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Protest against a new extradition law in Shatin, Hong Kong (file photo)
Protest against a new extradition law in Shatin, Hong Kong (file photo)|Flickr.com/Studio Incendo
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Hong Kong on the Brink

Protests over the a new extradition bill—which has opened a Pandora’s box of uncertainties about freedom and democracy in one part of China—have become a battle over the future of Hong Kong

TP Sreenivasan

TP Sreenivasan

For the residents of the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region protesting violently against a new extradition law being pushed by the Chinese Government, the Government of the United Kingdom—of which Hong Kong was a colony till 1997—and the world itself, the assurance given by the Chinese official media that “the incident in Hong Kong won’t be a repeat of the June 4th political incident in 1989,” is more of a dire warning rather than a cause for comfort. A Global Times editorial added that “China is much stronger and more mature, and its ability to manage complex situations has been greatly enhanced” even more ominously. By making a reference to the bloodshed in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square in 1989, the fear that brutal use will be used against protesters has gripped Hong Kong. It has been predicted that the issue will be “settled or crushed” before October 1, the day China celebrates the 70th anniversary of the revolution. A crushing action by the Chinese army is more likely than a peaceful settlement and war clouds are gathering over Hong Kong.

Why the protests

The Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019 is a proposed bill related to extradition, which amends 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. The government proposed to establish a mechanism for transfers of fugitives not only for Taiwan but also for mainland China and Macau, which are not covered in the existing laws.

The introduction of the bill caused widespread criticism domestically and abroad from the legal profession, journalist organisations, business groups, and foreign governments fearing the erosion of Hong Kong's legal system and its built-in safeguards, as well as damaging Hong Kong's business climate. They were concerned about the heightened risk that Hong Kong citizens and foreign nationals passing through the city could be sent for trial to mainland China, where courts are under Chinese political control. Authorities in Taipei stated that Taiwan would not agree to extradite any suspects from Hong Kong, on grounds that Taiwanese citizens in Hong Kong would be at greater risk of being extradited to mainland China under the proposed bill, and suggested that the new legislation was politically motivated. The Hong Kong government's rush to implement the legislation to extradite also gave rise to a precedent to short-circuit procedural safeguards.

The issue is the future of Hong Kong itself

There have been multiple protests against the Bill in Hong Kong and other cities abroad. On 9 June, protesters estimated to number from hundreds of thousands to more than a million marched in the streets and called for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam to step down. The protests outside the Legislative Council descended into violent clashes between the police and protesters, with at least 79 people injured. Lam announced that she would suspend the proposed bill indefinitely. An estimation of nearly two million protesters as claimed by the organisers marched in the streets, calling for a full withdrawal of the bill.

Although the bill has not been formally withdrawn, Lam said she has stopped the amendment process and reiterated there is 'no plan' to restart this process in the Legislative Council, stating: "the bill is dead".

Regardless of the future of the bill, the protests over the bill became a battle over the future of Hong Kong because the bill opened a Pandora’s box of uncertainties about freedom and democracy in one part of China. The intensity of the demonstrations—which grew to include one third of the island’s 7 million residents—led to strident warnings from Beijing, sparking fears that Beijing might intervene militarily in Hong Kong. Images of flag-waving military personnel and armoured vehicles in the border city of Shenzhen added to those fears, with international commentators invoking the spectre of the Tiananmen crackdown. Neither the protesters, nor the Chinese Government appeared willing to relent, even after two months. Today, the issue is not the bill, but the future of Hong Kong itself.

The Hong Kong protests spread to London and Australia, with demonstrators backing protesters in Hong Kong marching in London, even as counter-protesters staged a rival rally. More than a thousand people took part in the two demonstrations in the UK capital. Protesters supporting the activists paraded banners reading "Will Britain hold China to its promise on Hong Kong's freedom?", "Power to the people: stand with Hong Kong" and "Will Boris surrender to China?", referring to Prime Minister Boris Johnson. Others said "The only place I want pepper is in my noodle soup", "SOS: please save Hong Kong" and "No China extradition". Counter-protesters waved Chinese flags and held up signs saying "traitor", "one nation, one China" and "Hong Kong is part of China forever". Even in Paris, during the weekly "yellow vest" demonstrations, some participants also showed their support for the Hong Kong protesters.

The big question: Is the end of One Country-Two Systems near?

The crisis in Hong Kong has seriously affected business and posed a political and economic challenge for China. Ten weeks of demonstrations have plunged the international finance hub into crisis, with communist-ruled mainland China taking an increasingly hard line. China has made it clear that it will not allow Hong Kong to slip away from its grip.

The issue raised by Hong Kong is fundamental to China because it is dealing with the problem of reconciling a rigid political regime with an open economy in China itself. When China opened up to the world after President Nixon’s historic visit, China had to invent an altogether new system of “Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” as a broad term for political theories and policies that are seen by their proponents as representing Marxism-Leninism, but adapted for market economics. In the party's official narrative, socialism with Chinese characteristics is Marxism-Leninism adapted to Chinese conditions and a product of scientific socialism.

The experiment was carried further in the case of Hong Kong by developing the concept of “One Country, two Systems,” a constitutional principle that would permit Chinese regions such as Hong Kong and Macau to retain their own economic and administrative systems, while the rest of China uses the socialism with Chinese characteristics system. Under the principle, each of the two regions could continue to have its own governmental system, legal, economic and financial affairs, including trade relations with foreign countries.

When the Chinese system itself is being seen as a potential reason for the failure of China, the Chinese leadership cannot afford to let Hong Kong slip away from their hands. That explains the promise that Chinese operation in Hong Kong will be as ruthless as Tiananmen, but more sophisticated and technologically advanced. The scenes of tanks rolling over protesters will be technologically camouflaged.

The Hong Kong crisis has come at a particularly difficult time for China, amid an ongoing trade war with the United States, which has intensified after the cease-fire in Osaka. US President Donald Trump has approved the sale of 66 Lockheed Martin F-16V Viper fighter jets to Taiwan in a $8 billion deal. But none of these will deter China from taking strong action in Hong Kong, even if it means some bloodshed.