The last two weeks have been monumental in changing the course of Hong Kong’s history. Millions have come out to protest against an extradition bill.
This bill allows Hong Kong to detain and transfer people wanted in countries and territories with which it has no formal extradition agreements, including Taiwan and the Chinese mainland.
What Sparked the Hong Kong Protests?
In February 2018, a couple—Chan Tong Kai and Poon Hiu-Wing—went to Taiwan on a vacation. A month later, Chan confessed to murdering his girlfriend in Taipei. Although he confessed, Chan could not be charged by Hong Kong authorities. The crime was committed in Taiwan, a country Hong Kong has no extradition treaty with. This set the motion for such a bill to be set up.
The Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019 is a proposed bill regarding extradition to amend the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance in relation to special surrender arrangements and the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Ordinance, so that arrangements for mutual legal assistance can be made between Hong Kong and any place outside Hong Kong. The bill was proposed by the Hong Kong government in February 2019.
This move puts Hong Kong citizens as well as others present in the city at risk of being sent to Mainland China for their trials. Taiwanese officials have strongly opposed the move and have refused to extradite suspects, with Taiwan being defined as a part of Mainland China. This is because Taiwanese suspects in Hong Kong would have a higher chance of getting extradited to Mainland China for trials under the proposed amendments, which hints to the possibility of this move being politically motivated.
The Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Carrie Lam, sees the extradition bill as a way to tighten the legal system. She promised that the bill met the international standards for human rights, as well as that only serious cases with sentences above seven years, will be considered.
Concerns sprout from the fact that such a move would open up the legal system to Mainland Chinese laws, which takes away from Hong Kong’s prerogative of being an independent entity. This will mainly allow the government to intimidate any purveyor of free speech such as critics of the Hong Kong or Chinese governments, human rights activists, journalists and even peaceful protestors.
One Country, Two Systems
To understand the context of the ongoing protests in Hong Kong it is imperative to understand its intertwined history with China. Originally a British colonial treaty, it was transferred to China in 1997. A complicated administrative system followed, called ‘one country, two systems’. It gave Hong Kong its own legal and administrative systems, allowing it to maintain its sovereignty until 2047. However, this system is extremely flawed because China’s interpretation of the basic laws that govern Hong Kong are final. Despite having different currencies and passports, China basically controls Hong Kong’s foreign relations. No public official either from Hong Kong or China has commented on what will happen after 2047, but with China frequently interfering, one can already guess.
Over the past week, protesters have reached more than 2 million in number. Unsurprisingly, this wasn’t the first instance of civil unrest. In 2014, protesters occupied parts of the city for over seventy-nine days demanding freer and more transparent elections. It was called the Umbrella Revolution because protesters used umbrellas to block the tear gas used by police. It was led by Joshua Wong, a 17-year-old at the time. He was jailed earlier this year for four months due to his role in the protests. The current protests are unique because they do not have a leader or a prominent figure. Rather, it is the ordinary residents of the city who fear that every step that China takes is a move towards eventual control of the city.
These basic freedoms that were promised to Hong Kong were the deciding factor in many conglomerates in setting up their Asian headquarters in Hong Kong. However, these protests and the frequent Chinese interference might cause them to move out, leaving the city with a severely undermined status as one of the most economically advanced cities in the world.
The bill has not only received massive backlash from protestors, but also from human rights organisations such as Amnesty International, Hong Kong Human Rights Monitor, and Human Rights Watch.
The initial protests led to Chief Executive Carrie Lam issuing an apology and shelving the bill indefinitely.
The freedom enjoyed by its people is what makes life in Hong Kong unique and different from China—a country under strict Communist rule. Greedy for power, China hopes to completely acquire Hong Kong well before 2047. The passing of the extradition bill is looked at as a step closer to Hong Kong losing its sovereignty.
The protests aim to protect the ‘firewall’ put in place between the legal systems of Hong Kong and Mainland China. Opening up this barrier would significantly affect the freedoms one receives in Hong Kong, as opposed to the heavily censored and regulated environment of Mainland China.
Hong Kong’s Democracy
However, given the nature of Hong Kong’s democracy, the bill will most likely be passed by the legislature. Hong Kongers themselves do not vote for their leader. The Chief Executive is instead elected by a committee and approved by China.
The making of laws takes place in the Legislative Council Complex. The Legislative Council (LegCo) comprises seventy members. Of the many parties present in Hong Kong, most of them are either pro-democracy or pro-China. Although the pro-democracy parties have been a constant winner of elections, they occupy less than half of these seventy seats.
This is because Hong Kong votes for only forty of the seventy seats. The remaining thirty are selected by the various business communities and industries present. Big corporations play an integral role in selecting these thirty seats. In turn, since China plays an important role for these businesses, most of these seats are pro-China. When Hong Kong was being handed over to China, a deal was made that eventually all leaders will be elected by the people. However, that never happened. Although China maintains that the bill is Hong Kong’s independent venture, the passing of the same will only be beneficial to them.
Hong Kong is protesting for the resignation of Carrie Lam and a complete withdrawal of the extradition bill. To fight for their unfulfilled demands, thousands gathered outside the police headquarters on the 21st of June. The protests ended peacefully. Joshua Wong demanded an explanation for the use of heavy-handed tactics, including 150 rounds of firing of tear gas at the protesters.
This public display of hatred and anger towards the government and the leaders of Beijing stems from years of suppression. Under China’s Xi Jinping, there have been reports of nine pro-democracy leaders being arrested and booksellers disappearing mysteriously, hence curbing free speech.
While this seems like an impossible win, the resilience and retaliation shown by the people of Hong Kong is the fuel which keeps the fire for a righteous world ignited.
Visesh Murali, Salekha Reddy and Aarohi Sarma for MTTN
Featured image: Bloomberg