently she is interning at the Indian Council of World Affairs (ICWA).

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