Hundreds of thousands of people began protesting in Hong Kong on Sunday, June 9, against a controversial extradition bill that would allow suspected criminals to be sent to China for trial.
While supporters say safeguards are in place to prevent anyone facing religious or political persecution from being extradited to mainland China,
critics fear it could be used to try dissidents in mainland courts, which the Communist Party controls, and further erode Hong Kong’s judicial independence.
While the bill is deemed the immediate cause, the fact that a million people out of Hong Kong’s 7 million-strong population are out on the streets is a sign that anxiety and anger against routine Chinese intervention has been growing.
Coming five years after the Umbrella Revolution, the ongoing mass demonstration precedes a vote on the extradition law on June 20. It is among the largest in Hong Kong’s history, at least since the mass uprising that preceded the 1997 handover of the British colony to China, on conditions.
What happened on Sunday?
Sunday’s protest stretched for more than a mile through canyons of downtown skyscrapers. Residents, including prominent lawyers, have expressed their resistance by signing petitions and taking to the streets. Protesters marched for hours, chanting “No China extradition” and slogans calling for chief executive Carrie Lam to resign.
More than 100 small businesses, cafes, civic groups, and social services went on strike on Wednesday, when Hong Kong’s legislature was expected to resume consideration of the bill; it was postponed in light of the protests, according to a press release.
Street protests turned violent in some parts of the town after riot police reportedly gunned down an unarmed civilian, roughed up reporters, and tear-gassed teenage protesters. Meanwhile, cars were mobilised to blocked seminal roads across town, and the turnout resembled Sunday’s, if not healthier.
But it is unlikely that the bill will be voted down, with the pro-Beijing camp holding a firm majority in the legislature. The government infamously ousted opposition lawmakers and rejected demands for free elections.
A day after the demonstrations began, Lam said she had no intention of withdrawing contentious legislation, telling reporters on Monday, “We were doing it, and we are still doing it, out of our clear conscience, and our commitment to Hong Kong.” The government has said it is necessary to prevent Hong Kong from becoming a haven for fugitives.
Despite Lam’s assurance that she received no instruction or mandate from Beijing to pursue the bill, fear and frustration among citizens persist. It was the CPP, after all, that elected her to lead the city’s government, and reportedly endorsed the bill. As expected, popularity ratings have dropped massively in recent weeks.
“I would say that Carrie Lam’s persistence has a lot to do with prioritising Beijing’s interest over the local population’s,” Mathew Wong, a professor of political science at the Education University of Hong Kong, told NYT. “If she loses Beijing’s trust, her career is over, but if she could ride out the dissatisfaction, she would have achieved something in Beijing’s eyes.”
Factors leading up to it
The fact that Wong is able to criticise his government and the press is able to report it marks a crucial difference between China and Hong Kong, and why millions gathered to protect the little autonomy it still enjoys.
With the gradual erosion of civil liberties that have long set the semi-autonomous territory apart from the Chinese mainland, the mostly-liberal democratic citizens of Hong Kong are worried that the days of their “One Nation Two Systems” may be numbered.
It’s a combination of these factors that drew a mass of people to fill the streets for more than a mile in a striking display of defiance against Beijing’s rule over the semi-autonomous territory, writes the New York Times.
But the answer to what sets Hong Kong apart leads from one question.
Is the former British colony a part of China?
Hong Kong did not gain total independence from Britain, which colonised it long after Chinese independence for its ports.
Instead, in 1997, it was “returned” to China under a policy known as “one country, two systems”, which promised the territory a high degree of autonomy.
The policy, enshrined in the Basic Law, did play an effective rule in preserving Hong Kong’s civil service, independent courts, freewheeling press, open internet, and other features that distinguish it from the Chinese mainland. But there’s a catch. It expires in 2047.
Yet, it is not the impending deadline that has riled up the citizens. The Basic Law has already been weakened by CCP and its security apparatus by periodic encroachment, abducting booksellers, and a China-born billionaire.
Why China is targeting Hong Kong’s civil liberties?
Hong Kong is an obvious target because it has a vocal community of pro-democracy activists and lawmakers.
Since the Basic Law prevents Chinese authorities from crushing dissent in Hong Kong with an iron fist, as they do across the mainland and in the autonomous regions of Tibet, Taiwan, and Xinjiang, they are trying to dilute the autonomy of Hong Kong’s institutions with ploys like extradition.
Critics claim that the legislation would allow case-based extraditions to jurisdictions with which Hong Kong does not have long-term agreements.
What is the extradition law?
In other words, Hong Kong can detain and transfer people to China and Taiwan; in fact, the bill’s passing is sped up to prosecute a Hong Kong man wanted for the murder of his girlfriend in Taiwan, a self-governed island claimed by Beijing.
The Taiwanese government has responded saying they would not be party to the extradition arrangement if it defines it as a part of China, and expressed solidarity with the protesters of the bill.
Critics are more concerned about how the law would target pro-democracy political activists, allowing dissidents to be picked up and detained in mainland China, whose judicial system reportedly works in accordance with the wishes of CCP.
The extradition plan applies to 37 crimes, excluding political ones, but it essentially legalises abductions and transport of activists to the mainland, something that has gripped Hong Kong of late. It would deal a really huge blow to the Basic Law, leaving locals subject to the whims of the Chinese authorities who are not typically allowed to operate here.
Why it matters
According to NYT, many in Hong Kong see the extradition plan as the endgame of a long battle to disable dissent and political opposition in their city. Global leaders have pressed for the government to respect the rights and freedoms guaranteed under the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration.
Hong Kong is connected to the Chinese mainland by a land border, high-speed rail, and a long sea bridge. Residents on both sides cross the border regularly, although mainlanders must apply for permission to enter Hong Kong. Yet, the city remains beholden to Beijing in many ways, especially for jobs, trade, and commerce.
For India, Hong Kong has always been viewed as the gateway to China, but with rising friction between the two, prospects of using that channel dwindled with time. Things, however, got better between the two Chinese foes, especially with the double taxation avoidance pact, which is said to stimulate a greater flow of investment and personnel between Hong Kong and India. Immigration policies have also relaxed over time.
But Chinese President Xi Jinping, who came to power in 2012 has pursued critics and dissidents with increasing boldness. Given Hong Kong’s subordinate status to the mainland, the passage of this law could mean significant damage to the local government.
At the same time, Hong Kong has managed to stall a lot of similar agendas before. In 2003, half a million marchers demonstrated against a Beijing-backed package of national security laws prohibiting sedition, subversion, and treason against the Chinese government.
Three years ago, Hong Kong erupted as a youth-led anti-corruption movement called the Umbrella Revolution. Tens of thousands took part in the movement, demanding free elections, for 11 weeks in late 2014.
While China is not allowed to mention the T-word, large crowds in Hong Kong attend an annual vigil that commemorates Beijing’s 1989 crackdown on student protesters in Tiananmen Square.
Opposition to the extradition bill is even higher, according to a recent poll by the University of Hong Kong. Among the protesters opposing it on Wednesday, there was a similar and palpable sense of unity, purpose and urgency. While they await a miracle, something tells me we won’t wait until 2047 for another massive uprising in the city.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius.