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What Do the Hong Kong Protesters Want?

The territory has been rocked by protests ending in violent clashes with police. Demonstrators have five key demands

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Protesters in Hong Kong international airport
Protesters have occupied Hong Kong international airport, sparking its closure on Monday., Photograph: Laurel Chor/EPA

Hong Kong has been rocked by protests since early June, many of which have ended in violent clashes between police and demonstrators.

Why did the protests start?

The protests were initially focused on a bill that would have made it possible to extradite people from Hong Kong to China, where the Communist party controls the courts. Many Hongkongers feared the law would be used by authorities to target political enemies and that it would signify the end of the “one country, two systems” policy, eroding the civil rights enjoyed by Hong Kong residents since the handover of sovereignty from the UK to China in 1997. Millions of people joined street marches against the bill, paralysing the city. The protests have gone from weekly to almost daily.

The heavy-handed response from police, including violent clashes and the use of teargas and rubber bullets against demonstrators and the blinding of a woman in one eye, prompted the movement adopt wider pro-democracy goals.

What do the protesters want?

The extradition bill was suspended by the territory’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, in mid June, but protesters want it officially withdrawn. In addition to demanding Lam’s resignation, the protesters are calling for:

  • The complete withdrawal of the proposed extradition bill

  • The government to withdraw the use of the word “riot” in relation to protests

  • The unconditional release of arrested protesters and charges against them dropped

  • An independent inquiry into police behaviour

  • Implementation of genuine universal suffrage

What is going on at Hong Kong airport?

Protests at the airport have escalated, culminating in its temporary closureand disruption to hundreds of flights, including to long-haul departures to the US, Australia and the UK. Lam said on Tuesday that “lawbreaking activities in the name of freedom” were damaging the rule of law and that the territory’s recovery from the protests could take a long time.

China’s civil aviation authority issued a warning to Hong Kong’s carrier, Cathay Pacific, about the involvement of its staff in protests. It said that from 11 August, all personnel from the airline “involved in and supporting illegal demonstrations” would no longer be able to fly to mainland China or work there in air transportation.

How has Beijing responded to the protests?

China has accused foreign powers, particularly the US, of fomenting the demonstrations in Hong Kong. State media has gone from near silence on the protests and blanket censorship of footage of the demonstrations, to describing protests as “riots”. Beijing has described protestors are described as ‘“radicals”, “thugs” and “terrorists” seeking to topple the entire system through their push for independence. Meanwhile, Chinese army vehicles have been spotted at the border, stoking fears of a looming violent crackdown.

What has been the international reaction to the protests?

The UK has called for an independent investigation into the protests, condemned violence and emphasised the right to peaceful protest. China criticised the intervention and said it was “simply wrong” for Britain’s foreign secretary, Dominic Raab, to directly call Lam to “exert pressure”.

China asked Washington to explain reports in Communist party-controlled media that US diplomats were in contact with student leaders of the protests. A US state department spokesperson responded by calling China a “thuggish regime” for disclosing photographs and personal details of the diplomat. On 13 August, a senior Trump administration official urged “all sides” to avoid violence.

Canada’s Justin Trudeau and Australia’s Scott Morrison have voiced their concern at the handling of the unprecedented political crisis in the wake of the airport protest. Morrison rejected the characterisation of protests as “riots” and Trudeau called for a “de-escalation of tensions”.