HONG KONG — Long before this week’s mass protests in Hong Kong, skeptics began to doubt that China would stick to its principle, which had helped unite the former British colony and mainland China: “One country, two systems” — an agreement that had always included the justice system.

Optimists maintained that economic realism would preserve Hong Kong’s semiautonomous status as Beijing was gradually lifting its more than 1 billion citizens out of poverty and Hong Kong was drawing profitable businesses. But in recent years, the Chinese economic transformation rapidly gained momentum and so did pessimism over the future of Hong Kong as a semiautonomous territory. Ever since Britain handed over control of Hong Kong in 1997, pessimists have worried that Beijing would only tolerate the territory’s unique degree of political and economic freedom temporarily. They worried that Beijing was looking for an opening to rein it in.

One such rare opening came in February 2018, about 500 miles away from Hong Kong in northern Taiwan.

On vacation with her boyfriend, a pregnant woman was brutally murdered and her body stuffed into a suitcase. Her boyfriend, Chan Tong-Kai — a Hong Kong resident — later admitted to the crime. The lack of an extradition treaty, however, put prosecutors in a conundrum: An extradition to Taiwan was impossible, but charging him with murder in Hong Kong wasn’t a possibility either. Instead, the man was later sentenced to 29 months in jail for a far lesser crime, money laundering.

The brutal details of the initially nonpolitical case provided an opportunity for Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam to blur the separation between mainland China and Hong Kong further, her critics say. Months later, she proposed amendments to the territory’s extradition law that would make it easier for suspects to be moved, citing the crime that had occurred almost exactly one year earlier in Taiwan.

But even though the changes were officially proposed by Hong Kong’s government and not by Beijing, they immediately triggered skepticism. Beijing’s backing for Lam before her selection as chief executive in 2017 had already exposed all of her moves to particular scrutiny from pro-democracy advocates in Hong Kong.

Nothing appeared more destined to draw protests than proposed changes to the independence of Hong Kong’s justice system: Human rights activists, business owners and others fear that they would no longer be able to rely on Hong Kong’s rule of law if the amendments are passed.

“They saw this as an ideal opportunity to rein in Hong Kong — they, meaning the powers that be in Beijing,” said Claudia Mo, who has served as a pro-democracy lawmaker in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council since 2012. “They saw it as timely and necessary.”

Mo said “somebody” may have spotted an “almost cute” opportunity with the Taiwan murder case, allowing them to frame the law as an issue of security for the territory once again. Lam has insisted she is merely trying to close a “loophole” in the law.

Despite Lam’s defense of the proposed changes, fierce protests ensued, and a scheduled debate on the law, initially expected Wednesday, has been delayed.

Analysts say that extradition has always been among the most sensitive issues in Hong Kong, something that no other administration has dared touch. Similar mass demonstrations rocked the territory in 2003 when the then-Hong Kong chief executive tried to pass security legislation that many feared would end rights such as freedom of speech. After the upheaval, the legislature backed down.

Now, though, the Hong Kong legislature is packed full of pro-Beijing loyalists, and Lam has enough votes to pass it.

“The question of the extradition law has never been handled by any previous administration,” said Ivan Choy, a political scientist at Chinese University of Hong Kong. “They know it is an important firewall, and it is sensitive to remove this firewall.”

“But now, we see that the Carrie Lam administration has tried to touch this issue, it means that they no longer think they need to pay attention to these sensitivities,” he added.

Most in Hong Kong have no doubt that Beijing, and Chinese President Xi Jinping in particular, are pulling the strings behind this law. Xi, Choy said, has insisted — much more than his predecessors — that China has ultimate jurisdiction over Hong Kong, even insisting that the semiautonomous territory be economically incorporated into a “Greater Bay Area,” a new branding for the financial hub.

“It can’t be her,” pro-democracy lawmaker Mo said of Lam. “She’s a career civil servant, why would she want to whip up unnecessary confrontation?”

Yet, “Beijing is trying to draw a line, pretending that this is indeed a Hong Kong local issue and that Carrie Lam is in charge,” Mo said.

Noack reported from Berlin.

Read more: