A brief recount of protests surrounding the bill
Following the Hong Kong government’s introduction of a legislative proposal to transfer fugitives to any jurisdiction on a case-by-case basis, protests have rippled the city, with concerns over the sensitive subject nature of the bill, as well as accompanying procedural issues. Most significantly, protesters have expressed their deep concern about the implications of the arrangement on the relationship between Hong Kong and China.
On June 9th, 1 million people took to the streets to oppose the extradition proposal. Nonetheless, the Hong Kong government decided to press ahead with the second reading of the proposed bill in the Legislative Council. To hold off the debate, protesters came together again on June 11th and June 12th, resulting in the debate being stalled. The protestors did not stop there. Some pushed at police lines at the LegCo building, and violence erupted. The clash saw the police firing tear gas, pepper spray and rubber bullets at largely peaceful protestors. The Police Chief later declared the incident a “riot”. Police actions on the 12th sparked widespread outrage over the alleged use of excessive force and brutality.
On June 14th, Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced an “indefinite delay” in the passage process of the extradition bill, yet fell short of withdrawing it. Protesters were unsatisfied, compelling a historic two million people to take to the streets on June 16th in demonstration against the bill, and in protest of police brutality. They also called for Lam’s resignation, a withdrawal of the characterisation of the June 12th protests as a “riot”, and for the police to drop all charges against protestors. Till this day, the government has not satisfied any of these demands, and has not withdrawn the bill. Protesters appealed to G20 leaders ahead of the G20 Osaka summit, calling for them to raise the issue and “liberate” the city.
On June 21st, a demonstration at the police headquarters in Wan Chai took place, placing the building under siege for over 12 hours, where eggs were thrown at officers. On June 30th, a rally in support of the Hong Kong Police Force took place, aiming to show backing for the police force in enforcing the law and maintaining law and order in Hong Kong. Animosity towards the police nevertheless remains; officers normally stationed at two hospitals were withdrawn following reported verbal abuse by patients and staff.
On July 1st, alongside the largely peaceful democracy march, a group of protesters stormed the Legislative Council, spraying graffiti in the chambers and defacing portraits of LegCo presidents, leaving the building in disarray.
The protests – how did we come to this?
The protesters' rage stems from several factors, including concerns about China’s potential influence in the extradition process, suspicions towards China’s criminal justice system, the government’s disregard for public opinion, apparent excess use of force by the Police, as well as the labelling of the incident as a riot (which carries heavy sentences). The growing divisions in Hong Kong contain a broader underlying narrative - that China is trying to close in on the city, the government is allowing and facilitating it, the police are tools of government suppression, and the people feel resentful, fearful, helpless and unheard
Many argue that the bill contravenes the One Country, Two Systems agreement to keep Hong Kong and China’s legal and political systems independent of one another, and risks severely eroding the city’s autonomy. Is that true? President Xi has clearly stated that China must not “follow the Western road of ‘judicial independence’”, thus raising concerns over protection of human and civil rights in the criminal justice system. Despite the proclaimed safeguards in the proposed bill, where extradition will not apply to political cases and there is a limited list of offences that will be covered, there is anxiety that critics of Chinese authority could still be punished by being charged with other crimes that may not appear political. The decision to consider extradition requests by Chinese judicial officials will fall to the Chief Executive, and given her background of having been voted in by a small 1200-member Election Committee and appointed by Beijing, one can argue that it is hard for the Chief Executive to say no to an extradition request from Mainland China, therefore this is not an adequate safeguard.
The extradition bill, if made into law, would not achieve what the Chief Executive had set out to do: Taiwan has said that it will not accept the extradition of the Hong Kong resident who allegedly murdered his girlfriend in Taiwan. Furthermore, the passage of the bill could be an economic disaster - both for Hong Kong and for China. A loss of foreign confidence would destroy Hong Kong’s uniqueness of simultaneously being connected to the Chinese market and being politically independent from the one-party state, stifling its standing as the world’s eighth-largest exporter of goods and fourth-largest stock market. Politically, at the point of the 1997 handover, Hong Kong and China were developed to converge during the 50 years of One Country, Two Systems. The defining protests of 2003, 2014, and now 2019 demonstrated Hong Kongers’ fear of losing their way of life and their wariness of Hong Kong becoming more like any other Chinese city. In attempting to “fight for what was promised”, and to preserve Hong Kong’s core values and culture, it appears we will have a difficult transition ahead, as we head towards 2047.
At this stage, the issue is no longer only about the potential repercussions of the extradition bill. While claiming to be willing to hear people out, the Government, especially the Chief Executive, has made no attempt to initiate any form of meaningful dialogue despite her promises in her statements, instead it is ignoring overwhelming public opinion, including from a quarter of the Hong Kong population, as well as groups that have traditionally stayed quiet on political controversies such as professionals, religious groups, and foreign countries. Such actions are a testament to the distance between Lam’s government and public opinion, where even the relatively neutral demands of withdrawing the bill or establishing an independent commission has been completely ignored. The perceived apathy of the government could be a driving factor for protesters to take more desperate and radical measures, such as the vandalism in the Legislative Council on July 1st. Hong Kong relies on, and needs wisdom, integrity and good leadership in its government, to protect the interests and rights of Hong Kong citizens.
While the bill and the government are obvious foci for discontent, Hong Kong must also focus its efforts on strengthening and safeguarding Hong Kong’s rights and freedoms. After all, one never has to fight if sufficiently protected. Acts of resistance must be complemented by efforts to maintain the strength and integrity of our legal system, ensure continued scrutiny of the government, exercise our right to vote, and uphold the competence of the legislature. Hong Kong could do with greater reflection, intellectual reasoning and careful pragmatism, to ensure the continuation of the rights and freedoms that we value so highly.
CUHKCAS is an organisation that aims to raise awareness about issues in Hong Kong and China. We believe in the importance of taking a holistic perspective, and shall remain relevant in a fluid political environment, while retaining an open mind, and speak with prudence. We encourage critical constructive debate, support peaceful protests within the principles of peace, rationality, and non-violence (和理非), and condemn hate speech, division and violence. CUHKCAS is, therefore, reluctant to swiftly partake in activism, and instead seeks to offer a narrative that impartially takes into account views across the political scene.
As a society, we probably disagree on far less than it appears - recent events have shown that our broad commitment towards democracy contains delicate differences that can divide us, rather than bring us together. It takes courage to not only speak out to protect Hong Kong - but also to listen to others, and to act responsibly.