Millions of protesters have flocked to the streets of Hong Kong in recent weeks to express outrage over a controversial extradition bill, claiming the government is using it to chip away at their rights.
Debate on the measure has since been suspended indefinitely, and on Monday, the city’s top leader declared the motion “dead.”
Despite this, the discontent among many citizens remains at a boiling point.
Protesters say the demonstrations are their way of sounding the alarm on Beijing’s creeping influence on Hong Kong, and many believe the protections granted to Hong Kong as a special administrative region of China are at stake.
Here’s what that means.
What is a SAR?
The special administrative region, or SAR, is unique to the People’s Republic of China.
Two regions, Hong Kong and Macau, were created by the central Chinese government to allow those areas to operate with a high degree of autonomy. They maintain separate legal, administrative and judicial systems.
Hong Kong had a long tradition of operating with certain freedoms and under a capitalistic economy while under British rule.
When it was returned to China in 1997, after 156 years, leaders decided to allow Hong Kong to remain much like it was under the British.
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What does it mean?
Hong Kong — unlike Communist-ruled mainland China — has its own elected government leaders and a capitalistic economic system.
The region adheres to a Basic Law, which is like a mini-constitution that grants Hong Kong certain freedoms. It allows for a number of civil liberties, including freedom of speech, freedom of the press and the right to protest — now on full display as anti-extradition bill protests swell.
As a SAR, Hong Kong also preserved its own currency, parliamentary system and legal system.
Under Basic Law, Hong Kong promises to “safeguard the rights and freedoms of the residents of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region and of other persons in the Region in accordance with law,” according to the government document.
China, however, keeps the governance of Hong Kong’s foreign affairs and national defence.
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A “one country, two systems” policy was put in place when Hong Kong was handed to China in 1997.
That system was set for 50 years and runs out in 2047.
China’s Communist Party does not oversee Hong Kong like it does for mainland regions, but Beijing still has considerable influence on loyalists in the city’s political system.
But it’s not a democracy
Citizens of Hong Kong do not get to choose their top leader.
A 1,200-person committee made up of Hong Kong’s “main professional sectors,” mainly Beijing loyalists, appoint the chief executive — a position currently held by Carrie Lam.
In the 2017 election, which saw Lam take power, only candidates vetted by a nominating committee chosen by Beijing were allowed to run.
Basic Law promised that Hong Kong voters should ultimately be granted universal suffrage, but Beijing has put a stop to the effort indefinitely. The blockage has triggered widespread resentment among Hong Kong citizens, the Associated Press reported, particularly the region’s young people.
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What does it have to do with protests?
The demonstrations in Hong Kong over the last month stem from the proposal of an extradition bill that would allow criminal suspects to be extradited to mainland China, where they would be tried under the mainland’s legal system.
“The bill, if passed, would give Beijing legal and legitimate reasons to extradite dissidents, protesters or anyone they like, back to Beijing,” Lynette Ong, a professor with the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs and Public Policy, told Global News.
Protesters fear the now-suspended bill would erode freedoms and rights in Hong Kong and undermine the legal system’s independence as a SAR. It’s also been criticized as a threat to Hong Kong’s international reputation as a financial hub.
The bill is viewed by many as yet another example of Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms under threat. The protests are challenging that threat of Beijing authority.
“Huge protests against it suggest people have no faith in the Chinese legal system, which is fundamentally different from that of Hong Kong,” Ong said.
Lam, the chief executive, said the bill was proposed out of a need for justice and denied Beijing having ever played a role.
However, having been elected by a Beijing-approved committee, Lam is reliant on mainland support. She pushed forward with the legislation several times before kneeling to public opposition and issuing an apology.
“I don’t think Beijing is being denied any influence (in Hong Kong matters), even though it may appear that way,” Ong said.
“Carrie Lam’s government is ultimately accountable to Beijing.”
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What is China doing?
As Lam’s administration has become embattled, China has continued to support her and her decision to suspend the extradition legislation.
Beijing has called the violence an “undisguised challenge” to the country’s “one country, two systems” governing model.
The Chinese government has also condemned the protests and sought to suppress news of the protests on mainland.
One of the wilder demonstrations, which saw protesters occupy Hong Kong’s legislature building for hours, coincided with the 22nd anniversary of Hong Kong’s handover from British to Chinese rule.
But the protests have continued.
On Sunday, six protesters were arrested during a demonstration in Kowloon, a popular tourist destination in Hong Kong. Organizers of the demonstration reportedly chose the location for the latest rally to raise awareness about their plight among mainland Chinese tourists visiting the area.
Experts believe the continued upheaval reflects a deeper sense of uneasiness about Beijing’s influence on the SAR.
“At the broader level, the massive protests also suggest (that the) grievance level of Hong Kongers is high,” Ong said.
“(High) against economic conditions, lack of housing affordability, erosion of the rule of law, loss of identity or Hong Kong’s uniqueness and what differentiates it from the mainland.”
—With files from the Associated Press