Hong Kong: An Eastern Protest for Western Freedom

By: David McDonald

Hong Kong, long considered a gateway for investment between a closed-off China and the rest of the world, might be moving from a haven of democracy in the East to a city of oppression similar to the rest of China. Protests in June, estimated to consist of hundreds of thousands to over a million citizens, swallowed Hong Kong following proposed legislation by the city’s government. The law in question would allow Hong Kong citizens to be extradited to countries where Hong Kong does not currently have extradition agreements, including China and Taiwan.[1] While seemingly innocent, critics argue the bill would allow virtually anyone to be transferred and detained in China, whether the detainee is a criminal or simply a political activist.

While the extradition bill applies to thirty-seven crimes (none political), critics have justifiable concerns following mysterious abductions to mainland China in recent years that this would legalize more extraditions.[2] This bill was the original inspiration for the summer protests. However, a swift and violent crackdown by police brought new life and support to the protests, gaining Hong Kong international attention. Since then, the protests have grown in both violence and size as police and protesters play a dangerous game of cat-and-mouse throughout the city. Protestors have become more organized, articulating five demands in total: withdrawal of the extradition bill, the retraction of the word “riot” to describe the protests, the release of all arrested demonstrators, an independent inquiry into the police perceived brutality, and the right for Hong Kong people to democratically choose their own leaders.[3]

It’s the last demand, the right for Hong Kong to choose its own leaders, that lies at the heart of the issue. Hong Kong has operated with a high degree of autonomy in a “one-country, two-system” government. Ever since Great Britain relinquished control of Hong Kong in 1997, the city has retained its economic and political freedom while still technically “belonging” to mainland China in a mini-constitution known as the Basic Law.[4] However, this pseudo-autonomy dies at the expiration of the Basic Law in 2047. At that time, Hong Kong would completely fall under China’s governmental control: one-party, one-system again. Many view the extradition bill as Chinese exerting influence to bring Hong Kong under its control before the 2047 timeline. Presumably, a fully Chinese Hong Kong would lose many of the freedoms that Hong Kong and the rest of the Western world enjoy: independent courts, freewheeling press, open internet, etc. It’s no wonder that Hong Kong would want to stay clear of China’s controls for as long as possible.

With the police crackdown on what was originally a peaceful protest, both sides have escalated in violence. Protestors have thrown gasoline bombs at government headquarters.[5] Police have used tear gas and rubber bullets on citizens.[6] Reports out of Hong Kong are understandably chaotic, worsened by China and the West both blaming the other side for agitating the situation.[7] Amongst the turmoil, Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong and the original proposer of the extradition bill, suddenly withdrew the bill on Wednesday, September 4, 2019.[8] This change has brought criticism on both sides as pro-Beijing advocates criticize Carrie Lam for giving in to demands and the protestors argue that it is “too little, too late” following the violent police response.[9]

While it is too soon to definitively say what the demonstrators’ response will be to the bill, it seems likely that protests will continue until all five demands are met. One thing is clear: the one-country, two-system plan is not working as it currently stands. These protests, coupled with the 2014 liberation marches, show that Hong Kong is not as unified with China as the mainland government would like to believe. Continuing encroachments into Hong Kongers’ rights before the Basic Law expires shows just how anxious Chinese officials are to suppress the city’s current freedoms and bring Hong Kong back into the fold. According to a report by Reuters, Carrie Lam was recorded in a private meeting expressing regret and how if she had a choice, she would “quit, having made a deep apology.”[10]

Meanwhile, the international community looks on to see how China will handle the continuing protests. While government officials have declared that they are not considering sending the military into the city (likely to avoid another situation like Tiananmen Square in 1989), Chinese forces are amassing in Shenzhen, a city located just outside of Hong Kong.[11] Until a resolution is reached, Hong Kong’s economy will continue to languish as protestors struggle to maintain their freedoms.

[1] Mike Ives, What is Hong Kong’s Extradition Bill?, N.Y. Times, June 10, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/06/10/world/asia/hong-kong-extradition-bill.html.

[2] For reference: Jamil Anderlini, Ben Bland, Gloria Cheung & Lucy Hornby, Chinese billionaire abducted from Hong Kong, Fin. Times, January 31, 2019, https://www.ft.com/content/8e54c51c-e7a7-11e6-893c-082c54a7f539.

[3] Amy Qin, Hong Kong’s Leader Partly Relents. Will the Protests Continue?, N.Y. Times, Sept. 4, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/04/world/asia/carrie-lam-hong-kong-protests.html?action=click&module=RelatedCoverage&pgtype=Article&region=Footer.

[4] Ives, supra note 1.

[5] Hong Kong police storm subway with batons as protests rage, CNBC, Aug. 31, 2019, https://www.cnbc.com/2019/09/01/hong-kong-protests-police-storm-subway-with-batons-as-clashes-rage.html.

[6] Id.

[7] Tom O’Connor, China State Media Says West Will Never Get Hong Kong Back as Protestors Beat Up Journalist, News Week, Aug. 31, 2019, https://www.newsweek.com/china-media-hong-kong-attack-1454130.

[8] James Pomfret & Clare Jim, Hong Kong leader pulls extradition bill, but too little too late, say some, Reuters, Sept. 3, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-hongkong-protests-idUSKCN1VP05B.

[9] Id.

[10] Greg Torode, James Pomfret, & Anne Marie Roantree, Special Report: Hong Kong leader says she would ‘quit’ if she could, fears her ability to resolve crisis now ‘very limited’, Reuters, Sept. 2, 2019, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-hongkong-protests-carrielam-specialre/special-report-hong-kong-leader-says-she-would-quit-if-she-could-fears-her-ability-to-resolve-crisis-now-very-limited-idUSKCN1VN1DU.

[11] O’Connor, supra note 7.

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