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Hong Kong protests: How did we get here?

Fears of military crackdown in Hong Kong

Hong Kong — Months of protests by pro-democracy demonstrators in Hong Kong have led to repeated clashes with the city's security forces. The tension boiled over this week as protesters swarmed Hong Kong's busy airport and shut it down, two days in a row.

So how did it come to this, and where will it go from here? CBS News Asia correspondent Ramy Inocencio breaks it down below.

Is Hong Kong part of China?

Yes, Hong Kong is part of China, governed under the so-called "one-country, two systems" principle. Under this agreement, China recognizes Hong Kong's ability to administer its own governance, legal, economic and financial systems, while both sides agree that Hong Kong is part of one, re-unified China.

It came into effect on July 1, 1997 when the U.K. handed what had been its colony of Hong Kong back to China, ending more than 150 years of British rule over the territory.

The U.K. did not have to give back the separate island of Hong Kong, home to today's iconic skyline and central business district, which was actually ceded in perpetuity to Britain. But the U.K. did have to return the New Territories, the land area closest to the mainland Chinese border, because it had been leased to Britain for 99 years.

Hong Kong political map
A map showing southern China, including the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.  Getty/iStockphoto

However, Britain didn't believe it could realistically administer the small island of Hong Kong, as the New Territories make up about 90% of what is known today collectively as the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region.

Why did the current protests start?

It began with the Beijing-backed Hong Kong government's proposal of an extradition law that would have allowed the deportation of people from Hong Kong -- both residents and foreigners — to jurisdictions around the world with which the territory does not yet have any formal agreements. That includes China.

Officially titled the "Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation," it has been controversial since the government first announced it in February 2019.

The main fear is that Beijing could use the law to apprehend people in Hong Kong and then transfer them to mainland China, where they would be subjected to the country's opaque legal system in which due process is far from a guarantee.

Violent crackdown on Hong Kong protests amid concerns about mass surveillance

Mass street protests began on June 9 with a one-million person march. Beijing-appointed Chief Executive of Hong Kong Carrie Lam resisted calls for the bill to be formally withdrawn. After a two-million person march June 16, and subsequent, violent clashes between protesters and police, Lam declared the bill "dead" on July 9.

But that did nothing to appease critics, and actually served only to inflame protests even further as the terminology "dead" has no legal standing; the bill can be resurrected with a notice period of 12 days. The protesters have consistently demanded it be formally withdrawn, and that Lam step down.

Why did protesters go to the airport?


Protesters flooded Hong Kong International Airport in the hope of getting the world's attention. In 2018, it was Asia's third busiest airport, and the world's eighth busiest by passenger numbers.

In slowing down Hong Kong's sole connection to the world that doesn't involve travel through mainland China, protesters hoped the international community world take notice. And they succeeded. Images of a sea of black-clad protesters filling the airport's departure and arrivals halls pushed the Airport Authority to cancel all operations Aug. 12 and 13. Hundreds of flights were canceled.

But images of two mainland Chinese citizens being tied up, questioned and accused by protesters of being spies for Beijing also lent China new weapons in the battle for public opinion. Beijing condemned the protesters as rioters and described their actions as "terrorist-like."

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An injured man who was suspected by protesters of being a Chinese spy is taken away by paramedics at Hong Kong International Airport, early on August 14, 2019. Getty

Chinese state media and social media exploded in anger. Hong Kong's protesters apologized, but the damage was done, and the world watched.

What happens next?

The question everyone's asking: Will China use its army to quell the unrest in Hong Kong? The People's Liberation Army has about 6,000 soldiers stationed in the wider Hong Kong territory, with some news outlets reporting as many as 10,000.

In the past few weeks, China has moved dozens of military vehicles to Shenzhen, the closest city to Hong Kong, just across the border and 25 miles north of Hong Kong's central business district. State media have also aired video of training drills in Shenzhen, which look very much like a mocked-up version of the clashes between Hong Kong riot police and the pro-democracy protesters.

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Trucks and armoured personnel carriers are seen outside the Shenzhen Bay stadium in Shenzhen, bordering Hong Kong in China's southern Guangdong province, Aug. 15, 2019. Getty

But that would be a last resort for China. The optics of Chinese army troops on the streets of Hong Kong would be disastrous for the region, for a number of intertwined reasons;

China would likely be ostracized, as it was after its bloody 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. Both China's and Hong Kong's stock markets would plunge. People and capital would flee Hong Kong.

Such a dramatic move would also see a surge in nationalism in Taiwan, and could even prompt the island to declare real, not just de-facto, independence.

Japanese lawmakers pushing to revise their country's pacifist constitution would get a boost, which could precipitate a new Asian arms race between Tokyo and Beijing — and force regional allies of both to firmly take sides.

U.S. and Western powers could mass in the South China Sea, which is already a major global flashpoint as China claims territory far beyond its exclusive economic zone.

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