Hong Kong, China – In their 14th straight weekend of anti-government protests, demonstrators took their case to the US consulate to bring an international spotlight to the political crisis in the semi-autonomous Chinese territory.
Calling for politicians in the United States to support their cause, thousands of people gathered in central Hong Kong and marched towards the consulate waving US flags and shouting slogans in English, such as “Fight for freedom! Stand with Hong Kong!”.
The rally was peaceful, but riot police were out in force to ensure protesters steered clear of the nearby Government House, the chief executive’s gated residential compound.
The mass protests were sparked more than three months ago after the China-backed government sought to introduce a now-scrapped extradition bill, which opponents argued would have allowed Beijing to break its promise to preserve Hong Kong’s separate justice system after its return from British to Chinese rule in 1997.
The demonstrations have since morphed into a broader pro-democracy movement, with protesters widening their demands to include full democracy, an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality, a blanket amnesty for all those charged with offences stemming from their involvement in demonstrations, and a refutation of the police claim that protesters were guilty of rioting – a crime that carries a heavy prison sentence.
Even though Chief Executive Carrie Lam gave in last week and formally withdrew the bill, which would have allowed suspected criminals to be extradited to mainland China, demonstrators vowed to continue taking to the streets to press their other demands.
“For three months, the police have beaten us up so bad. Withdrawing the bill only now is like putting on a band-aid,” said Shan Chan, a 15-year-old student, holding a poster showing the US Congress building.
“We still need to stand up and show how we won’t rest.”
By Sunday evening after the march ended, groups of demonstrators decamped from downtown and gathered in the shopping district. Police fired rounds of tear gas in an attempt to disperse them.
Pauline Cheang and her two friends told Al Jazeera they were pinning their hopes on the government respecting greater democratic rights in the territory.
“That’s what we’ve been fighting for for a long time,” said Cheang, 32, a nurse. “It should help.”
Almost from the beginning, protesters have sought to bring international attention to their cause. Before the G20 summit in Osaka in late June, a crowdfunding campaign raised enough money to run full-page advertisements in major papers around the world to spread the message.
Spray-painted slogans and printed signs that read “[US] President [Donald] Trump, liberate us!” were spotted in the business district after million-strong marches in June and early July.
“One major thrust of their strategy [has been] to internationalise the issue,” said Willy Lam, a Hong Kong-based commentator on Chinese politics and senior fellow at Jamestown Foundation, a non-partisan global policy think-tank based in Washington.
“They have gained a measure of success in raising the profile.”
A statement two weeks ago by G7 leaders, after their summit in France, affirmed Hong Kong’s rights under the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, which set out the terms of its return to China, was a shot in the arm for the protesters.
Beijing has warned other countries to stay out of Hong Kong’s affairs, accusing the US and UK of fomenting unrest.
In recent years, China has said the declaration, which was logged with the United Nations, is a “historical document” that no longer applies.
Meanwhile, as the trade war between China and the US has dragged on, protesters saw their window of opportunity widening – not least because Trump has said if Beijing sends troops into Hong Kong, any talks with Washington will be off.
And on Sunday, protesters urged the US Congress to pass a bill known as the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act when it reconvenes this week after the summer recess.
Currently, under the Hong Kong Policy Act introduced in 1992 by now-US Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell and passed by US Congress in the wake of Tiananmen Square crackdown in 1989, the US has to treat Hong Kong as an entity separate from China. For instance, Hong Kong firms can import advanced technology from the US that remains off-limits to China.
This special status is contingent upon Hong Kong being “sufficiently autonomous”, but protesters argue it is being eroded by Beijing’s interference in the territory. Beijing denies meddling while maintaining that Hong Kong is an internal affair. It has denounced the demonstrations as damaging to the economy and warned of action if the sometimes violent protests threatened Chinese sovereignty.
First introduced in US Congress in 2016 by Senators Marco Rubio and Tom Cotton, the Hong Kong Human Right and Democracy Act was amended in June to stipulate “open and direct democratic elections for all members of the Hong Kong Legislative Council” by 2020.
As of now, only 40 of the Legislative Council’s 70 members are directly elected by the city’s 3.8 million registered voters. The remaining seats, called “functional constituencies”, represent various professional sectors and special interest groups and are not directly elected.
The proposed legislation appears to have bipartisan support in US Congress and House minority leader Democrat Chuck Schumer has proposed bringing it to the floor as a priority item.
If passed, the bill would hurt Hong Kong’s economy by subjecting businesses to tariffs and import restrictions. But protesters have resolved to keep pushing with a line from the popular film The Hunger Games: Mockingjay gaining traction recently: “If we burn, you’ll burn with us.”
“They’re trying to maximise their leverage even though they know Hong Kong will suffer,” Lam, the commentator, said.
“This is one of the few cards they can use against Beijing.”