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What’s Going On in Hong Kong? A Guide to the Protests

HONG KONG — The protests that have shaken Hong Kong this summer began with huge demonstrations in early June against an unpopular bill. Since then, they have become a broader movement against Beijing’s power in this semiautonomous territory.

Over the course of several weeks, violent clashes between young protesters and the police have become more frequent, and the demonstrators’ demands have gotten more diverse and ambitious. Activists have stormed government offices, halted public transportation and defaced symbols of China’s authority. And the police’s use of force against demonstrators, along with their failure to prevent a mob attack on train passengers, has made their conduct a central issue.

Here’s a guide to what prompted the protests, how they evolved and why it all matters.

ImageCreditLam Yik Fei for The New York TimesWhat is Hong Kong’s relationship with China?

Hong Kong, an international finance hub on China’s southern coast, was a British colony until 1997, when it was handed back to China under a policy known as “one country, two systems.”

The policy made Hong Kong part of China but let it keep many liberties denied to citizens on the mainland, including free speech, unrestricted internet access and the right to free assembly. The territory has its own laws, system of government and police force under a mini-constitution known as the Basic Law. China promised that this system would remain in place until at least 2047.

But many Hong Kongers feel that Beijing is already chipping away at its autonomy, and that the local government does its bidding. The territory’s top leader, the chief executive — currently Carrie Lam — is appointed by a pro-Beijing committee. And China’s security apparatus has made troubling intrusions into Hong Kong territory, including abducting booksellers and a Chinese-born billionaire.

ImageCreditLam Yik Fei for The New York TimesWhy did people start protesting?

In February, the local government introduced a bill in Hong Kong’s legislature, which is stacked with pro-China lawmakers, that would allow people accused of crimes to be sent to places with which Hong Kong had no extradition treaty — including mainland China, where the courts are controlled by the Communist Party.

Mrs. Lam, the chief executive, argued that the bill was needed to guarantee justice for victims. She said it was prompted by the case of a man who was accused of killing his girlfriend in Taiwan, then evading prosecution by fleeing to Hong Kong. Critics say the bill would allow Beijing to target dissidents in Hong Kong with phony charges.

[Read more about the extradition bill and why it is so unpopular.]

Hundreds of thousands of people, including elderly residents and families with children, joined a march to oppose the bill on June 9.

ImageCreditLam Yik Fei for The New York TimesWhy have the demonstrations continued?

The discussion and demands changed on June 12, when the police used pepper spray, batons and more than 150 canisters of tear gas to disperse thousands of protesters, a small number of whom had thrown projectiles at the police.

The violence raised the pressure on Mrs. Lam, and on June 15 she suspended the extradition bill, later calling it “dead.” But she refused to withdraw it entirely. Protesters consider that a half measure and have insisted on the bill’s formal withdrawal, as well as Mrs. Lam’s resignation and an investigation of the police’s use of force.

Fueled by anger toward the police, as well as the slow erosion of civil liberties, the largely leaderless protests have morphed into a broader, more complicated movement: about protecting freedoms, democracy and Hong Kong’s autonomy.

The demonstrations have continued, and the vast majority of the participants have been nonviolent. A peaceful march on June 16 was the biggest in Hong Kong’s history — as many as two million people may have joined it.

But clashes between the police and young protesters in hard hats, masks and black T-shirts have escalated sharply. Hundreds of demonstrators broke into the Legislative Council building in July, occupying it for hours and vandalizing it. Later that month, protesters defaced China’s national emblem on the central government’s main office in the city.

That night, a mob of more than 100 men armed with rods attacked protesters and bystanders at a train station, injuring dozens. The police were late to arrive and initially made no arrests; some of the people later arrested appear to have ties to the organized crime groups known as triads. The episode shocked the city and appears to have deepened anger toward the police, who have been accused of letting the attack happen.

The demonstrators have become more fluid in their tactics, moving from place to place around the city (“Be water,” a line from the late Hong Kong actor Bruce Lee, has become a rallying cry). They have surrounded police stations, throwing bricks and lighting fires, and the police have ramped up their use of tear gas. On Aug. 5, demonstrators held protests in various parts of the city, blocked trains and roads and called on Hong Kong people to stay home from work, which many apparently did.

ImageCreditJerome Favre/EPA, via ShutterstockHow have the governments of Hong Kong and China responded?

Beijing has stood behind Mrs. Lam and slowly ratcheted up its warnings to the protesters. But Chinese officials have largely left it to her to quell the unrest.

Mrs. Lam has refused to make further concessions since suspending the extradition bill, and she appears confident that her government can ride out the unrest. On Aug. 5, she accused protesters of challenging Chinese rule, saying “they want to topple Hong Kong, to thoroughly destroy the livelihoods that seven million people cherish.”

She said the movement could push the city “to the verge of a very dangerous situation.”

A day later, Yang Guang, an official in Beijing’s office for Hong Kong affairs, gave China’s strongest warning yet: “I want to warn all the criminals to not wrongly judge the situation and take restraint for weakness.”

A “blow from the sword of law is waiting for them in the future,” he said.

But Mr. Yang did not say how Hong Kong, or China, might resolve the crisis. Though the Chinese military hinted in July that it was ready to step in, local officials have denied that they planned to ask for military intervention, which the Basic Law allows. President Xi Jinping has refrained from commenting publicly about the crisis.

The police have made hundreds of arrests, activists have added the release of prisoners to their demands, and the cycle of protests, clashes and disruption has no clear end in sight.

ImageCreditLam Yik Fei for The New York Times


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