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What New Yorkers Need To Know About The Hong Kong Protests


Over the last five months, Hong Kong has been enveloped in a political crisis that has resulted in violent clashes with police and more than 2,000 arrests. But the passions fueling the demonstrations have not been limited to Hong Kong.

In New York City, which has roughly 629,000 Chinese, the highest ethnic Chinese population of any individual city outside Asia, activists in support of the Hong Kong protesters have held rallies, created protest art installations known as Lennon Walls, and most recently, staged a demonstration against the NBA, which earlier this month became embroiled in the geopolitical conflict after one of its executives posted a tweet in support of the Hong Kong protesters, prompting a backlash from China.

The situation appears unlikely to die down anytime soon. In the meantime, pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong are urging Western countries to get involved, and there has been bi-partisan support among Congressional lawmakers to support the protesters. The Senate is expected to vote on the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act of 2019, which would require the U.S. to conduct an annual review of Hong Kong‘s rule of law to determine whether the city can keep its special trading status.

During a visit to New York City last week, Martin Lee, an 81-year-old democracy advocate and former Hong Kong lawmaker who helped draft Hong Kong‘s so-called “mini-constitution,” told Gothamist that countries like the U.S. and Canada have a “moral obligation to speak up” in support of the protesters.

What is happening in Hong Kong, he said, should be “a wake up call to the Americans.”

Here is a rundown on the protests in Hong Kong and how the issue has spilled over into New York City’s Chinese community.

What is Hong Kong‘s political status?

Hong Kong, which is located on China‘s southern coast, was a British colony until 1997. Under a Joint Declaration, the UK agreed to hand control back to China under the condition that Hong Kong would be ruled under a “one country, two systems” policy until 2047. The arrangement allowed Hong Kong, a global financial capital with 7.4 million people, to maintain its economic and trade policies as well as its own judicial, executive, and legislative powers. The city has its own “mini-constitution” that ensures freedom of the press, assembly, and religious beliefs, among other rights.

In practice, China still wields considerable political control over Hong Kong. The city’s chief executive or top leader, currently the embattled Carrie Lam, is selected by an election committee to serve a five-year term. However, Beijing loyalists make up the majority of the election committee, meaning that the Communist Party in China determines the winner. On top of that, Hong Kong government authorities have also barred pro-democracy activists from running for elected office, arguing that their call for independence violates the city’s mini-constitution, which says that Hong Kong is part of China.

What triggered the protests in Hong Kong?

The latest protests, which began in June, resulted from public furor over an extradition bill that would have allowed people accused of crimes to be sent to China as well as other places with which Hong Kong had no extradition treaty. The bill spurred fears among Hong Kongers that they could be sent to mainland China on trumped up charges. On June 9, an estimated one million people turned out for rally against the proposal, making it one of the biggest protests in the city’s history.

On September 4, Lam officially withdrew the bill in what many saw as an attempt to quell the protests. By then, the protesters had expanded their demands, calling for greater civil liberty, police accountability, and autonomy from Beijing. As Lee explained, “The protesters ask for democracy, which was promised in our mini-constitution.”

Are economic and quality-of-life reasons also contributing to the protests?

Yes. Like New York City, Hong Kong is also struggling with growing inequality. A New York Times story in July reported that the median price of a house is more than 20 times that of the annual median household income. A rush of of mainland investment in the housing market, coupled with luxury development, have contributed to skyrocketing real estate prices. Similar to the Yellow Vest protests in France, activists in Hong Kong, particularly younger ones, are gripped by an anxiety that they cannot afford to live as well as their parents’ generation.

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Is this the only time that Hong Kongers have protested the government?

No. Tensions over Beijing have been simmering for some time. The roots of the current political unrest in Hong Kong can be traced back to 2014, when tens of thousands of people marched in the streets calling for free and fair elections. That campaign, which became known as the Umbrella Revolution or Umbrella Movement, a reference to the instrument protesters used to fend off pepper spray from police, lasted less than three months.

At the time, the student leaders of the Umbrella Movement came away feeling as if they had failed. Lee has credited them with sowing “the seeds of demonstration into the hearts of students.”

Referring to the latest protests, he said, “The seeds have grown into flowers.”

When did the pro-Hong Kong protests in NYC begin?

Demonstrations in support of the Hong Kong protesters began in early June. On June 9, the same day as the massive march in Hong Kong, New Yorkers Supporting Hong Kong (NY4HK), a collection of expats and younger Chinese New Yorkers with family connections to Hong Kong, organized their own protest rally in Times Square. About 1,000 protesters came, according to organizer Anna Cheung, many of them holding yellow umbrellas.

Since that time, there have been other protests as well as events with prominent activists like Joshua Wong and Lee. Most have been organized by NY4HK, but not all. Like the protesters in Hong Kong, those in New York have prided themselves on being leaderless, at times invoking a phrase from Bruce Lee, “Be water, my friend,” which means they can be highly adaptable.

