Hong Kong is an issue of growing concern in Washington. US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Wednesday put her weight behind what she called a very bipartisan bill that would require the administration of President Donald Trump to certify that China is respecting Hong Kong’s rights as a semi-autonomous region.
Hong Kong is also an important issue of growing concern in Taipei. Around Taiwan, Beijing’s apparent violation of the terms of its “one country, two systems” (1C2S) agreement with Hong Kong has sparked widespread criticism. What does China’s defeat in Hong Kong tell us about the future of Taiwan?
In just two weeks Hong Kong has witnessed two of its largest ever protests, as well as its most violent protest in decades. The protests centered on amendments to Hong Kong’s extradition law introduced in the Legislative Council and supported by Chief Executive Carrie Lam. While the past two decades have seen multiple large protests in Hong Kong, the scale and breadth of the ongoing clash reflect a deepening discomfort many in Hong Kong feel about being under 1C2S rule.
For two decades, the 1C2S arrangement seemed to give Hong Kong relative autonomy from Beijing’s interference. Then, in 2014, China announced that people would be allowed to vote in Hong Kong’s 2017 chief executive election only from a short list of pre-approved candidates. Thousands took to the streets to demand universal suffrage. To protect themselves from police spraying teargas at the frontlines, they used umbrellas, giving rise to the name “Umbrella Movement.”
Carrie Lam faces broad public anger after three large-scale demonstrations in recent days by protesters fearful that the extradition bill would encroach on their civil liberties. Even after her announcement that the legislation was being suspended indefinitely, protesters turned out the next day in larger numbers than ever, with organizers providing an unverified estimate of close to 2 million of the territory’s 7 million residents.
The 1C2S policy has allowed Hong Kong residents to disagree openly with policymakers in a way mainland Chinese cannot. As required by Hong Kong’s legal system, democracy protesters arrested for their political activism are given legal representation and trials and serve time in Hong Kong’s well-regulated prisons. The extradition law’s threat of trial and punishment on the mainland would have a chilling effect on future democracy demonstrations in the city.
Hong Kong is a former British colony, but was returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a 1C2S deal that guaranteed it a level of autonomy. Under the framework of 1C2S after the transfer of sovereignty, Hong Kong has had an independent judiciary and court of final appeal. In accordance with the existing Fugitive Offenders Ordinance, the government had argued the proposed extradition bill would “plug the loopholes” so that the city would not be a safe haven for criminals, after a murder case in Taiwan.
Despite the fact that the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance stipulates that only “specific felons” may be transferred and excludes suspects in political cases, it has failed to dispel the doubts of Hong Kong people. After the big demonstration against extradition to the mainland, backpedaling under mounting pressure, Lam publicly apologized for having proposed contentious legislation that would allow such extraditions.
The people of Hong Kong, however, are worried that on account of different systems, the words and deeds that are protected in Hong Kong, Taiwan or other countries may nevertheless violate the laws of the mainland. Especially, even if political cases, such as freedom of speech, are not among those “extraditable” to the mainland, considering China’s political and judicial records, if it truly wanted to arrest and repatriate, how could the Hong Kong government have the capacity to resist?
Carrie Lam should be reminded: Don’t look at Beijing while railroading legislative action by remaining oblivious to Hongkongers’ fury. Amid the US-China trade war, this approach would only cause the mainland to lose more international sympathy and support. In particular, earlier this year, Chinese President Xi Jinping launched a psychological warfare offensive on exploring the application of 1C2S to Taiwan, which elicited an unfavorable response on the island, the principal reason being that China’s pledges under 1C2S to Hong Kong have not been fully carried out.
It has been 22 years since China adopted the 1C2S policy with Hong Kong. However, it has been a bumpy ride. Hong Kong’s autonomy has been oppressed, with 1C2S acquiring a bad name. Should the Hong Kong government and Beijing join hands in suppressing the expectations for autonomy of the people of Hong Kong through, once again, amending the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance, the result could conversely end up burying 1C2S.
Pelosi called the large protests in Hong Kong “a beautiful sight to behold,” adding that President Xi has been “really taking China backward in terms of repression.”
How China treats Hong Kong is important for the fate of Taiwan. If 1C2S falls in Hong Kong, not only will what remains of democracy there down with it, any hope Beijing clings to for cross-Strait unification will fizzle out.