Nearly two million people—over 25% of Hong Kong’s population—took part in a massive protest for the third time in a week last Sunday, despite the unprecedented suspension of the controversial extradition bill that was sure to pass on June 20.
A day after the Hong Kong government indefinitely postponed any further debate over the bill, pro-democracy activists dressed in black returned to the streets, vowing to continue their protest until extradition of criminals to China was taken completely off the table.
Without a clear leader and comprising mostly young students, they marched peacefully from Victoria Square in central Hong Kong and had the legislative council building surrounded by nightfall.
Citizens, including prominent lawyers and opposition leaders, rejected Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s apology for her handling of the extradition, demanded her resignation, raising slogans to withdraw the bill permanently and end China’s systematic encroachment of Hong Kong’s internal affairs.
This is possibly the largest such demonstration in Hong Kong’s history, recording a bigger turnout than the 1997 protest against Britain’s handover to China. Incidentally, Joshua Wong, the student leader who became the face of Hong Kong’s “Umbrella Movement” democracy protests five years ago, was released from prison on Monday.
What’s been happening in Hong Kong?
Tensions over the unpopular bill began the Sunday before, when hundreds of thousands marched in downtown Hong Kong to protest the proposed legislation that critics feared would be twisted to try dissidents in mainland courts, which the Communist Party controls. This would further erode Hong Kong’s judicial independence, they said.
Roughly 1 million in a city of 7 million were estimated to have attended peaceful demonstrations on June 9 to voice their opposition. From there, the pressure only mounted, resulting in a fierce clash between protesters and the police on Wednesday. Many angry but peaceful protesters, including reporters and students, were shot with rubber bullets, tear-gassed, beaten and arrested; one casualty was recorded.
Protesters on Sunday called out the heavy-handed police brutality during the protests, especially against students, who were labelled ‘rioters’ by the authorities, including Lam herself.
Fear and frustration
A day after the demonstrations began, Lam said she had no intention of withdrawing the 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 groundswell of resistance, it appears, was too large to ignore. Debate over the bill was postponed twice since then, although it seemed highly unlikely that the bill would be voted down, with the pro-Beijing camp holding a firm majority in the legislature.
With the gradual erosion of civil liberties, the citizens of Hong Kong are worried that the days of the “One Nation, Two Systems” may be numbered.
The policy, enshrined in the 1984 Sino-British Joint Declaration, plays 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. It expires in 2047, which marks 50 years since the British handover.
Since this agreement 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—Beijing is trying to dilute the autonomy of Hong Kong’s institutions with ploys like the extradition bill.
What is the extradition bill?
Even though the government has said the bill aims to prevent Hong Kong from becoming a haven for fugitives, critics claim that the legislation would allow case-based extraditions to jurisdictions with which Hong Kong does not have long-term agreements.
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, Chan Tong-kai, wanted for the murder of his girlfriend in Taiwan, a self-governed island claimed by Beijing. The Hong Kong government argues that the current Fugitive Offenders Ordinance needs updating in light of the ongoing case.
The Taiwanese government has responded that they would not be party to the extradition arrangement if it defines the island nation as a part of China, expressing solidarity with the protesters.
The extradition plan applies to 37 crimes, excluding political ones, but critics believe it essentially legalises abductions and transport of activists to the mainland, something that has gripped Hong Kong of late. Five Hong Kong-based booksellers, who specialised in works critical of Chinese leaders, have disappeared since 2015.
While many in Hong Kong see the extradition plan as the endgame of a long battle to disable dissent and political opposition in their city, the truth is that Hong Kong has the highest economic freedom among 43 countries in the Asia–Pacific region. And it has maintained this score for 25 years. As reports note, this is contingent on economic resilience, efficient legal and regulatory framework, low tolerance for corruption, government transparency, and openness to global commerce.
Thus, the overturning of the decision may have something to do with the influential members of Hong Kong’s business community, who turned on Lam as well. Reports of tycoons transferring capital out of the city to rival financial centres in Singapore sent a clear message that the bill would interfere with Hong Kong’s ultra-capitalism—particularly because the bill allows China to request a suspect’s assets in Hong Kong to be frozen or seized.
“We welcome the government’s decision to suspend resumption of the second reading of the extradition bill, which will allow things to cool down, and let everyone return to rational debate,” Aron Harilela, chairman of the city’s biggest business group, the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce, told the South China Morning Post.
International media now calls the pause in the legislation “too little, too late”, as was the government’s promise to adopt a more “sincere and humble attitude” towards public criticism going forward. The demonstration has now reorganised its agenda around scrapping the bill entirely.
Meanwhile, Lam has lost the public’s trust, emerging from this entire debacle as nothing but a proxy for Beijing. Protesters have scoffed at her apology, calling it meaningless and claiming it is tiresome to be lied to by elected representatives. But China has expressed firm support for Lam, refusing to allow her to resign.
Meanwhile, Chinese censors have been working hard to erase or block news of the Hong Kong protests, wary that any large public rallies could inspire protests in the mainland. People’s Daily, the country’s top newspaper, condemned “anti-China lackeys” of foreign forces in Hong Kong, while state-run tabloid Global Times, in an editorial, warned the US against using Hong Kong as a “bargaining chip” in trade talks.
Prarthana Mitra is a Staff Writer at Qrius.