In Hong Kong, the current bill allowing extradition to mainland China is the latest in a gradual attack on Hong Kong’s democracy and autonomy. This is why Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s move to suspend the bill Saturday, a temporary measure that leaves the threat fully intact, hasn’t been enough to satisfy protesters.
Organizers have estimated the turnout for the protests this weekendat over two million, making it the largest demonstration since Britain relinquished control of Hong Kong in 1997. Sunday’s march was twice the size of a protest a week earlier which, at the time, also earned its status as the largest since 1997. It was the third mass protest in eight days, and the larger events were interspersed with smaller protests throughout the week—some of which turned violent, with police using tear gas and rubber bullets against protesters.
But Sunday’s protest nonetheless saw broad turnout with students, families, children, and the elderly, despite the violence just days earlier. Hong Kong residents are not accepting Lam’s move to suspend the bill, suspecting that the government will aim to pass it once protests have a chance to dissipate.
And even more importantly, it’s far from the first time Hong Kong’s autonomy has been threatenedin recent memory.
When British control over Hong Kong was set to lapse in 1997, China and the UK negotiated a compromise that granted the island a special status. In this “one country, two systems” arrangement, Hong Kong is entitled to its political autonomy despite being part of China. This preserved the right to assemble and the right to free speech, making today’s protests possible. It also established a legal system based on Britain’s.
But in recent years, there have been reports of veiled pressure from China threatening to extend their influence and limit free expression and judicial independence in Hong Kong.
In 2014, the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement faced mass arrests after an almost 80-day occupation. It was ultimately dispersed by a civil injunction from private actors like bus and taxi companies. The lawyer representing one of these companies was linked to pro-Beijing political party and had met with President Xi Jinping in a private meeting. Several of the movement’s leaders were ultimately jailed.
The following year, five booksellers who sold political books were detained in mainland China, raising fears they’d been illegally removed by Chinese authorities. One returned to Hong Kong on bail, saying he had been forced to make a confession and would not return to China to be face an unfair trial.
In 2016, pro-democracy and pro-autonomy politicians made significant gains in legislative elections. The government then used legal tools to undermine and disqualifythose politicians. Two were expelled from the legislature for having said Hong Kong was not part of China during their oath-taking ceremony. A declaration by Beijing’s National People’s Congress Standing Committee preempted the local court’s ruling defending their move. The mainland committee’s claim that an oath of office must be taken “sincerely and solemnly” has since been used to expel four other politicians from the legislature.
Ostensibly, China’s law enforcement has no jurisdiction in Hong Kong. In a legacy of British rule, Hong Kong uses a common law system based in precedent, with judges that are well-known for their independence. A move to allow extradition, coming on the heels of clear efforts by China to suppress dissent and expression, will have obvious consequences.
The bill states that Hong Kong courts may only verify that there are no grounds for refusing extradition, with no power to judge whether a suspect is guilty or whether they will face a fair application of justice in China. It would effectively end the autonomy of Hong Kong’s law enforcement and judiciary.
Hong Kong’s right to democracy, promised in its Basic Law negotiated with Britain, is already severely constrained by Beijing. Few voters have a say in the political process, and many seats in the legislature are not directly chosen by voters, occupied by supporters of Beijing.
In 2014, the Umbrella Movement protesters chanted “we’ll be back” as their occupation was dismantled. Not only has the bill been suspended in response to the current protests, but one of the leaders of the 2014 movement is now set to be released from prisonMonday, according to his political party. The government is clearly concerned about the level of public outrage sparked by the bill.
But increasingly, protesters are not only calling for the bill to be scrapped. They’re also calling for Lam, who was handpicked by Beijing, to step down. It seems that the government, or perhaps Beijing, may have overplayed its hand and tapped into more entrenched grievances. So far, the only thing the bill has accomplished is to mobilize and solidify the opposition. It may take more than a rollback of the bill, even a permanent one, to stop the unrest.