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Hong Kong’s proposed extradition laws: another play from Beijing’s book?

Earlier in April, the government of Hong Kong proposed a judicial change which would allow suspects to be extradited and trialed in China. Thousands took to the streets to protest this change, which many fear would allow for future legal meddling from Beijing.

According to officials, changes to the current law are required to extradite a murder suspect to Taiwan. Extradition to Macau and Mainland China were included as an afterthought to close supposed ‘legal loopholes’; a clear erosion to the legal independence of Hong Kong in the eyes of many. On the 28th of April, protesters gathered in a March through the city center. The police reported their numbers to be around 22.000 strong while the organizers themselves made varying estimations ranging from 12.000 to even 130.000 protesters. It is the largest protest in Hong Kong since 2014.

One country, two systems

Hong Kong was handed over to the People’s republic of China in 1997 by the United Kingdom after years of negotiation between the superpowers in the 80’s. A separate common law, flag and government system was drafted for the city, which would function as a special administrative region (SAR) of China. Their capitalist system and way of life would remain unchanged for 50 years, until 2047.

Beijing has often strayed from this agreement in the past and continues to experiment with how far it can bend the rules. Here’s a rundown of the most important incidents:

  • In 2014, protests were held in the city, largely by university students, to demand freer elections. Some of the involved participants were temporarily jailed. This protest became known as the Umbrella movement.
  • In 2015, five booksellers including a British and Swedish national were seemingly detained in mainland China for selling banned books in Hong Kong. They were shown to be in good condition and stated they voluntarily traveled to the mainland. Some of the booksellers who returned cited that their confessions and appearances in the media were staged and scripted.
  • In August 2018, the Foreign Correspondent’s Club hosted a speech by Andy Chan, a founding member of the Hong Kong National Party. In his speech, Chan called China Hong Kong’s new colonial master. The party is a separatist movement seeking independence from China. The FCC was castigated by the government of Hong Kong and China.
  • In September 2018, the Hong Kong National Party was banned. The Hong Kong government referred to a speech of Xi Jingping, wherein he underlined that Hong Kong’s independence is a ‘red line’ that should not be crossed.
  • In October 2018, Victor Mallet, Asia news editor for the Financial Times and Vice-President of the FCC in Hong Kong was declined a renewal of his visa. No reason was stated but it is suspected that his role in hosting the Chan talk in August is likely to be the cause.
  • In January 2019, Hong Kong introduced a new bill that criminalizes any disrespect towards the national Chinese anthem, indicating a decline of the freedom of speech according to many observers.
  • On April 24th 2019, some of the leaders of the Umbrella movement were sentenced to prison. Two of them for up to 16 months. Colonial-era public nuisance charges were cited in court, a rare legal argument. None of the defendants expressed regret.
  • In January 2019, Hong Kong introduced a new bill that criminalizes any disrespect towards the national Chinese anthem, indicating a decline of the freedom of speech according to many observers.

Most of these cases involve a pro-Beijing action from the Hong Kong government. In the newest protest, participants were even making chants to demand Carrie Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, to step down. They called her a traitor of Hong Kong, referencing her government’s continuous ‘bending of the knee to China’.

Economic powerhouse in decline

Hong Kong functions as a large hub for international economy, hosting its own stock market and boasting one of the busiest ports in the world. The international business community expressed concerns to Lam about the legal proposal. The American Chamber of Commerce claims the changes could drag business people into China’s legal sphere. Washington already doubted Hong Kong’s independent status earlier in 2018 when it almost removed the US-Hong Kong policy act, a bill which upholds the city as a separate entity in US law. The US State Department reported on their increasing concerns over the actions in Hong Kong that undermined fundamental freedoms and called upon both Beijing and Hong Kong to uphold the ‘One country, two systems’ principle.

Reactions outside of China

Margaret Ng, a former member of the Hong Kong legislative council and supporter of the Umbrella movement pleaded for international attention at the protest march. “People from all the world must support Hong Kong. It’s the freest city in China and if these laws pass, it will be very difficult to see Hong Kong as a different place from China,” Ng stated.

Human Rights Watch’ China director Sophie Richardson also made a statement about the affairs saying: “”These amendments would heighten the risk for human rights activists and others critical of China being extradited to the mainland for trial on fabricated charges.”

The last British governor of Hong Kong, Chris Patten told news media in Hong Kong that the new extradition laws would be “an assault on Hong Kong’s values, stability and security”.

BBC Journalist Stuart Lau on the subject:

Taiwanese Ministery of Foreign affairs’ statement:

Conclusion

The city holds its breath as yet another strange episode of Hong Kong lawmaking is rapidly unfolding. This time however, the public reacted with more outrage than usual, harkening back to the times of the Umbrella movement. Could it be a sign that Hong Kong people are getting fed up with China overstepping their legal boundaries or is it a futile last-ditch attempt at public resistance?

 

Text : Jeremy Van der Haegen

Photos: Wikipedia commons (CC01)