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Pro-democracy demonstrators and Beijing fight for the future of Hong Kong

Hong Kong residents protested for months this year against an extradition bill that would have allowed criminal suspects to be sent to mainland China. And while the bill was withdrawn, demonstrators are continuing to fight for reforms as leaders in Hong Kong and China try to maintain stability. Nick Schifrin reports as part of, "China: Power and Prosperity," with support from the Pulitzer Center.

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  • Hari Sreenivasan:

    Tonight we take a closer look at what is driving the protests in Hong Kong and why the millions of protestors who have filled the streets for more than four months say the future of their city is at stake.

    It's the last of our 10-part series, "China: Power and Prosperity," produced with the support of the Pulitzer Center. NewsHour Foreign Affairs Correspondent Nick Schifrin reports from Hong Kong.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    In the shadow of downtown, Hong Kong teenagers spend their weekends denouncing their government. These students say they used to be apolitical. But now they feel they have to fight, to save what makes their city unique.

  • Shum Shum:

    In China now all is controlled by the government. Hong Kong is not like that, right? Now my hope is to save Hong Kong's freedom.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Every protester plays a part, and 16-year-old Shum Shum's is to give free hugs. She wears a mask that's now been banned by the government and provides only her nickname to hide her identity from Hong Kong authorities she accuses of persecuting protestors instead of improving people's lives.

  • Shum Shum:

    We are teenagers. When we grow up, then, maybe the government may be more harsh, maybe no any freedom.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Hong Kong's Generation Z wants freedom from Beijing so much, they wrote their own national anthem with its own music video that's gone viral. Break now the dawn, liberate our Hong Kong, they sing. United, we say this is today's revolution.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    This is one of Hong Kong's main thoroughfares, and protestors have completely taken it over. And they use umbrellas, not only for the sun, but also because it's the symbol of the democracy movement here. And they say that the freedoms that this city have enjoyed, are being eroded. They started protesting 6 months ago with a narrow demand: withdrawal of a bill that would allow for the extradition of criminal suspects to mainland China, where they say the judicial system is not independent.

  • Carrie Lam:

    The government with formally withdraw the bill.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Chief Administrator Carrie Lam eventually withdrew the bill, but protestors expanded their demands to include her resignation, the freeing of arrested protesters, and what many here call freedom: the ability to vote directly for their legislators, without Beijing's interference. Others describe freedom more broadly and have deeper grievances. Pollsters say the number of Hong Kong residents identifying as Chinese is at its lowest level, ever.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    When you guys think of your identity, do you identify yourselves as both Chinese and from Hong Kong? Or just Hong Kong?

  • Protesters:

    Just Hong Kong. Just Hong kong

  • Hugo Wung:

    If we give up we're just telling to China that Hong Kong people is just like the same in the mainland China. So we are not going to let this happen. Hong Kong is not China.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    For centuries Hong Kong was part of China. But in the 1800s, foreign powers attacked. And the British forced China to lease the city as part of what the Chiense government calls the Century of Humiliation. In 1997, the British handed the city over. And under a deal known as One Country Two Systems, Communist China promised Hong Kong could keep its British-written laws and independent judiciary, but had to turn over its defense and foreign policy. Beijing's defenders say China has lived up to its promises, and protesters' talk of revolution is misguided.

  • Regina Ip:

    I think they're over worried, you know. In Hong Kong the rule of law, the well-entrenched common law system, underlines our freedoms and rights. That's why they can have protest every day.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Regina Ip is a member of the cabinet that runs the Hong Kong government. She says One Country Two Systems, is doing just fine.

  • Regina Ip:

    After more than 180 years of Hong Kong as a city, we have a very strong and unique culture. There's nothing wrong with a big country having different regional cultures. It's the same in the U.S. You know Californians are very different from the from those who are from Iowa or the Texans, you know?

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But protestors argue China has not lived up to its commitments, and is encroaching into every aspect of residents' lives. Professor Samson Yuen is studying the protests with the help of student pollsters.

  • Samson Yuen:

    I think this is a gradual build up of people's discontent about how China's ruling Hong Kong or how the Hong Kong government is not representing the local population but more representing Beijing.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    That sentiment has taken hold since pro-democracy demonstrators occupied Hong Kong streets 5 years ago, demanding universal suffrage.

  • Samson Yuen:

    No reforms have been done. And instead there has been a lot of disqualification and prosecution. So people have been angry for a period of time. It's a time bomb. One country two system can't stand on these time bombs.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Pro-democracy leader Joshua Wong has been arrested 5 times in the last 5 years. In 2015 the employees of a bookstore that sold books criticizing Beijing, disappeared inside mainland China. In 2016 and 2017, under pressure from Beijing, Hong Kong's High Court disqualified elected members of Hong Kong's local government, including the youngest ever member, 23-year-old Nathan Law.

  • Nathan Law:

    At the end of the day that accumulated anger then infuriated crowds, exploded in this summer and became what we have seen.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Law says he was disqualified not because of a proper ruling, but because Beijing was afraid of the younger generation's power.

