The activist Joshua Wong has called for Germany to stop the export of riot control weapons and equipment to Hong Kong police, as he embarked on a global tour to promote his pro-democracy message.
Hong Kong police were using water cannon manufactured in Germany to suppress the protests against a proposed new extradition bill that flared up on the streets of the city in late March, the prominent activist said. “They [German manufacturers] should not be the supporters of Hong Kong riot police.”
After a meeting with Germany’s foreign minister and ahead of a series of speaking engagements in the US, Wong appealed to Germany to suspend trade negotiations with China until the government of Xi Jinping puts on the agenda human rights laws “that respect European standards”.
Why are people protesting?
The protests were triggered by a controversial bill that would have allowed extraditions to mainland China, where the Communist party controls the courts, but have since evolved into a broader pro-democracy movement.
Public anger – fuelled by the aggressive tactics used by the police against demonstrators – has collided with years of frustration over worsening inequality and the cost of living in one of the world's most expensive, densely populated cities.
The protest movement was given fresh impetus on 21 July when gangs of men attacked protesters and commuters at a mass transit station – while authorities seemingly did little to intervene.
Underlying the movement is a push for full democracy in the city, whose leader is chosen by a committee dominated by a pro-Beijing establishment rather than by direct elections.
Protesters have vowed to keep their movement going until their core demands are met, such as the resignation of the city’s leader, Carrie Lam, an independent inquiry into police tactics, an amnesty for those arrested and a permanent withdrawal of the bill.
Lam announced on 4 September that she was withdrawing the bill.
Why were people so angry about the extradition bill?
Beijing’s influence over Hong Kong has grown in recent years, as activists have been jailed and pro-democracy lawmakers disqualified from running or holding office. Independent booksellers have disappeared from the city, before reappearing in mainland China facing charges.
Under the terms of the agreement by which the former British colony was returned to Chinese control in 1997, the semi-autonomous region was meant to maintain a “high degree of autonomy” through an independent judiciary, a free press and an open market economy, a framework known as “one country, two systems”.
The extradition bill was seen as an attempt to undermine this and to give Beijing the ability to try pro-democracy activists under the judicial system of the mainland.
How have the authorities responded?
Beijing has issued increasingly shrill condemnations but has left it to the city's semi-autonomous government to deal with the situation. Meanwhile police have violently clashed directly with protesters, repeatedly firing teargas and rubber bullets.
Beijing has ramped up its accusations that foreign countries are “fanning the fire” of unrest in the city. China’s top diplomat Yang Jiechi has ordered the US to “immediately stop interfering in Hong Kong affairs in any form”.
“Hong Kong can serve as an example for the world to learn from,” Wong told the audience at a press conference in Berlin. For too long, the 22-year-old said, authorities in the semi-autonomous region had been unaware of the ways in which the Chinese Communist party used trade to turn its “one country, two systems” motto into “one country, one-and-a-half systems”.
“China uses the Belt and Road initiative as a way to increase and expand its economic influence and political gain – not just in Hong Kong, China, Asia Pacific, but also in Europe,” he said.
Wong and fellow founders of the Demosisto political party had arrived in the German capital on Monday, where he was feted by politicians and media commentators at a party in the rooftop restaurant of the Reichstag building on Monday night hosted by the tabloid Bild.
The complete withdrawal of the proposed extradition bill
Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, has said her government will formally withdraw the bill that ignited months of protests. Hong Kong residents had feared it could be used by China to extradite people for political reasons. They want guarantees that it cannot be reintroduced at a later date.
Withdrawal of the use of the word 'riot' in relation to the protests
Protesters want the government to officially recognise that their movement has been a series of legitimate protests, rather than a riot, as has been stated in official communications.
Unconditional release of arrested protesters and charges against them dropped
Hundreds of people have been arrested in recent weeks, and the protesters are demanding that all of them be freed, and that no convictions should stand against any of them.
An independent inquiry into police behaviour
Police use of force has escalated since the demonstrations began, while protesters have also resorted to increasingly violent measures. Demonstrators say an inquiry into police brutality is the number-one priority.
Implementation of genuine universal suffrage
Hong Kong's chief executive is currently selected by a 1,200-member committee, and nearly half of the 70 legislative council seats are filled by limited electorates representing different sectors of the economy. The protesters want to be able to vote for their leaders in free and open democratic elections.
