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As Unrest Escalates in Hong Kong, Pro-Democracy Demonstrators' List of Demands Lengthens

Here's what you need to know about the development of the conflict in Hong Kong and the protesters' motivations.
Social workers gather outside the legislative council building to participate in an anti-government march in Hong Kong on July 21st, 2019, in Hong Kong.

Social workers gather outside the legislative council building to participate in an anti-government march in Hong Kong on July 21st, 2019, in Hong Kong.

Sunday marked the seventh week of widespread demonstrations in Hong Kong, as tensions between protesters and police continue to escalate and the demands of protesters continue to evolve.

The protests began in opposition to a proposed criminal extradition bill that would likely give mainland China's Communist Party-controlled courts the authority to try any charges against Hong Kong residents.

The bill was sparked by a recent murder case, in which a Hong Kong man killed his girlfriend during a trip to Taiwan. Since Hong Kong and Taiwan lack an extradition agreement, the Hong Kong government could not charge the man for a murder that took place in Taiwan. Hong Kong chief executive Carrie Lam used this case as a justification for the extradition bill between Hong Kong and any Chinese jurisdiction.

But the situation in Hong Kong is more complicated than just protests against this bill. Here's what you need to know about the development of the conflict and the protesters' motivations.

Historical Context

Hong Kong was a British colony from 1842 until 1997, when Britain returned the territory to China with the stipulation that the city and the mainland would operate under the principle "one country, two systems." This meant Hong Kong would partially govern itself and retain its capitalist economic system and partially democratic political system for 50 years, after which Communist-led China would regain total control. Pro-democracy Hongkongers view the extradition bill as a threat to their autonomy because they fear the increasingly pro-Beijing government would allow for the extradition of political dissidents to the mainland government, which has been reported to have a conviction rate of over 99 percent.

"In recent years, the Hong Kong government has disqualified elected lawmakers, banned activists from running for office, prohibited a political party, jailed pro-democracy leaders, expelled a senior foreign journalist, and looked the other way when Beijing kidnapped its adversaries in Hong Kong," Ben Bland, a Hong Kong expert at the Lowy Institute in Australia, told Vox.

Bill Suspension: 'Just Delaying the Pain'

Hoping to appease protesters and prevent further violence after initial protests, Lam announced the indefinite suspension of the bill on June 15th. Yet this suspension did not meet the demands of the protesters, and demonstrations have continued.

"Postponement is temporary. It's just delaying the pain," democratic lawmaker Claudia Mo told the New York Times. "This is not good enough, simply not right. We demand a complete scrapping of this controversial bill."

On July 9th, Lam declared the extradition bill dead. Still, protests continue, and tensions continue to rise.

More Unrest

As the controversy has escalated, pro-democracy demonstrators claim they have been met with opposition and brutality from police, prompting additional unrest. On Saturday, July 13th, police used tear gas and clubs to break up a group of young protesters, and the next day, fights broke out between protesters and police officers after the day's mostly peaceful demonstration, the Associated Press reported.

Hong Kong police seized powerful homemade explosives found at a site with anti-extradition bill materials (though no link between the explosives and the materials has been proven) the Friday night before a pro-police rally on Saturday, June 20th, and more pro-democracy protests the following day. On the night of Sunday, July 21st, pro-democracy protesters defaced the Chinese national emblem on the front of Beijing's Hong Kong Liaison Office; hours later, a group of white-clad assailants attacked pro-democracy protesters on the subway, injuring dozens of people.

Evolving Demands

To Lam's opponents, the protests must continue because the announcement of the bill's death is not enough. They are now calling for a broadened list of actions: They want Lam to make clear that the extradition bill has been officially withdrawn, they want Lam to resign, they demand an independent inquiry into police conduct throughout the demonstrations, and they ask for charges against protesters who have been arrested to be dropped.

In a column for the Guardian, Nathan Law, a politician and activist in Hong Kong, summarized the underlying reason for the continuing protests and escalating demands: "The simple fact is that people in Hong Kong have been fighting for democracy for almost 40 years, and we have never come so close to forcing our leaders to commit to genuine political reform."