Photograph by Liam Burnett-Blue. Edited by Allie Rutz
China / Politics

After 178 Years of Strife, Will a Face Mask Ban Push Hong Kong Past its Breaking Point?

In the last four months, Hong Kong has been filled with turmoil and political unrest. Protestors have filled the streets—donning facemasks, brandishing sticks and flags, and banging pots and pans—in unified protest against China’s attempt to implement an extradition bill on the city. 

The bill requires citizens arrested in Hong Kong to be transported to mainland China for trial and sentencing. Those living in Hong Kong felt that this law stole power from the Hong Kong government and unfairly turned it over the Chinese. Citizens of Hong Kong who felt they had lost a share of their democratic liberties began pro-democracy protests. The extradition bill marked the genesis of 4 months of escalating protests and bears greater significance as the boiling point of over 178 years of tension between the former British colony, HK, and the Chinese mainland. Recent events in Hong Kong are part of a long history of shuffled and contested ownership ever since it was occupied by Britain in 1841. 

Hong Kong Island was forcefully handed over to the British after the Treaty of Nanking ended the first Opium War in 1842. Hong Kong island, a crucial trading port in the Asia-pacific region, was strategically and economically vital to whomever controlled it. After China further attempted to halt the trade of opium after the first opium war, it was once again met with British frustration, leading to conflict in the second opium war. The war ended with the succession of the entire Kowloon peninsula to the British. In 1898 the British received a 99 year lease on the new territories and their already conquered land, initiating the formation of Hong Kong as we know it today. 

The British ran Hong Kong as a major trading port in the Pacific Ocean until Hong Kong was seized by Japan during World War II and occupied by them for 4 years until returned to the Queen at the end of the war. The end of British rule finally occurred in 1997 with the end of the 99 year lease. This transition of Hong Kong back to Chinese rule was by no means easy. By the 1940s, Hong Kong had already grown far removed from its old ruler. The transfer of Hong Kong to China was unfavorable for the citizens of Hong Kong who sought independence and economic freedom. Hong Kong’s history of power exchanges and their importance as an economic hub drew in an elite Asian diaspora, expats and Western banks, and commercial entities that intermingled with historically Han and Hong Kongese people. These cosmopolitan conditions allowed HK to grow into a melting pot: a cultural microcosm vastly separated from the culture and economy of China, with whom Hong Kong shares a border. 

The largest difference between Hong Kong and China was that HK had formed a capitalist economy in direct opposition to communist-ruled China. This proved to be a major economic, cultural, and social point of contention mixed with other differences like language, with Hong Kong supporting Cantonese, English and Chinese-speaking Mandarin, to create massive tension in the transition. To retain continuity, a deal was struck between China and Hong Kong called the “One Country, Two Systems” policy. This allowed Hong Kong to remain capitalist, continue its democratic traditions and freedoms, and sustain much of its legislative and local governing structure for 50 years, as was agreed in the contract. As a result, Hong Kong became its own special administrative region. China’s role was limited to dealing with Hong Kong’s international affairs as well as legal interpretation of basic laws, functions that would have otherwise fell under the jurisdiction of the government of Beijing. 

However, the agreement formed a tentative peace, and fissures slowly manifested. The largest point of controversy, which still plagues the conflict today, is the definition of basic laws. The people of Hong Kong continually believe that China’s interpretation of these laws overstep its boundaries. They believe the Chinese Communist Party involves itself too much by interfering and influencing laws in a manner that is demonstrative to their liberty. Policies such as the extradition law exemplify China’s encroachments on Hong Kong liberty and has largely sparked today’s protests. 

In late September, protests seemed to be losing steam as local Hong Kong’s government proved successful in containing protests while discussing the removal of the extradition bill. The face mask ban, a new kind of protest movement, seems to have reignited the passion in the protestestors and in the movement as a whole. The facemasks act dually as protection from tear gas and a symbol of anonymity for the protestors of Hong Kong. Facemasks act as a way to hide the identities of the protestors from police, cameras and even family as they watch the TV. The facemasks secure the protestors identities and allow them to protest with lower risk of social repercussions. Face Masks have also been a cultural statement in the region as of late with younger generations wearing them for trendy style. The ban was initiated by the government of Hong Kong in an effort to show their attempts at peacefully suppressing the protests. The facemask ban would allow for identification of key protestors and would raise the social risk of protesting ideally lowering protests without the use of violence/ However the ban has proved only to add fuel to the protestors’ fire as they argue that it takes away their civil liberties and inches the island closer to the kind of  suppression of free speech seen in China. The protestors fight for a list of “five demands”: (1) the full withdrawal of the extradition bill (which has happened), (2) A commission of inquiry into police brutality, (3) a retraction of the classification of protestors as “rioters”, (4) amnesty for arrested protestors, and finally, (5) dual universal suffrage for both the Legislative Council and the Chief Executive. This means that these elected officials in Hong Kong would not have to be approved by a committee from China. This committee has been in place to confirm Hong Kong representatives since 2014. These 5 points are the rallying points of the protestors and with each action from the government their rebellion and hold on these points becomes more staunch.

This face mask ban follows a series of more violent actions by the Hong Kong government to quell protests such as mobilization of riot squads and large police forces which has only escalated protest. The facemask ban seems to be a point of no return as violence has escalated with each counter protest act. Violence is met with more violence as tear gas, and weapons are being used by both sides with protestors lighting fires all around the city. The protests only turn bloodier and bloodier as seen when protestors took the China Polytechnical Institute under siege in early november only to be surrounded by riot breakers after about two weeks of siege. The breaking of the siege led to over 1,000 arrests but no major reported injuries or deaths. 

In the face of the university protest, courts in Hong Kong decided to withdraw the facemask ban claiming it was “unnecessary and unwarranted.” This was a substantive win for the protestors but received a notable response from the increasingly frustrated People’s Republic of China. The Chinese government claimed that the overturning of the facemask ban was a weak move for the city and that Hong Kong had proven itself incapable of halting protests. Newspapers around China published inflammatory articles attacking the protestors and the government of Hong Kong for not responding. The People’s Daily, the main newspaper of the People’s Republic of China, released a statement saying, “The violent crimes are a ‘virus’ threatening Hong Kong society and a common enemy that is a scourge to all humankind.” China’s government, believing that Hong Kong was compromising their own national security, threatened to use its powers to overturn the Hong Kong court’s decision and reinstate the facemask ban. Acts like these by the Chinese government are exactly why protesters continue to flood the streets of Hong Kong as China encroaches more and more upon the civil liberties and freedom of Hong Kong from China.

A conflict which started with a war for opium trade is now a fight for democracy. Many fear the increased tension between Hong Kong and China could lead to a major upheaval of the One Country, Two Systems policy and be the culmination of 178 years of simmering political conflict in the region. Will China successfully assert its power over Hong Kong? Can peace be secured, or is the present conflict only a taste of what is to come? It remains to be seen if the protesters have the drive to continue their dissent, even as China raises the stakes.