'Sometimes I feel powerless': Sheffield student speaks out over unrest in Hong Kong

Many people recognise Hong Kong as an international city famous for its freedom and autonomy, writes Sheffield University journalism student Levenez Lai.

By Levenez Lai
Wednesday, 26 June, 2019, 15:49
Protesters demonstrate against the now-suspended extradition bill on June 16, 2019 in Hong Kong, China. Large numbers of protesters rallied despite an announcement by Hong Kong's Chief Executive Carrie Lam that the controversial extradition bill will be suspended indefinitely. Picture: Getty Images

We have a unique ‘one country, two systems’ policy, which makes us very different from China politically, economically and culturally. This has brought thousands of experts and businessmen from across the globe – however, this distinguishing feature is under pressure.

The Hong Kong government said it is trying to ‘plug the legal loopholes’ by proposing legislation that allows criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China. This bill will affect not only locals, but also foreigners in transit for travel or work – in other words, Sheffield as an industrial city and the nearby business hub of Manchester could be at risk too. With China’s poor record on human rights, it is not guaranteed that people being transferred will receive a fair trial.

Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam, tried to misinform the public and international media by announcing a suspension on the extradition bill earlier this month. They have merely paused the plan – it could be reactivated at any time.

And there has been significant unrest. Police without identifications on their uniforms used tear gas and rubber bullets to shoot unarmed demonstrators and journalists. Injured demonstrators’ identities have been disclosed and they were arrested at public hospitals while seeking treatment. Overseas students were stopped and checked by the police after leaving planes, questioned as to why they were returning. As a Hong Konger and journalist, I am heartbroken to see how human rights, as well as freedom of speech and the press, are being infringed.

The solidarity of Hong Kong’s people is clear. On June 9 an estimated one million people took part in a rally, with supportive demonstrations occurring globally in capital cities such as London, Sydney, Berlin, Amsterdam and Seoul. On June 16 almost two million people, equivalent to one in four of the population, went on the streets again to oppose the bill and condemn police brutality during protests. It was the biggest demonstration in our history; even judges, lawyers, journalists and businessmen voiced their concerns.

The former British Prime Minister Theresa May said in Parliament that extradition rules in Hong Kong must be in line with the legally binding Sino-British Joint Declaration, which was signed by the British and Chinese government in 1984 before the 1997 handover, to respect rights and freedoms. On Tuesday Foreign Secretary – and potential Prime Minister-in-waiting – Jeremy Hunt suspended export licences for crowd control equipment to Hong Kong.

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Protestors are still sparing no efforts to call for a complete withdrawal of the bill. Now they have a greater target – the G20 summit. Thousands marched silently to foreign consulates and gathered to have an assembly on Wednesday. Over HK$ 6 million has been crowdfunded to highlight the issue on the front pages of international newspapers, with the aim of lobbying world leaders despite the fact the Beijing government is trying to stifle debate.

Sometimes I feel I am powerless, especially when I am staying in the UK and cannot attend any demonstrations. I can only show my support through sharing information online. This is what many Hong Kong overseas students are doing and why many protests were held globally and have gained international attention quickly. At least we do not need to be afraid of expressing opinions and attending assemblies here, in Sheffield and in the UK.

A group of Hong Kong students in Sheffield set up a booth, distributed leaflets and displayed photos and videos in the city centre to raise awareness. I discovered that many Sheffielders are also very concerned and supportive because they have friends and relatives in Hong Kong. They are from different social classes and observe different religions but all of them are willing to offer help. Some brought water and stationery and said ‘well done’ to us. Some even left contact details to see if their organisations are able to help.

Perhaps the century-long colonial relationship between Britain and Hong Kong still binds us together. We have to preserve our freedom, autonomy, justice and democracy that we have been proud of for so long.

Signatures are being gathered on a petition calling on Britain to ‘take diplomatic action against China for not respecting the Hong Kong agreement’. Visit https://petition.parliament.uk/petitions/233895 for details.