Since coming to power, Chinese leader Xi Jinping has waged an ideological war against the influence of “Western values” such as constitutional democracy, press freedom, judicial independence and universal human rights — notions that have long been cherished in Hong Kong and formed an integral part of its identity.
The city’s pursuit of full democracy, namely ultimately electing its leader by universal suffrage — a goal written into its mini-constitution, the Basic Law — is especially viewed with suspicion by Beijing, which is worried that a freely elected leader could pose a challenge to its authority.
Umbrella Movement: In 2014, thousands of young protesters occupied key roads in the city’s financial center to demand “true universal suffrage” — rejecting a proposal by China’s parliament to have the candidates vetted in advance by a pro-Beijing committee.
The peaceful protests, known as the “Umbrella Movement,” ended after 79 days, with none of their demands met.
Since then, Beijing has sought to exert more control over Hong Kong. During his first visit to the city as China’s leader in 2017, Xi warned that any efforts to “challenge the power” of the central government were “absolutely impermissible.”
Running out of time: Beijing’s tightening grip only intensified discontent in the city, especially among its younger generation — many of whom fear they are running out of time to fight for democracy before the 2047 deadline for how long things would be nominally allowed to stay the same in the semi-autonomous city.
Some tried to push for change by joining the city’s legislature, but that failed too under increasing pressure from Beijing. A slew of pro-democracy lawmakers were disqualified over an oath-taking controversy, while other candidates were barred from standing for office.
2019 protests: Long-running tensions eventually erupted in 2019. Over that summer, peaceful marches against a proposed bill that would allow the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China soon snowballed into sometimes violent anti-Beijing protests, plunging the city into months of social unrest and its most tumultuous period since the handover.
National security law: On June 30, 2020, Beijing bypassed Hong Kong’s legislature to impose a national security law on the city, which critics say, has been used to crush the its opposition movement, overhaul its electoral system, silence its outspoken media and cripple its once-vibrant civil society. The Hong Kong government has repeatedly defended the law, saying it has restored order to the city following the 2019 protests.
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