A Hong Kong bill that would allow the extradition of suspects to mainland China has sparked what are by far the biggest protests in the city since 1997, when the United Kingdom handed its colony back to Beijing.
Starting June 9, over 1 million Hong Kongers marched in opposition to the proposed law, while the city’s Legislative Council remains deadlocked between pro-Beijing and pro-local members. Protest organizers had expected a turnout of 500,000.
It is feared that the extradition bill, introduced on April 3, will give China the right to have suspects arrested in Hong Kong and taken to the mainland for trial, effectively allowing the Chinese Communist Party to impose its political will over Hong Kong. And apart from being a serious blow to freedom of speech and rule of law in the semi-autonomous city, the bill has the potential to destroy Hong Kong’s strategic economic role as an intermediary territory between mainland China and the international community.
Hong Kong authorities deny that the extradition law has anything to do with CCP pressure. As grounds for the bill, they cite a recent murder case in which the Taiwanese government requested that a Hong Kong man be extradited following his escape home after murdering and robbing his girlfriend in Taiwan.
But the many critics of extradition point out that the bill provides no guarantees of protecting suspects’ rights from the caprices of the mainland Chinese legal system. The CCP could use the law to press false criminal charges against political opponents, or demand their arrests for activities not approved of by the state, such as participating in religious or dissident organizations.
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The end of Hong Kong?
Multiple foreign governments have voiced their opposition to the proposed law, which could be used by the CCP to target people of any nationality in Hong Kong’s territory.
Before the June 9 parade, the U.S. Department of State raised its opposition to the extradition law several times. In May, the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission released a report that noted the law would “increase the territory’s susceptibility to Beijing’s political coercion and further erode Hong Kong’s autonomy.”
If the law goes through, the United States and other countries could go further than words, and rescind the special economic treatment that makes Hong Kong so attractive for international business.
On June 13, the U.S. Senate introduced a bipartisan bill to “require the U.S. government to justify the continuation of special treatment afforded to” Hong Kong, according to Reuters. If passed, the law would entail an annual review to determine if Hong Kong is sufficiently autonomous from the CCP’s authoritarian system.
With not only its political status at risk, but its economic future under threat, the people of Hong Kong seem especially motivated to fight what is widely derided as an “evil law.” One of Hong Kong’s main business associations called for the resignation of Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s head of government. Dozens of retired officials have requested that she withdraw the extradition bill.
A ubiquitous slogan used by the protesters, “fan song zhong fa,” literally means “oppose the mainland extradition law,” but in Mandarin, the words “song zhong,” a contraction of “extradite to China,” sounds the same as the phrase meaning “to send to one’s death.”
Up until now, the biggest single protest in recent Hong Kong history was the 2003 demonstration to oppose Article 23, a proposed amendment to the Basic Law that would have brought Hong Kong laws on political activism closer in line with communist China. That July, a march by 500,000 pressured the government to freeze the amendment
A decade later, in the fall of 2014, the Umbrella Movement demanded “real universal suffrage” and attracted hundreds of thousands in several protests before being ultimately cleared out by riot police.
Since then, Beijing has continued to undermine Hong Kong’s autonomy and political freedoms, despite its promise of “one country, two systems,” under which no political changes would be made until 2047, or 50 years after the handover.
Coupled with long-term issues such as a bad job market and unbearable real estate prices, Beijing’s encroachment adds pressure to an already bad situation.
According to Ming Chu-cheng, emeritus professor at Taiwan’s National Taipei University, the controversy over the extradition law shows that the people of Hong Kong, particularly the youth, are desperate. “They don’t see any hope,” he said on a local news commentary channel.