  • Nathan Law:

    I promised to my constituency that I will not obey a regime that brutally kills its people. I will keep my promise in my campaign that I will serve the people instead of the regime.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Last month Law and other pro-democracy activists urged the US Congress to pass legislation that would allow the Administration to sanction China for any Hong Kong crackdown. They say they need US help.

  • Denise Ho:

    We are at a stage where we have tried all the tactics that we can on the grounds in Hong Kong. That's not enough to gain that traction that we need to keep this momentum going on.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Denise Ho was one of Hong Kong's biggest pop stars. Since she started protesting, Beijing removed her music from Chinese websites and banned her from performing in mainland China. She says the protest leaders are not demanding revolution. Just justice.

  • Denise Ho:

    We are at the stage where Hong Kong is in a police state, and we do not have any means whatsoever, to bring justice to the situation of police violence and brutality.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    On Wednesday, for the first time, police shot a protester with live ammunition, a step up from the tear gas and batons used previously. But the violence goes both ways, back on July 1, protesters broke into the Legislative Council. They ransacked the building, spray painted crude messages on the walls, and briefly occupied the main chamber, the seat of Hong Kong power.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    There are people within this movement who say this was a mistake and that you needed to stay peaceful in order to make your point. What is your response to that?

  • Protester:

    We have tried all the peaceful ways and what did the government, what was the government's response? It's nothing.

  • Lee Cheuk Yan:

    For the young people, they said that you know like people like me have been fighting for 30 years, 40 years. They don't want to be like us having to wait 40 years and I can understand this sentiment.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Lee Cheuk Yan is a union organizer and a former member of the Legislative Council. He says Beijing's trying to silence Hong Kong demonstrators to prevent change in Hong Kong, and prevent anyone in mainland China from making the same demands.

  • Lee Cheuk Yan:

    China is trying to destroy Hong Kong and our identity, our culture, our rule of law, our aspirational democracy, our freedom. The Communist Party is trying to ban all human rights and freedoms in China. So the only way for Hong Kong to survive, to have democracy is that we need to fight China also. We need to change China before China change us.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Pro-democracy protesters believe their more aggressive tactics are accelerating change. But Beijing has used the tactics to portray protesters as violent threats to stability. On Facebook, Chinese state media outlet China Daily equated the protesters to terrorists who attacked the US on 9/11.

  • Yang Guang:

    For two months now, the Hong Kong police have been doing their duty according to the law. Hong Kong's radical demonstrators have repeatedly attacked police officers with extremely dangerous tools. They have already committed seriously violent crimes, and have begun to show signs of terrorism.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    China also began threatening to use its military. Troops massed on the Hong Kong border, and the army unit already garrisoned in Hong Kong released a slick video showing soldiers practicing. But Beijing knows there's consequences to its relationship with the U.S. if the military intervened, because that's what President Trump has warned.

  • President Trump:

    We're carefully monitoring the situation in Hong Kong. The world fully expects that the Chinese government will honor its binding treaty. How China chooses to handle the situation will say a great deal about its role in the world in the future.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Chinese officials say comments like that encourage protesters to become separatists.

  • Yang Guang:

    The situation in Hong Kong has deteriorated to the point where some protesters dare to openly challenge the principle of 'One Country, Two Systems'. I don't think this is independent from the irresponsible and inciting remarks of some Western politicians.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And Beijing's defenders point out one of the protestors' core demands, direct elections can only happen if Beijing allows it.

  • Holden Chow:

    Hong Kong is part of China and according to our constitutional order under the basic law right now, for any kind of universal suffrage to be implemented in Hong Kong or political reform we need a consent from the central government.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Holden Chow is the vice chairman of a party considered pro-Beijing. He says if Beijing is going to consider giving into demonstrators' demands, the protests need to stop, and splits in Hong Kong's society need to heal.

  • Holden Chow:

    There is a kind of mistrust between some people in Hong Kong and also the central government and mainland. So, if we are not able to gain that trust, I don't think we will be able to implement any kind of universal suffrage.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    But that means the two sides might be caught in a vicious circle, because demonstrators vow not to stop until their demands are met.

  • Samson Yuen:

    I think the key to fix the political problem in Hong Kong is really to have more democracy here, not less democracy. The more you crack down the more people will be disgruntled. We'll build up a lot of grievances.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    And those grievances may have already fundamentally changed the city. Pro-Beijing and pro-democracy protesters have scuffled in shopping malls. And as the protests escalated, more and more Hong Kong residents have decided the city may not be a good place to raise their children. Including Sham Sham's father.

  • Sham Sham’s Father:

    I'm fearing my daughter's future. If the Hong Kong protests keep on in this way, I may try to leave. Leave Hong Kong. I may try to choose to leave Hong Kong.

  • Nick Schifrin:

    Hong Kong families, residents on both sides, and pro-democracy activists and Beijing are fighting for the city's future. And the fight is nowhere near over. For the PBS NewsHour, I'm Nick Schifrin in Hong Kong.

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