Yet, Hongkongers do enjoy freedom of speech, freedom of the press and freedom of assembly. This last freedom, in particular, Hongkongers exercise frequently, with vigor and, sometimes, to the effect of political change.
Some of the biggest protest movements in Hong Kong’s recent history share a common theme: The desire to safeguard Hong Kong’s unique identity. The issues that threaten to impinge upon that identity — whether by curtailing the precious rights and freedoms the city enjoys or chipping away at its cultural heritage — provoke the most visceral reactions from Hongkongers.
There is no reason to expect that will change.
The Star Ferry and Leftist riots (1966-67)
The following year, a strike by workers at the Hong Kong Artificial Flower Company triggered labor unrest that spread across the territory, with the support of the Chinese Communist Party-affiliated Federation of Trade Unions. As the protesters turned their focus from labor rights to the British Imperialist administration, strikes and work stoppages brought the territory to a standstill.
This was followed by a campaign of terrorist bombings across Hong Kong and pitched battles between protesters and police. Fifty-one died throughout the turmoil, including 10 police officers.
In the wake of the 1966-67 protests, the British administration introduced a series of reforms to improve workers’ rights as well as social welfare in Hong Kong. New public housing programs, compulsory free education and deeper government engagement at the local community level were all the result of government attempts to temper the discontent in Hong Kong that had fueled the protests.
June 4 vigils (1989 onwards)
In the spring of 1989, however, the world was captivated by student pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square. Hongkongers, anxious about their future under Beijing’s rule, watched intently, many providing financial support to the students. On Sunday May 21, 1989, the day after martial law was declared in Beijing, over 600,000 Hongkongers took to the streets to express solidarity with the Beijing protesters.
The following Sunday, May 28, with rumors swirling of an imminent military crackdown in Beijing, 1.5 million people marched in Hong Kong — part of a worldwide day of protest. Hongkongers watched the events of the following weekend, June 3 and 4, with one thought in their minds: “That could be us.”
Opposing Article 23 (2003)
By 2003, unemployment was high and discontent with the first post-handover leader Chief Executive Tung Chee-Hwa was simmering. The government’s proposal to pass a law criminalizing acts of sedition and subversion against mainland China — referred to as “Article 23” — was the last straw.
Save Star Ferry and Queens’ Pier (2006)
In the early 2000s, the Hong Kong government began an ambitious land reclamation project on Hong Kong Island to create acres of new waterfront land, underground bypasses and to expand the subway system. The project necessitated the demolition of the existing Star Ferry and Queen’s Piers.
Ultimately, however, development prevailed over heritage, the protesters were cleared and the piers removed. While the Star Ferry Pier was sent to landfill, Queen’s Pier remains in pieces in a government warehouse, allegedly awaiting reconstruction.
Wedding Card Street (2007)
In 2003, Hong Kong authorities announced a major redevelopment of the Lee Tung Street area in Wan Chai, also known as “Wedding Card Street” thanks to the traditional wedding invitation printers located in the shopfronts.
The old tenement buildings were to be bulldozed and turned into a mixed-use, high-end retail and residential complex.
Activists initially tried to work within the system, appealing to government committees. But after their proposals were rejected, the activists protested, again attempting to block workers from demolishing the site. Their protest was ultimately unsuccessful — The Avenue, a luxury residential and commercial development, stands today on the site of the former Wedding Card Street.
Anti-Moral and National Education Protest (2011)
In May 2011, Hong Kong’s Curriculum Development Council recommended that a compulsory “Moral and National Education” civics course be introduced into all Hong Kong schools. It was seen as a response to comments from China’s senior leaders that Hong Kong youth should be taught to better “love the motherland.”
The proposed curriculum, released in July 2012 and entitled “The China Model,” caused alarm. Parents, teachers and students were outraged at what they saw as biased, inaccurate information about mainland China and sycophantic praise of the central government. The curriculum was, they argued, akin to “brainwashing.”
In July 2011, 90,000 people marched outside the government headquarters where the protesters settled in for an extended occupation, with concerts and rallies over the following months. In September, as the new school year approached, a public protest of 120,000 people ensued.
Eventually, the government relented and the National Education subject was withdrawn. This was the second time in recent history that a protest movement in Hong Kong had won a major reversal from the government.
The Umbrella Movement (2014)
In 2014, a government plan to introduce constitutional reforms that would, for the first time, permit general elections for the chief executive position were highly anticipated.
When those final proposals fell short of the pro-democracy camp’s expectations — the reforms would permit only a limited number of candidates who had been pre-approved by a small-circle “nomination committee” to run in the election — a group calling themselves “Occupy Central for Love and Peace,” announced a sit-in in Hong Kong’s Central business district, inspired by the “Occupy Wall Street” movement.
Before that, students led by Joshua Wong’s Scholarism and an alliance of university student unions, began protests outside the government headquarters.
The two protests decided to join forces and thousands descended on the site, overwhelming police and occupying the roads. Police fired tear gas in a failed attempt to disperse the crowds, stoking popular anger and attracting even more protesters.
This time, however, the government refused to budge. Their only attempt at public engagement came when a delegation of student leaders participated in a live, televised debate with a group of senior government officials, led again by Lam.
Ultimately, the proposals were voted down by the pro-democracy camp in Hong Kong’s legislature and Hong Kong’s electoral system remains unchanged.