What is a Lennon Wall and where can I see one?

Throughout the Hong Kong protests, Lennon Walls, which are protest installations comprised of artwork and messages of support, have sprung up spontaneously across the city. The wall gets its name from the original one in Prague that began as a tribute to John Lennon following his death but during the late 1980s turned into the site where young Czech protesters wrote their criticisms against the communist government.

In August, a Lennon Wall turned up in front of a construction site along Grand Street in Chinatown. The display had roughly 100 post-it notes with messages of support, both in Chinese and English, for Hong Kong. Since that time, other Lennon Walls have appeared in other parts of Lower Manhattan as well as in Brooklyn.

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Elizabeth Kim / Gothamist

How do most Chinese in NYC feel about the Hong Kong protests?

As with those in Hong Kong, the Chinese community in New York City is divided about the protests. In Hong Kong, the issue has been seen as exposing an intergenerational disagreement over issues of Chinese sovereignty and political activism. In New York City, the conflict has been viewed as largely one between mainland Chinese immigrants, many of whom were groomed to defend a united homeland, and those who are from or have ties to Hong Kong. The immigration pattern of Chinese in New York City has been characterized by a large wave of Chinese immigrants from Hong Kong and Guangdong province in China in the 1960s. They were followed by Taiwanese immigrants and more recently, mainland Chinese from the city of Fuzhou.

There have been a couple of clashes. In August, during a rally in support of Hong Kong protesters in Chinatown, a group of pro-Beijing demonstrators held a counter-protest and allegedly threw bottles at the Hong Kong supporters. The Lennon Walls have also become visible political battlegrounds between the two sides. In late August, the wall on Grand Street was vandalized twice in one week. In one instance, the words “Fuck HK Roach” were spray painted across the messages of support for protesters as well as other profanities.

A wall supporting the protesters in Hong Kong early Tuesday morning.

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A wall supporting the protesters in Hong Kong early Tuesday morning.

(Gothamist tipster)

What does the NBA and Nets have to do with all of this?

In early October, Houston Rockets general manager Daryl Morey tweeted a message of support for protesters in Hong Kong. The tweet sparked huge anger from China, one of the league’s largest markets and what amounts to a multi-billion dollar relationship. Morey subsequently deleted the tweet and walked his statements back. The NBA additionally said it was sorry for offending Chinese fans.

The controversy, however, did not stop there. Brooklyn Nets’ owner Joe Tsai, a Taiwanese-billionaire who co-founded the Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba with a mainland Chinese parter, posted an open letter on Facebook that called the Hong Kong protesters a “separatist movement” and criticized Morey’s tweet as “damaging to the relationship with our fans in China.”

Protesters use steels barricades to form a defensive line inside the Quarry bay MTR station as they face with riot police in Hong Kong

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Protesters use steels barricades to form a defensive line inside the Quarry bay MTR station as they face with riot police in Hong Kong on August 11, 2019

Kin Cheung/AP/Shutterstock

Not long afterwards, LeBron James, the league’s biggest star who plays for the Los Angeles Lakers and has been outspoken about civil rights issues, also weighed in by saying that Morey was “misinformed” and cautioned those in the league to be careful about what they say about the protests. “Yes, we do have freedom of speech,” James said. “But at times, there are ramifications for the negative that can happen when you’re not thinking about others, when you only think about yourself.”

Hong Kong supporters in New York City responded by staging a demonstration at the Barclays Center during a preseason game between the Brooklyn Nets and the Toronto Raptors.

Andrew Duncan, a movie producer who purchased 300 tickets for the protesters, told Gothamist he was considering staging other protests. “The NBA should not be in bed with a communist regime,” he said.

What’s happening now?

The outcry in Hong Kong is ongoing, with this past weekend marking the 21st straight weekend of protests and in which police used tear gas and water cannons to disperse crowds. The South China Morning Post reported, “Once again violent mobs blocked roads, fought with police and hurled petrol bombs at them, vandalised shops, forced the closure of MTR stations and disrupted train services, while tear gas and water cannon were deployed against them. At least two journalists, including one from the Post, were injured by non-lethal rounds fired by police, while a freelance photographer was taken away by officers”

On Tuesday, HK Chief Executive Lam blamed the protests for drops in the tourism and retail industry—apparently tourism is down 50 percent and retail has fallen by 25 percent. A former executive of Cathay Pacific Airways has been appointed to “revive” the tourism sector.

Here in New York City, NY4HK is planning to stage two demonstrations around the upcoming marathon. On Friday, they will assemble activists to show their support at the opening ceremony for the marathon, where two runners from Hong Kong have been chosen to participate in a “parade of nations.” On Sunday, the group will host a cheering section for Hong Kong runners while also bringing attention to the pro-democracy protests.

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