Since June 9, tens of thousands of people in Hong Kong have clashed with the police force in violent riots against a new law their semi-autonomous government has proposed. A new extradition bill will send wanted individuals to mainland China, Taiwan, and Macau if they are found in Hong Kong.
Citizens, pro-democracy groups, lawyers, students, and other human rights groups have taken to the streets with chants and placards, sloganeering for the right to dissent and against Chinese influence in Hong Kong.
“No China extradition, no evil law”, “Scrap the evil law”, “Oppose China extradition”— these are the chants ringing loud in Hong Kong against the controversial extradition bill.
On July 1, demonstrators removed the Chinese national flag and replaced it with a black Bauhinia flag, or the flag of Hong Kong. They even protected themselves from the police with barricades and loose bricks, which they used to form a wall.
Hong Kong Hermit also reports on Twitter that protesters made an ‘umbrella wall’ where they occupied the streets and held open umbrellas as shields. They put up thousands of signs and red flags and tried vandalising the Legislative Council of Hong Kong’s (LegCo) offices.
After entering the LegCo offices, some protesters smashed windows, spray-painted the Hong Kong symbol in black and unfurled a British colonial flag at the seat of the president.
The Hong Kong police wearing protective gear like shields and helmets have tried to quell the riots with pepper spray and batons.
Hong Kong’s ‘special status’
Fortune explains that the British Empire leased Hong Kong back to China in 1997, after China allowed the region to operate with a “high degree of autonomy”, including freedom of speech, free markets, and English language use. This political and administrative arrangement came to be known as the “one country, two systems” rule.
Hong Kong has enjoyed this semi-autonomous status and grown into an international financial and commercial hub. China and Hong Kong have strong trade ties, where the latter is the former’s fourth largest trading partner, according to the Council on Foreign Relations (CFR). China is also a huge market for Hong Kong’s exports.
Over the years, it has allowed the Hong Kong government to make its own decisions but continued to push “considerable loyalists who dominate the region’s political sphere”, says CFR. China also reserves the right to interpret Hong Kong’s Basic Law.
Why are people opposing the extradition bill?
Enter the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019—the extradition law was proposed by the Hong Kong government after Chan Tong-kai (20) murdered his girlfriend in Taiwan and then fled to Hong Kong where there was no legal framework to try him.
The Hong Kong government argues that the extradition bill will allow it to close these legal loopholes, extradite fugitives back to mainland China, Macau, and Taiwan, where they can face trial, and ensure that the city does not become a refuge for criminals.
The government says only criminals with serious charges like murder and rape that carry prison sentences of at least seven years will be extradited. Also, courts will decide on all requests for extradition on a case-to-case basis. The government added that no one committing political or religious crimes will be extradited.
However, those protesting the bill say it is open to gross misuse, namely prosecuting dissidents and human rights activists. According to Fortune, Hong Kong is considering making “disrespecting the Chinese national anthem” a crime punishable with three years’ imprisonment.
If the extradition bill is passed, individuals can be prosecuted in China with potentially harsh sentences for relatively mild crimes.
Protesters also say this extradition bill could erode Hong Kong’s independence and allow China a legal basis to interfere in the region’s operations. Moreover, Hong Kong’s residents don’t consider themselves ethnically Chinese and see themselves as a separate social and political entity to mainland China.
According to BBC, most people identify as “Hong Kongers” and only 15% identify as Chinese. In younger demographics (18 to 29), only 3% identify as Chinese. Such an outlook has also bred a resistance to Chinese dominance.
“Hong Kong will just become another Chinese city if this bill is passed,” said a protester, Mike, to BBC.
The South China Morning Post reports that Legco was scheduled to discuss the bill on April 17 but could not when Opposition lawmakers filibustered the meeting with protests.
Chief Executive Carrie Lam also suspended any official action on the clashes between the police force and protesters.
Still, LegCo is made up of mostly pro-mainland China politicians. So, it could push the bill through but at great risk of social unrest. Lam said that given the large-scale protests and erupting violence, Legco might postpone action on the bill until next year.
LegCo President Andrew Leung Kwan-yuen is calling for another meeting on the bill on Thursday, July 4.
Protesters hope that their demonstrations will yield results, like they did in 2003, when 500,000 people took to the streets to agitate against Hong Kong’s security bill because, they said, it curbed their freedom; it was eventually scrapped.
Rhea Arora is a Staff Writer at Qrius
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