Hong Kong’s legislature building remains closed after mass protests over a proposed extradition law that would allow for suspects to be sent to mainland China for trial turned violent on Wednesday (June 12).
While the city’s center returned to normalcy on Friday, demonstrators are set to take to the streets again in the days ahead, setting the stage for new rounds of confrontation and a potentially more severe official response.
Clashes between police and tens of thousands of young black-clad protestors resulted in the hospitalization of at least 81 people in some of the worst violence seen in the former British colony since it was handed back to China in 1997.
The protests are already having diplomatic ramifications. Senior US lawmakers from both Democratic and Republican parties on Thursday introduced legislation that would require the US government to annually certify Hong Kong’s autonomy from mainland China to qualify for special business and trade privileges.
China, meanwhile, has rejected accusations it is throttling Hong Kong’s legally guaranteed autonomy and forcing legal changes on the city’s government. In response, Chinese state media has taken sharp aim at “external forces” it claims are trying to drive a wedge between the city and the mainland by creating chaos over the bill.
Hong Kong’s embattled Chief Executive Carrie Lam described the protests as an organized “riot” – a serious criminal offense that carries a maximum 10-year prison sentence – during a tearful television interview with local broadcaster TVB in which she extolled her personal sacrifices.
The city’s leader claimed the protests were “not an act out of love for Hong Kong”, she said, while denying allegations of “selling out” the special administrative region’s autonomy to Beijing. “I have never once thought that I’ve been doing this against my conscience. We firmly believe we have been doing the right thing from the beginning.”
When asked if she would withdraw the contentious amendments to the extradition bill, Lam said: “That this issue is controversial is indisputable. Explaining [the bill] and communication will help, but we may not be able to completely eliminate these worries, anxieties or controversies.”
In the aftermath of Wednesday’s violent clashes and a demonstration on Sunday that organizers claimed drew more than one million people, proponents of changes to the city’s extradition law, known as the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance amendment bill, have continued to make their case for why the legislation is needed.
“We are not importing mainland systems into Hong Kong, in fact we will be submitting, subjecting the rendition requests by rigorous scrutiny by our courts,” said Regina Ip, a legislator who served as Hong Kong’s secretary for security from 1998 to 2003, told Asia Times. “Our courts will have jurisdiction on the request, the evidence, the nature of the offense.”
The bill has been widely opposed by academics, student activists, legal groups and businesspeople due to widespread distrust of China’s judicial system and fears that the legislation could be used to hand Hong Kong dissidents, critical journalists and pro-democracy activists to the mainland on spurious charges.
The extradition bill has become a flashpoint over the perceived erosion of Hong Kong’s autonomy under the “one country, two systems” principle that guarantees the autonomous region’s right to self-governance, an independent judicial system and democratic rights until 2047.
Ip, a pro-establishment legislator, sees it differently.
“I think it will strengthen ‘one country, two systems’,” she claimed. “[The bill] will only apply to offenses punishable with seven years imprisonment, in other words, focusing on really serious crimes. People don’t need to worry about being whisked away to mainland China because of some petty offenses or some petty quarrels years ago.”
Ip said the length of the consultation period to formulate the bill had been too short and while she admitted China’s legal system had its shortcomings, the legislator called for giving it time to improve: “The democratic system has evolved for several hundred years so we can’t expect China to change overnight or to blame an apple for not being an orange.
“We will be submitting all rendition requests, including those from mainland China, to our common law system. It will be subjected to through rigorous common law human rights safeguards, so we are not talking about wantonly removing somebody from Hong Kong to the mainland,” she told Asia times. “I think we should give this bill a try.”
Many in Hong Kong have little faith in such assurances given that extrajudicial abductions by China have taken place as recently as 2015, when five Hong Kong men who sold books critical of Chinese leaders disappeared and were reportedly taken into mainland custody and forced to make scripted confessions on state television.
Lam, meanwhile, has been dogged by allegations that the China-backed rendition was undertaken at Beijing’s behest, rather than being a local government initiative. Liu Xiaoming, China’s ambassador to Britain, was the first Chinese official to publicly dismiss suggestions of Beijing being behind the proposed changes to Hong Kong’s extradition bill.
