The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Hong Kong’s protests are about more than an extradition law. Here’s why.

Videos taken from a high-rise building in Hong Kong captured the sheer size of the June 9 demonstrations, one of the largest in recent memory. (Video: Reuters)

Hundreds of thousands of protesters returned to the streets of Hong Kong on Wednesday to voice their opposition to a bill that they fear would greatly impact the city’s already brittle semiautonomy from China.

The protests, by many estimates eclipsing the massive protests in 2014 demanding democratic change, have centered around amendments to Hong Kong’s extradition law that would allow fugitives to be sent to China, potentially exposing dissidents and critics of Beijing to an expansive dragnet of politically motivated prosecutions there.

The demonstrations have focused a light on China’s growing influence in Hong Kong, which has enjoyed a degree of independence under a “one country, two systems” policy agreed to by China as part of a 1997 handover of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom.

Many in Hong Kong say passing an expanded extradition law would be the death knell of that policy.

What is the extradition law?

Hong Kong has agreements with some 20 countries to hand over people wanted for certain crimes. Proposed changes to the law would expand that list to include China and Taiwan, subjecting anyone living in Hong Kong to a Chinese legal system that is known for using arbitrary detention and torture.

Why is the Hong Kong government proposing this change?

Officials in Hong Kong have said the amendment is necessary to prevent Hong Kong from becoming a haven for criminals, spurred by a murder case in which a 20-year-old resident of Hong Kong admitted killing his girlfriend while in Taiwan. Though he remains in custody, he has not faced trial — Hong Kong does not have jurisdiction over crimes committed in Taiwan, and current laws prevent him from being sent there.

Why are so many in Hong Kong opposing this change?

Protesters and activists have said that expanding the list of countries to which Hong Kong can send suspected criminals to include China will give Beijing yet another tool to curtail freedoms and mold the city according to China’s restrictive political and social norms.

Hong Kong’s chief executive, who is backed by China, says the law will affect only people accused of serious crimes and will not be applied to violations related to the freedom of assembly or speech. But opponents of the bill are skeptical, saying it opens the door for China to crack down on Hong Kong’s more open society.

“We don’t believe in human rights protections and the rule of law in mainland China,” Jackey Wong, a 25-year-old protester, told Inkstone, a local news website. “If the bill passes, we would not be able to say what we want to say. We would be like meat on a chopping board, at the mercy of the government.”

How has China asserted itself in Hong Kong?

Since taking over the British colony in 1997, China has been accused of slowly eroding the greater freedoms people in Hong Kong enjoy. In recent years, China has accelerated its dominance over Hong Kong — primarily by preselecting candidates for political office there, targeting book publishers critical of the Chinese Communist Party for abduction, and discouraging free speech.

Outspoken figures in Hong Kong worry that the passing of the extradition law will further weaken the city’s open tradition and send its vibrant international business community packing while endangering anyone China views as a nuisance.

“The fact that we, among other artists and activists, can still live without fear in Hong Kong is what differentiates us from any city in mainland China,” Denise Ho, a prominent artist in Hong Kong, wrote in The Washington Post. “But the new extradition law would install the mainland’s system of persecution and repression in Hong Kong, and it symbolizes total isolation from the world.”

How has the United States reacted to the protests?

U.S. lawmakers on both sides of the aisle have been united in their condemnation of the extradition bill and their support for Hong Kong’s protesters.

During a news conference Monday, State Department spokeswoman Morgan Ortagus voiced “grave concern” that the bill could “negatively impact the territory’s long-standing protections of human rights, fundamental freedoms and democratic values.”

Speaking on the floor of the Senate on Tuesday, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) said he was “moved” by photos of Hong Kong demonstrations over the weekend.

“Hong Kong residents rightly view this measure as another erosion of the rule of law and tightening of Beijing’s grip on their imperiled autonomy,” he added.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) issued a statement Tuesday supporting the protesters and decrying the Chinese government’s “brazen willingness to trample over the law to silence dissent and stifle the freedoms of the people of Hong Kong.”

The United States has long treated Hong Kong as a semiautonomous territory. Under the “one country, two systems” framework, Hong Kong has maintained its own institutions, legal system and trade agreements. In recent years, however, State Department reports have expressed concern that mainland China is encroaching on Hong Kong’s independence.

If the new extradition bill passes, Pelosi warned, the United States would have to reevaluate whether Hong Kong was “sufficiently autonomous” from China to retain its special trading privileges. A bipartisan group of lawmakers plans to introduce a bill in the coming days aimed at reorienting U.S. policy on Hong Kong, according to Pelosi’s statement.

What are the chances the protests will stop the bill?

Pretty slim.

The last mass protest movement in Hong Kong, the Umbrella Movement of 2014, ended without the government giving in to protesters’ demands for more open elections. Democratic backsliding in the territory has continued since then. A Hong Kong district court  sentenced several leaders of the Umbrella Movement to prison in April.

The legislative process surrounding the extradition bill is likely to work in China’s favor. Pro-Beijing politicians control a majority of Hong Kong’s 70-member Legislative Council, and Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam continues to stand by the proposed law. Lam accused protesters Wednesday of instigating “a riot.”

The legislature is expected to vote on the extradition measure by June 20.

Are Hong Kong’s leaders taking cues from China?

They say that they aren’t.

Lam insisted Monday she had not received “any instruction or mandate from Beijing” to pass the extradition bill.

Chinese Ambassador to Britain Liu Xiaoming echoed this in an interview with the BBC Thursday. Beijing “gave no instruction, no order about the making of this amendment,” he said, suggesting that the media had distorted the narrative.

But China has made no secret of its support for the amendment, and Lam is known for maintaining a close ties to Beijing. This cozy relationship is born in part of constraints on Hong Kong’s political system. Since Britain handed Hong Kong over to China, a committee of Hong Kong professionals — rather than the public — has elected the territory’s chief executive. China loyalists make up a majority of the committee, and Beijing vets candidates for the post. Lam was the central government’s preferred candidate when she won the office in 2017. Pro-Beijing lawmakers also make up a majority of Hong Kong’s legislature.

Chinese President Xi Jingping has yet to weigh in directly on protests over the extradition bill, but Chinese foreign ministry spokesperson Geng Shuang labeled them a “riot.” He backed the Hong Kong government’s response to the protests, which included the use of tear gas against demonstrators.

Today’s coverage from Post correspondents around the world

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