Visiting a city in crisis: the protests in Hong Kong

Credit: Reuters

Katherine Rix
Writer

Katherine Rix analyses the effects of the protests on Hong Kong’s tourism industry and reflects on her own experience this summer

The summer of 2019 in Hong Kong has been branded by some as the “Summer of Discontent” due to the protests that began on 9 June and have continued without any sign of stopping in the months since. The protests began as a consequence of a bill that would allow extradition to mainland China.

Hong Kong operates under a “one country, two systems” deal which in theory allows it to have more freedom of speech and rights than mainland China. However, many feared that this extradition bill would undermine this system, as it would allow China to bring Hong Kongers onto the mainland to be tried there, and thus exposing them to potentially unfair trials. Hundreds of thousands of people marched in protest on 9 June which eventually led to Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, declaring that the bill had been suspended on 15 June.

However, during that time, the protests had escalated into violent clashes between the police and the protesters. Police had begun to use tear gas and rubber bullets, with protesters retaliating with bricks and firebombs. Police violence combined with the fear that the bill could be revived meant that the protests only escalated. Demands expanded with the protesters not only calling for a complete withdrawal of the bill, but also an inquiry into police brutality and demands for universal suffrage in the elections of Chief Executive and Legislative Council. Currently, only 1,200 voters are eligible to vote for the Chief Executive, 70 of which are members of the Legislative Council. The electoral system has previously been criticised for being undemocratic and predominantly controlled by Beijing, which has been demonstrated by the targeting of Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s current Chief Executive, as she is viewed as being a “puppet of Beijing.” 

On 4 October, Lam activated emergency colonial-era powers which banned the wearing of face masks. This sparked clashes between police and protestors, and has perpetuated the ongoing crisis. Government employees were sent home, and after-school activities were cancelled.  Several shopping malls, banks, and businesses were also closed. Following a two-hour press conference by Lam, protestors flooded the streets of the island. Two metro stations were set alight, while businesses that were considered pro-China were vandalised. Again, the police replied with tear gas, and in one specific case, live ammunition was fired. 

In terms of the international impact of the protests, the occupation of Hong Kong airport by the protesters is incredibly significant. Hong Kong is one of the world’s most visited cities – tourists come from the UK, Australia, Ireland, Singapore and the USA – but a large number of tourists also come from mainland China. Tourism in Hong Kong provides 5% of the city’s GDP, so any event that causes tourism to decrease can have serious financial effects. For example, the Sars outbreak in 2003 had a devastating impact on tourism, with hotel occupancy falling from 80% to single digits. The effects of these protests are predicted to be even more destructive to the economy, with Travel Industry Council chairman Jason Wong predicting that the effects will continue into the winter season, as it doesn’t seem as though the unrest will be dying down soon. 

Visiting Hong Kong this summer it was clear to see the effects that the protests had had on tourism. The hotel I stayed in had drastically reduced the prices of its rooms, and many of the tourist attractions like the Ngong Ping cable cars were distinctly lacking in visitor numbers. There was an awareness of where protests were supposed to be happening and a consideration as to whether it would affect public transport, so for the most part protests were easy to avoid and were peaceful. Hong Kong has experienced protests and other crises before, such as the Umbrella Movement in 2014, and has always recovered from the negative effects they have had on the tourist industry. However, with videos of police using tear gas and batons on protesters, who are predominantly young students, circulating the world, it will be interesting to see whether the Summer of Discontent will have a longer lasting legacy on the Hong Kong government’s reputation.