“[The media] portrayed the story as the Hong Kong government made this amendment [as a result of the] instruction of the Beijing government,” Liu was reported as saying. “As a matter of fact, [the] Beijing central government gave no instruction, no order about making [the] amendment. This amendment was initiated by the Hong Kong government.”
Chinese state media has likewise been critical of how Western mainstream media have covered recent events in Hong Kong, with outlets like Global Times alleging that “radical opposition forces” have hitched their wagons to “Western forces,” singling out US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Taiwan leader Tsai Ing-wen for their public remarks on the matter.
“People like them hope Hong Kong can become a wedge with which they can confront the Chinese mainland. Does Hong Kong’s prosperity and welfare have anything to do with them? Radical opposition groups in Hong Kong are colluding with hostile forces out of their own political motivations,” a Global Times editorial published on Wednesday said.
Global Times, a state tabloid, ran an opinion piece acknowledging youth dissatisfaction with Hong Kong’s social and economic climate, positing that: “Hong Kong should be aware that its development is closely linked to the Chinese mainland. Only by integrating with the mainland can the city break its development deadlock.”
Pelosi issued a scathing statement earlier this week saying the amendments being considered by the “China-controlled” legislature are “dangerous” and would “legitimize and legalize the kidnapping of businessmen, booksellers and anyone that China disagrees with,” a precedent that would imperil “the safety of the 85,000 Americans living in Hong Kong.”
She said that if the bill is passed, the US Congress would have “no choice but to reassess whether Hong Kong is sufficiently autonomous under the ‘one country, two systems’ framework,” a reference to the 1992 United States-Hong Kong Policy Act that enables the US to engage Hong Kong as a separate entity from the rest of China.
Analysts say rescinding the law would put the Asian financial hub on the front lines of the intensifying US-China trade war, dealing a harsh blow to the city’s trade and financial system while also hurting the hundreds of international businesses and American companies headquartered in the city.
Taiwan’s leader has likewise hit out against the Chinese leadership, describing developments in Hong Kong as evidence of ever-encroaching interference from Beijing and signaling strong support for the protestors with defiant tweets, including one that read: “As long as I’m President, ‘one country, two systems’ will never be an option.”
Beijing has long considered the self-ruling democratic island a renegade province that would eventually be “reunified” with the mainland. Chinese President Xi Jinping, who has refused to rule out the use of military force to annex the island, said earlier this year that Taiwan should be ruled in accordance with the “one country, two systems” principle.
Tsai, whose pro-independence stance has been a thorn in the side of Beijing since taking office in 2016, won this week the support of her ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) to be its candidate for a second presidential term and has sought to regain political momentum at home by hitting out against Beijing’s inflexible stance toward the island.
While rhetorical support for anti-Beijing activism from political elites in Washington and US-aligned Taipei is par for the course, there is little evidence of material or covert support for the Hong Kong protests that have played out in recent days. Analysts, moreover, say finger-pointing denies the agency of people that have taken to Hong Kong’s streets to make their voices heard.
“The Chinese government always makes such claims of foreign interference because they either cannot understand this can come from inside society or they want to dismiss its legitimacy,” said Stephan Ortmann, an assistant professor at the City University of Hong Kong.
“The reality, however, is that Hongkongers are very angry about the bill and deeply worried about the future of their territory. No one can actually influence people to act in such a way if they did not feel it themselves,” he said. “It is unclear right now where this is headed. The opposition will not easily relent but of course the current fight is difficult to win.
“The Hong Kong government appears unwilling to relent and are resorting to a high degree of force against protesters. Carrie Lam has declared that she considers the massive protests only a difference of opinion and is not willing to abandon the project,” the academic told Asia Times.
“Many see her as controlled by the Chinese government and the current struggle is like the last stand to defend Hong Kong. I think what has changed is the government’s stronger willingness to clear the protest sites,” Ortmann said.
“The stakes now, however, appear higher. The erosion of rule of law will inevitably have serious consequences for Hong Kong.”