For more than a year now, Hong Kong has been rocked by protests which were initially triggered by a proposed bill that would allow China to extradite fugitives to the mainland.
Though the protests started peacefully with enormous marches (some estimates count at least 2 million people on June 16), they grew increasingly violent towards the end of last year, with bloody clashes between protesters and the police.
The pandemic put a temporary hold on the rallies in early 2020 but, as things resume to normal in the city, the dissent quickly resurfaced. Adding fuel to the fire, the central Chinese government announced plans to introduce a new “national security” law aimed at quelling dissent.
While travel may not pick up again anytime soon, many still wonder: will Hong Kong safe to visit? Here’s all you need to know to help you make an informed decision.
When and why did the protests start?
The protests originally started on March 15, when the pro-democracy group Demosistō held a sit-in at the Central Government Complex.
The demonstration was against an extradition bill proposed by the Hong Kong government that would allow extradition to mainland China. Critics believed it would undermine the special administrative region’s (SAR) judicial independence and expose dissidents to unfair trials.
A quick history recap: Britain ruled Hong Kong until 1997, when the city was returned to China (you might have read of the ‘Handover’ before), under a “one country, two systems” transitional arrangement that both countries agreed would to last until 2047.
As such, the SAR was able to keep some autonomy – including its own judiciary and a separate legal system, called the Basic Law, which includes freedom of assembly and freedom of speech. When the Hong Kong SAR government proposed the extradition arrangement, many feared it would jeopardise the city’s prized freedoms.
On June 9, more than a million – or nearly one in seven Hong Kong residents – took to the streets, according to protest organizers. And when the government still tried to push the law through, 2 million people came out in protest on June 16.
The early rallies were remarkably civilised and peaceful, but as the police started using rounds of tear gas and the government refused to back down, the dissent escalated.
In the months that followed, protests turned into violent clashes, with police firing live bullets and protesters attacking officers and throwing petrol bombs. In September, the bill was finally withdrawn, but protesters said this was “too little, too late”.
What do protesters want?
The protestor’s mission had expanded to become a more sweeping rebuke of the system, and they still have four unmet demands:
- Amnesty for arrested protesters
- An independent inquiry into alleged police brutality
- A retraction of the term “riots” used by the government in early protests
- Implementation of complete universal suffrage
How have the protests affected transport?
The protesters tend to use the MTR (the city’s metro system) to get from place to place, which caused the company to shut down certain routes and services in 2019. This has caused delays and closures on many occasions, which travelers will need to stay on top of by visiting the MTR’s website before taking the metro.
You may also run into delays if you’re traveling via taxi or Uber. Protesters tend to take aim at major roads and tunnels for maximum impact, which results in traffic jams and road closures.
Hong Kong International Airport has also been affected. In August 2019, a citywide strike led to long delays for commuters on public transport, while a peaceful sit-in turned violent protest at the airport led to the cancellation of some 250 flights last year. The city also temporarily paused the Airport Express, which gets you from the airport to the city centre, during the unrest.
In short: Yes, you will need to stay alert as you plan your route from Point A to B, and we’d recommend budgeting extra travel time.
What about the rest of the city? What’s open?
Since the protests tend to take place for a few hours at a time in a specific location, the majority of the city will still be functioning as normal.
You can still go out to bars, head to the hills for a hike, hang out at the beach, and visit the city’s many major landmarks like The Peak or the Man Mo Temple. You just need to be careful about when you visit, in case a protest has erupted nearby.
If you are worried about the MTR, we would suggest taking the Star Ferry (which is one of the most scenic and relaxing ways to cross Victoria Harbour) or hop onto one of Hong Kong’s charming trams, known affectionately as the ‘ding ding’ for the sound it makes.
Landmarks and tourist sites like The Peak, Man Mo Temple, the Hong Kong Zoo and Botanical Gardens, the Tian Tan Buddha and Po Lin Monastery are open for business, as are the city’s innumerable restaurants, bars, hiking trails, outlying islands and country parks.
But please be patient and considerate when you visit: Hong Kong is going through a momentous time in its history. People have been affected on multiple levels – socially and financially, and emotionally – and many feel deeply passionate about safeguarding the city’s freedoms at all costs.
Which resources should I check before making plans?
The Discover Hong Kong website, run by the Hong Kong Tourism Board, provides regular updates as well as a chat room where visitors can connect directly with representatives (from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily, Hong Kong time).
One thing to always keep in mind: be prepared to adapt your plans, as the situation around protests and public gatherings can change very quickly.