It is Sunday. The day of rest. In over thirty degree heat and eighty per cent humidity people stood for four or more hours, waiting in stations, on trains and in buses. There is so much traffic that little moves above a crawl. Some will give up, and change their plans, content that they had made an effort. Others still find contentment in the view that others who make it represent them. But more than a million people will stand patiently in line, give up their time and bear the conditions.
On Sunday, over a million people in Hong Kong marched in protest against the proposed extradition bill put forward by the Hong Kong government. The marchers in Hong Kong were also joined by 4,000 people in London, 3,000 in Melbourne, and thousands more in 27 other cities across the globe, the majority again Hong Kong Chinese. Hong Kong police figures, which have in recent years become notorious for using highly selective methods to significantly underreport numbers, put the crowd at its peak at just over 240,000. But this counted only those present at one time, and does not account for those, unable to reach the starting point in Victoria Park or who joined the march later on and walked only part of the way. What is beyond doubt is that the march is the largest one-day protest in Hong Kong’s history.
The government’s extradition bill proposes to amend Hong Kong’s existing laws to allow, for the first time, an extradition arrangement between Hong Kong and China. This would allow Chinese authorities to seek the extradition of any person in Hong Kong, regardless of nationality, wanted in China for serious criminal offences.
According to the Hong Kong government, the bill comes in response to a request by Taiwanese authorities to extradite from Hong Kong a man wanted in Taiwan for criminal charges. It would also be a means of addressing a supposed loophole in the existing legislation that prevents Hong Kong from having an extradition arrangement with China.
Yet both of these reasons prove problematic. Firstly, Taiwan has requested a one-off arrangement to be decided solely on the basis of this one case. It has not asked for a change to the existing extradition process, and has indeed made it clear that should the amendments proposed by the bill pass it will not seek to apply for extradition under the new system. Secondly – and contrary to the repeated claims of Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam – both Chris Patten and Malcolm Rifkind, Hong Kong’s last governor and the UK Foreign Secretary in the lead up to Hong Kong’s 1997 Handover, have both stated that the supposed loop-hole was both deliberate and agreed. With reference to official records, they said that it was in accordance with the Sino-British Joint Declaration, as a means to ensure a separation between the rule of law and common law system as it exists in Hong Kong and constitutional law system that is followed in China.
In its defence, the government then highlighted that Hong Kong already has extradition treaties with the UK, US and Germany; and that many countries, including France and Spain, have extradition arrangements with China. But what the government has been deliberately silent on is the nature of the relationship between Hong Kong and China — unlike France and Spain, where any request for extradition might be turned down should either the French or Spanish governments decide, it is improbable to consider the Hong Kong government being able to do the same. Hong Kong exists as a Special Administrative Region of the Peoples Republic of China, its founding document – the Basic Law – is subordinate to the national constitution. Furthermore, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive is, in-effect, chosen and then approved by Beijing. Under the amendments proposed, legislative oversight by Hong Kong’s Legislative Council – which is itself only partially elected by universal suffrage – would be removed, with the final decision resting solely with the Chief Executive.
It is worth stressing again that what is being proposed is for any person in Hong Kong, whether resident or in transit, to be subject to arrest and extradition to China to face criminal charges, where entrapment, torture and forced televised confession is an accepted means of legally persecuting critics. And for political reasons in effect a request made by of Hong Kong by a Chinese court cannot be declined should it be in the interests of the Chinese Communist Party.
It is therefore not surprising that the proposed extradition bill has met with near-universal condemnation, not only within Hong Kong, but internationally. Formal letters of concern have been sent by the UK, US, the EU, Canada and Australia, among others. These are all countries with large Chinese and Hong Kong Chinese communities, and with significant interests and ties to Hong Kong.
Within Hong Kong, there has been unity among human rights organisations and international NGOs, and among the city’s diverse and often divided community and social rights associations. Both the Bar Association and the usually pro-establishment Law Society have also expressed concerns and asked for the bill to be withdrawn, and a protest march of Hong Kong lawyers drew a record 3,000 attendees. In an extremely unusual move, several members of the Hong Kong’s judiciary have felt obliged to express their concerns, with one judge reprimanded by the chief justice for having signed a petition demanding that the bill be withdrawn.
Perhaps most surprising of all the business community in Hong Kong have reacted. It is the first time the business community has taken a clear position against the Hong Kong government on what amounts to a political decision. Statements have been issued by the Canadian and American chambers of commerce expressing severe misgivings on the proposed bill, which they believe will not only represent a potential security risk, but also critically damage Hong Kong’s rule of law and reputation as a safe place to do business. Hong Kong has thrived not by being a part of China, but by not being China — by being a British city on the edge of China, governed and administered competently, and with power checked by the rule of law and a free press. All that made Hong Kong different has been systematically challenged and, in the case of press freedom, eroded, since China turned resolutely towards embracing authoritarianism under the presidency of Xi Jinping.
However, despite unprecedented opposition, the extradition bill will be enacted. As the son of a Hong Kong family who was born and raised there, it pains me tremendously to have watched the dismantling of all that was truly important about my home. This bill represents but another step, albeit a significant step, towards what so many Hong Kong people had feared: complete integration into a China defined by the Chinese Communist Party. The guarantee of One Country, Two Systems has already become One System, Two Forms.
My pessimism though is not founded on emotion but on an understanding of the new nature of establishment politics in Hong Kong. Chief Executive Carrie Lam has said on several occasions that she is not one to listen to the people, and that if necessary she would be willing to bypass the legislative bills committee to get the law passed. Neither procedure nor the Basic Law matter. Unsurprising, with the Liberal Party having now decided to back the proposal, the government has the numbers to pass the bill and the facade of normal legislative procedure will continue.
Speculation continues to be rife as to whether this determination to pass the bill, despite an unprecedented level of opposition, is to fulfil an order from Beijing. If this is not the case, and talk of Beijing interfering directly in an area where Hong Kong is meant to be autonomous is genuinely unfounded, it does beg the question as to why does the Hong Kong government continue to insist?
There is then an understanding, born of personal experience, of the Chinese Communist Party. It is that it cannot allow the Chinese people – any Chinese people – to feel that they have a say in the national project as defined by the Party. Hong Kong people must learn to accept a new relationship with authority; and they must learn to accept a new understanding of the role of the media and the rule of law. Indeed, President Xi has been very clear in this message, not just to Hong Kong but to Chinese people everywhere.
Three years ago, when the news broke of the Causeway Bay booksellers, who had been kidnapped by Chinese authorities and taken to China to ‘confess’ their ‘crimes’, I asked a friend well connected in Hong Kong business circles and in the party what he thought. His reply proved very insightful:
“I am surprised they have allowed this sort of thing to be public. We all know it happens. They want us to know.”
Beijing wants Hong Kong people to know that no matter what, they are powerless; and that as long as the Communist Party defines China the future of China, the Chinese people and the Chinese identity is theirs and theirs alone to decide. It is not our government, there is only the government.
Hong Kong’s psychedelic disco rock superstars Shumking Mansion will play this year’s Hong Kong Free Press 2019 fundraising party at the Hive Spring in Wong Chuk Hang. Tickets are available now for a minimum donation of just HK$50 in advance (free for HKFP monthly donors).