Pay attention to Hong Kong. A place known for its peaceful protests has become filled with violence and bloodshed.
On Monday, a citywide strike brought Hong Kong to a standstill, leading to canceled flights and dozens of people hospitalized after clashes between protesters and police.
Since March, hundreds of thousands of Hong Kongers have gathered in streets, metro stations and shopping centers.
The gatherings first turned violent in early June as protesters clashed with police over a now-suspended extradition bill that many interpreted as a threat to the city’s autonomy from China. Tensions have escalated ever since.
Police are using tear gas and rubber bullets indiscriminately against protesters. At times, mobs of men wielding sticks and poles, whom protesters suspect are local organized crime gangs colluding with police, are beating demonstrators. In those cases, police casually arrive when the violence has ended and the perpetrators have disappeared.
What started as mass rallies against the bill that critics claim would give China the legal authority to extradite and try political dissidents residing in Hong Kong, have turned into a larger movement protesting what they say is China’s efforts to illegitimately increase its authority over Hong Kong.
Hong Kong, which operated as a colony under British rule for more than 150 years, was handed back to China in 1997 under the premise that the city would maintain a high level of autonomy. A “one country, two systems” policy promised separate legal and economic systems until 2047. Hong Kongers see the extradition bill as a violation of that agreement.
Americans should pay attention to Hong Kong because protesters are fighting to protect their democratic system. Pay attention because bankers, civil servants, students, lawyers and business owners are protesting for a common cause. Pay attention because weeks of protests in the financial hub could shake international markets.
Pay attention because elderly citizens — aware of the physical dangers that younger protesters face — have acted as physical barriers between the police and demonstrators.
Dozens of protesters have been arrested on rioting charges, which carry up to a 10-year prison sentence. Police have blatantly obstructed news reporting and assaulted journalists. Four Hong Kongers have committed suicide in recent months, citing in their notes that they did so to bring attention to the cause.
Protesters marched to foreign consulates ahead of the G-20 summit in June to ask for support from the international community.
Meanwhile China seems poised to act. The Hong Kong garrison of the People’s Liberation Army (the armed forces of the People’s Republic of China) made a thinly veiled threat to protesters by releasing a video of troops carrying out “anti-riot” exercises and speaking not Mandarin, the official language of China, but Cantonese, the dialect spoken in Hong Kong.
Pay attention because Chinese authorities have issued reminders claiming that it would be within their rights to deploy forces at any time. If that happens, if the Chinese army intervenes, it could bring irreversible consequences for the autonomy of Hong Kong.
Pay attention because something important is happening, and how the world reacts to it will have an impact.
Yeji Jesse Lee is a graduate of Columbia University’s School of Journalism and is an intern with Newsday Opinion.