A meeting with the German foreign minister, Heiko Maas – photos of which Wong tweeted from his official account – drew anger from the Chinese government, which said the encounter was “disrespectful” of Beijing’s sovereignty.
The Chinese ambassador to Germany on Wednesday said the meeting had sent out “very negative signals”, and confirmed his German counterpart in China had been officially summoned by the Beijing foreign ministry in protest. Ambassador Wu Ken added that China had sufficient evidence that foreign forces intervened in Hong Kong during protests.
Wong was charged last month with inciting people to join a protest in June, and is out on bail. He was sentenced to two months in prison in May on a contempt charge after pleading guilty to obstructing the clearance of a major protest camp in 2014.
Speaking to German media on Wednesday, he said: “The air of freedom I breathe here, instead of the irritative smell of teargas, reminds me how important it is for me to share the thoughts of people who attend the protests in Hong Kong right now.”
A meeting with the chancellor, Angela Merkel, who was on a state visit to China last week, did not materialise during his trip, and Wong appeared reluctant to comment on attempts to contact the German leader. His global tour, he said, was focused on meeting with lawmakers to build up bipartisan support for his cause.
Hong Kong’s democratic struggles since 1997
1 July 1997: Hong Kong, previously a British colony, is returned to China under the framework of “one country, two systems”. The “Basic Law” constitution guarantees to protect, for the next 50 years, the democratic institutions that make Hong Kong distinct from Communist-ruled mainland China.
2003: Hong Kong’s leaders introduce legislation that would forbid acts of treason and subversion against the Chinese government. The bill resembles laws used to charge dissidents on the mainland. An estimated half a million people turn out to protest against the bill. As a result of the backlash, further action on the proposal is halted.
2007: The Basic Law stated that the ultimate aim was for Hong Kong’s voters to achieve a complete democracy, but China decides in 2007 that universal suffrage in elections for the chief executive cannot be implemented until 2017. Some lawmakers are chosen by business and trade groups, while others are elected by vote. In a bid to accelerate a decision on universal suffrage, five lawmakers resign. But this act is followed by the adoption of the Beijing-backed electoral changes, which expand the chief executive’s selection committee and add more seats for lawmakers elected by direct vote. The legislation divides Hong Kong's pro-democracy camp, as some support the reforms while others say they will only delay full democracy while reinforcing a structure that favors Beijing.
2014: The Chinese government introduces a bill allowing Hong Kong residents to vote for their leader in 2017, but with one major caveat: the candidates must be approved by Beijing. Pro-democracy lawmakers are incensed by the bill, which they call an example of “fake universal suffrage” and “fake democracy”. The move triggers a massive protest as crowds occupy some of Hong Kong’s most crowded districts for 70 days. In June 2015, Hong Kong legislators formally reject the bill, and electoral reform stalls. The current chief executive, Carrie Lam, widely seen as the Chinese Communist party’s favoured candidate, is hand-picked in 2017 by a 1,200-person committee dominated by pro-Beijing elites.
2019: Lam pushes amendments to extradition laws that would allow people to be sent to mainland China to face charges. The proposed legislation triggers a huge protest, with organisers putting the turnout at 1 million, and a standoff that forces the legislature to postpone debate on the bills. After weeks of protest, often meeting with violent reprisals from the Hong Kong police, Lam announced that she would withdraw the bill.
“Next time I come to visit Berlin, it would be great to have the chance to meet with anyone from the office of the foreign minister, or even the chancellor.” Merkel was criticised in parliament on Wednesday morning for failing to arrange a meeting with the protest leader.
Wong will meet US media in New York on Friday and move on to Washington next week, where he is seeking to lobby Democratic and Republican politicians to support the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, which would require the US government to regularly reassess Hong Kong’s level of political autonomy to determine whether it should continue to have a special trade status.
In Berlin, Wong said he hoped to carry his pro-democracy message even to China: “First is Hong Kong, next is mainland China.”
“We hope for more and more people who live in mainland China to recognise the importance of universal values and freedom. Three decades ago, the Berlin Wall fell, and we hope that in the future, the great firewall of China will also fall.”