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A brief history of Hong Kong’s 30-year fight for democracy

Reuters/Damir Sagolj
Another link in a long chain of protests.
By Lily Kuo
Published Last updated This article is more than 2 years old.

Today, Hong Kong authorities started clearing away part of the main protest site of the pro-democracy movement that has partially paralyzed the city for almost two months. Police and court bailiffs dismantled metal barricades and dragged away tents, in some cases helped by protesters who didn’t resist.

Reuters/Tyrone Siu
Building employees of the Citic Tower in Admiralty, the Umbrella Movement’s main protest site, remove barricades.

The protesters who have pledged to hold onto their three occupied streets in the Asian financial center say that this isn’t the end. (Late in the evening, Hong Kong-time, hundreds of protesters began organizing a movement to surround government headquarters and have started to clash with police.)

If the past 30 years are any guide, they are right: large-scale demonstrations calling for democracy in Hong Kong have been erupting since at least the 1980s. If the recent protests end, another pro-democracy movement is likely to crop up again soon. Here is a look at the ones that have cropped up so far:

A democracy movement is born

After years of breakneck economic growth, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement began in earnest when more than 1,000 protesters converged on a theater in the Hong Kong neighborhood of Hung Hom in November 1986, calling for direct elections starting in 1988 for the city’s legislature. Eventually, in 1991, Hong Kong introduced 18 directly elected seats to the legislature.

In 1988, a group of 50 activists held a 24-hour hunger strike outside of the Chinese state media office of Xinhua in Hong Kong to protest a draft proposal of the Basic Law, the city’s mini-constitution, that postponed direct elections of the chief executive until 2012. (That date has now been pushed back to 2017, under a reform proposal that protesters are currently railing against.)

AP Photo/Dick Fung
Activists outside China’s official Xinhua News Agency in Hong Kong, Dec. 3, 1988, protest a provision in Hong Kong’s post-1997 constitution that would mean the city’s chief executive would not be directly elected until 2012.

Promises made

After Hong Kong’s Basic Law was promulgated in 1990, stipulating that the city’s ”ultimate aim” is the election of the chief executive by universal suffrage, pro-democracy lawmakers and demonstrators protested a decision to replace the city’s partially elected legislature with one appointed by Beijing in the spring of 1996. In the fall, protesters rallied again outside of Hong Kong’s convention center as a committee of 400 people, chosen by Beijing, selected candidates for the city’s top office of chief executive. A group of pro-democracy politicians took a petition of 60,000 signatures calling for democracy to Beijing but were prevented from getting off their plane.

This is similar to what happened this past weekend, on Nov. 15, when student protesters attempted to take demands for universal suffrage to Beijing but were prevented from boarding the plane because Chinese authorities had canceled their travel documents.

AP Photo/Raymond Chow
More than 1,000 people join a rally on April 14, 1996, to protest China’s plans to replace the current legislature with a Beijing-appointed legislature after Hong Kong returns to Chinese sovereignty in 1997. The sign at the front says, ”Protest the setting up of the provisional legislature.”
AP Photo/Vincent Yu
Democracy campaigners, including Hong Kong legislator Yum Sin-ling, (middle) stage a 50-hour hunger strike in April 1996 to protest Beijing’s plans to replace the British colony’s elected legislature with an appointed body after 1997.
AP Photo/Vincent Yu
Pro-democracy activists scuffle with police officers outside the Hong Kong Convention center in 1996.
AP Photo/Vincent Yu
Pro-democracy politicians hold envelopes containing 60,000 signatures for a petition calling for direct elections in Hong Kong after it returns to Chinese rule in 1997.
AP Photo/David Brauchl
Pro-democracy activists of Hong Kong Alliance carry a red banner reading “Democracy for Hong Kong” during their march in a street in Hong Kong, China, Tuesday, July 1, 1997. Democrats held the first large post-handover protest under the Chinese rule.

The 2000s

Hong Kong saw a series of large protests between 2003 and 2005. In 2003, Hongkongers took to the streets in protest of Article 23—a set of Patriot Act-like security and anti-subversion laws—that the Beijing-backed chief executive, C.H. Tung, tried to push through. Tung eventually withdrew Act 23 from his political agenda. In April 2004, Beijing announced that it had ruled out direct elections for both the chief executive and the legislature when both offices were set to change, in 2007 and 2008, respectively. Then, on July 1, 2004, as many as 450,000 protesters marked the six-year anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover to China to demand universal suffrage. Protests continued into 2005.

Reuters/Bobby Yip
Tens of thousands of protesters crowd the streets in Hong Kong’s Causeway Bay shopping district on July 1, 2004, the seventh anniversary of the the handover of Hong Kong to China.
AP Photo/Anat Givon
More than 1,000 people march in downtown Hong Kong on Jan. 23, 2005, to demand full democracy and social justice in the Chinese territory. The protesters chant, “Direct elections in 2007 and 2008,” the years in which Hong Kong is due a to get new leader and legislature.
AP Photo/Anat Givon
Demonstrators wear inflatable headdresses in the shape of chickens that symbolize the Chinese word for referendum, alluding to a referendum on direct elections. More than 1,000 people attend the rally and later march in downtown Hong Kong on Jan. 23, 2005, to demand full democracy and social justice in the Chinese territory.
AP Photo/Anat Givon
The Chinese characters on the placards held by protesters in January 2005 read: “Direct elections in 2007-8” and “Against the collusion between the government and businesses.”

Protesters calling for direct elections in 2012 used what would become the symbol of today’s protests—a yellow umbrella—to form the numbers “2012.” That year, students, teachers, and parents rallied against the introduction of a “moral and national education” plan that critics said amounted to brainwashing. A group of secondary students mobilized, forming Scholarism, led by student leader Joshua Wong, and continues to organize student activists today.

AP Photo/Vincent Yu
Protesters open umbrellas to form the numbers 2-0-1-2, as in the year 2012, in a Hong Kong park on Oct. 7, 2007, as they demand the right to pick the city’s leader and entire legislature in 2012.
AP Photo/Vincent Yu
Protesters in downtown Hong Kong in July 2012.

In 2014

In late September, students stormed government headquarters to protest Beijing’s decision that only candidates approved by a nominating committee traditionally sympathetic to Beijing could run for Hong Kong’s top office. Mass arrests of the students prompted other protesters to come out. Then those people were tear-gassed by police, galvanizing yet more demonstrators in what quickly became known as the Umbrella Movement.

A protester in central Hong Kong after police fired several rounds of tear gas.

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