On Tuesday, massive anti-government protests in Hong Kong snarled operations at the city's airport, forcing the cancelation of outbound flights for the second consecutive day. Demonstrators swarmed ticketing desks and baggage-claim areas, making travel functionally impossible. Riot police briefly entered the building, and according to The New York Times, one officer drew a gun in an altercation with protestors but did not fire.
Some members of the assembled crowds began singing "Do You Hear the People Sing?" from Les Misérables—a response to the Chinese government's longstanding ban on the revolutionary anthem from music-streaming services.
The scene was just one in a months-long series of protests that have escalated dramatically of late. What began as a response to a seemingly innocuous piece of criminal justice legislation has become a de facto referendum on Hong Kong's rapidly disappearing autonomy from Beijing—and on the will of its residents to protect that autonomy from eroding any further.
What are the protesters protesting?
In February, Hong Kong's government began considering a bill designed to solve a very specific problem: In 2018, a 19-year-old Hong Kong man named Chan Tong-kai allegedly killed his pregnant girlfriend in Taiwan after an argument. He managed to return to Hong Kong before Taiwanese law enforcement officials could arrest him.
Ordinarily, Hong Kong law would allow the government to return a fugitive like Chan to the country seeking to prosecute him. Here, though, a quirk of the region's complicated history rendered authorities powerless to do so. Hong Kong is organized as a "special administrative region" of China, with a quasi-democratic government that operates separately from the mainland communist one. Because China does not recognize Taiwanese sovereignty—a cold war that dates to the Communist Revolution in the aftermath of World War II—it has no extradition treaty with Taiwan. Although Hong Kong maintains a more formal diplomatic relationship with Taiwan, the two have no formal extradition agreement, either.
Hong Kong, however, also has no extradition agreement with China. And the bill would allow Hong Kong's head of state, who holds the title of chief executive, to use their discretion to extradite people in Hong Kong to any jurisdiction with which the region has no extradition treaty. If enacted, this law would apply to Chan. But it would also, in theory, open up the possibility of extraditing Hong Kong residents to China, which has never happened in the more than two decades since reunification. Many residents fear the law could subject political dissidents and Communist Party critics to mainland China's notoriously opaque criminal justice system, which does not guarantee civil liberties to the same extent as Hong Kong's.
How did the protests begin?
A few smaller protests took place in the spring, but in June the bill prompted one of the most significant demonstrations in Hong Kong's history: Organizers claimed that nearly two million people participated in the march, while police estimated attendance at about 340,000. A general strike that same week forced many businesses to close their doors, from banks to schools to horse-racing betting branches. On several occasions, police clad in riot gear fired tear gas, rubber bullets, and beanbags at crowds after demonstrators allegedly threw bottles or other projectiles.
How did Hong Kong's government respond?
The current chief executive, Carrie Lam, suspended consideration of the bill shortly afterward and apologized to the public for the bill's clumsy rollout. Then, on July 9, she declared the proposal "dead"—but left open the possibility that the legislature, which is controlled by members of pro-Beijing political parties, would reconsider it later this year.
And so the protests continued: sit-ins, occupations, hunger strikes, general strikes, and many, many more marches. On July 1, demonstrators broke into the Legislative Council building, destroying furniture and portraits of pro-China politicians; police used tear gas to regain control at the scene. That month, the government began charging detainees using a colonial-era anti-"rioting" law that allows prosecutors to seek prison terms of up to ten years. Viewing this as an effort to stifle free expression, demonstrators incorporated police brutality and official characterizations of the protests as "riots" into their list of grievances.
Who are the movement's leaders?
Officially, there are none. Many demonstrations, including the event in June, were organized by the Civil Human Rights Front, a pro-democracy organization in Hong Kong. CHRF members continue to issue calls for marches, and sometimes act as de facto spokespeople for protestors. Representatives of Demosistō, a youth-oriented group that advocates for Hong Kong's right to self-determination, have also been active in the movement.
What more fundamental issues about Hong Kong's identity are at stake?
When the British returned Hong Kong to China in 1997, it did so under a "one country, two systems" principle in an effort to preserve Hong Kong's unique history and culture. Many residents, however, feel that Beijing has grown more aggressive in its efforts to force Hong Kong's assimilation. Protestors—especially young people with few or no connections to the mainland—have adopted the slogan "Retake Hong Kong, revolution of our times" as emblematic of the unique identity they feel is now in danger.
Why the airport?
Of course, the airport is only one of many sites of civil disobedience. But Hong Kong International is the world's eighth busiest airport and a hub for connecting flights throughout Asia, which makes it a prime location for protestors, as The New York Times put it, to make their case to the 200,000 passengers who pass through each day. Protestors blocked travelers from accessing security checkpoints or departure gates, and attacked two men in the crowd suspected of being Chinese agents.
After airport officials obtained an injunction limiting protests to designated zones within the terminal, police used pepper spray and batons to disperse those who remained late Tuesday night. On Wednesday, a pair of demonstrators held a sign at the airport apologizing to tourists for the previous day's violence.
How has this played out internationally?
The conflict between Hong Kong and its citizens has become a proxy for simmering tensions between Beijing and Washington, too. China, which has a vested interest in increasing its control over Hong Kong, has vocally supported the government's crackdown efforts. Officials in Beijing have accused westerners of espionage and blamed the unrest on the U.S., vowing to "never allow any foreign forces" to interfere in the region's politics. (Secretary of State Mike Pompeo called such allegations "ludicrous.") After protestors vandalized China's liaison office on July 21, a Hong Kong official hinted that his government would not rule out asking the People's Liberation Army to intervene if things got too out of hand.
On August 1, a bipartisan group of U.S. lawmakers urged President Donald Trump to take seriously China's incursions on Hong Kong's autonomy. "Failure to respond to Beijing’s threats will only encourage Chinese leaders to act with impunity," they warned. Trump, however, has praised Chinese president Xi Jinping for acting "very responsibly" during the "riots"—again, China's preferred terminology. According to the Financial Times, the president privately agreed to "mute" U.S. support for protestors to help facilitate an end to his U.S.-China trade war. "That’s between Hong Kong and that’s between China, because Hong Kong is a part of China," he said in late July. "They’ll have to deal with that themselves."
Where does this go next?
As China becomes a more autocratic society under Xi's rule, the protests have galvanized Hong Kong's pro-democracy activists and drawn renewed attention to the fragility of the district's privileged status. Right now, Hong Kong chief executives are selected by a 1,200-person "Election Committee" dominated by pro-business, pro-Beijing interests. Along with their calls for Lam's resignation, many demonstrators have voiced support for reforms that would guarantee direct election of chief executives, perhaps reducing the likelihood that future Hong Kong governments will surrender so much power without the people's consent.
At the same time, the rhetorical appeal of preserving democracy is of little practical use in an authoritarian state. On Tuesday, Trump tweeted that U.S. intelligence had determined that China has begun amassing troops at its border with Hong Kong. ("Everyone should be calm and safe!" he added.) Given his reluctance to undermine trade talks with China, aspirational platitudes might be as far as this administration is willing to go. As New York's Jonah Shepp wrote last week, if President Xi decides to send the People's Liberation Army into the streets, there is precious little the international community can do about it.
Originally Appeared on GQ