A New Social Movement Against Hong Kong’s Extradition Bill

Photo source: South China Morning Post

Citation: Hak Yin Li, “A New Social Movement Against Hong Kong’s Extradition Bill”, International Public Policy Review, Jun 21, 2019

A Local Bill with International Attention

Regular mass demonstrations, the Occupy Central campaign, and later on the Umbrella Movement have made Hong Kong well-known internationally for its citizens’ grievance on the stagnation of democratic development. But many people did not expect that around two million people would take to the streets on June 16, 2019 to protest the controversial extradition bill proposed by the Hong Kong government.

Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, explained that the rationale of the proposed bill was because of a recent incident. A Hong Kong girl was murdered by her boyfriend when they were in Taiwan for holidays in 2018. The boy later returned to Hong Kong. But there is no extradition law between Hong Kong and Taiwan, thus the government is attempting to fix the loophole.

The extradition bill has been widely interpreted as a threat to the “one country, two systems” policy in Hong Kong. Domestically, Hong Kong people fear that they may be extradited to mainland China if they have political opinions and attitudes that are opposite to Beijing. And the Chinese legal system could not offer any confidence to the Hong Kong people that the extradited persons could receive fair trials.

The case of Lam Wing Kee seems to be the nightmare of the Hong Kong people. In 2015, Lam was abducted from Hong Kong to mainland China and was detained and charged by the Chinese authority for smuggling banned books in China. The extradition bill, if passed, could formally allow Beijing to tackle political activists, critical journalists or other outspoken critics of Beijing in Hong Kong.

Internationally, any foreigners who stay in Hong Kong can also be extradited to mainland China. Two Canadians Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, a former diplomat and a businessman respectively, were arrested in China on suspicion of espionage recently. But the international community believed the Chinese motive was to deter Canada from extraditing Meng Wanzhou, the chief financial officer and deputy chair of Huawei to the United States. The Canadian case could happen in Hong Kong once the extradition bill is passed.

Many foreign countries expressed their concerns about the extradition bill. In May 2019, the European Union issued a formal diplomatic “demarche” to Hong Kong, which was the first time after Hong Kong’s handover to China in 1997. Meanwhile, after meeting with some pro-democracy leaders in Hong Kong, the US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo put down Hong Kong’s rule of law as a major concern of the US. In early June, the former British governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten said that the extradition bill was a “terrible blow” to Hong Kong’s rule of law and Hong Kong’s global financial hub would also be hurt.

A New Social Movement

After a series of court cases, many Hong Kong political activists had been charged and imprisoned, which led many to speculate that social movements in Hong Kong would die down sooner or later. To name a few cases, Benny Tai Yiu Ting and Chan Kin Man were charged for public nuisance during the Occupy Central campaign in 2014. Both were sentenced to 16 months’ imprisonment in 2019. Joshua Wong Chi Fung, one of the student leaders during the Umbrella Movement in 2014, was jailed 3 months in 2019 for hindering the implementation of court orders in clearing the area occupied by protestors. Edward Leung Tin Kei, an activist for the pro-independence movement, received a six-year sentence in 2018 for the Mong Kok riot in 2016. Furthermore, the change of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive from Leung Chun Ying to Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet Ngor in 2017 offered a honeymoon period among different political forces, causing many to believe that another social movement in Hong Kong is not likely to happen.

Paradoxically, the relatively calm and stable political environment in the last two years may shape the Hong Kong government’s misperceptions regarding Hong Kong’s social movements. The first misperception can be the mass demonstration on April 28, 2019 when around 130,000 people (the Hong Kong police claimed it was less than 30,000 people) participated in the rally for the anti-extradition bill. The number of participants should not be underestimated, but Hong Kong government may have compared this case with the anti-subversion law rally in 2003 when half a million people went to the street. Thus, the opposition force and voice had not yet reached an alarming level.

Second, some pro-democracy legislators are disqualified, making the pro-Beijing political force a majority in both the geographical and functional constituencies. The Hong Kong government probably assumed that the bill could be passed by pro-Beijing allies in the legislature, while the pro-democracy camp is weak and does not have much resource to organize another social movement. Even if the pro-democracy camp wishes to do so, Hong Kong people can be deterred by the previous court cases to join social campaigns.

Third, most of the political activists’ leaders are in jail, which means there is a lack of key or influential leaders calling for a large-scale social campaign. Last but not least, the extradition bill is supported by the central government in Beijing. In May, Chinese Vice Premier Han Zheng recognized the Hong Kong government’s effort in pushing the extradition bill forward. Han is the top Chinese leader for managing Hong Kong affairs.

It does not really matter if Carrie Lam steps down or not. As long as the Hong Kong people do not have political trust in China, there will be ongoing governing difficulties and crises no matter who is the Chief Executive.

The anti-extradition movement can be regarded as a new social movement in Hong Kong. Different from the Occupy Central campaign or the Umbrella Movement, there are no clear organizers or leaders in the recent series of mass demonstrations. The only coordinator is Civil Human Rights Front, a loosely organized civil society organization for disseminating information. The actors and themes throughout the movement are indeed very diversified.

When the Hong Kong government set out the schedule of the extradition bill, which must be passed before summer, around one million people (the Hong Kong police said it was around 240,000 people) joined the mass demonstration on June 9. Some protestors blocked the legislative building on June 12 and clashed with the police. The Hong Kong government named the movement a “riot”, and public attention was shifted to the overuse of force by the Hong Kong police with teargas, beanbag rounds and rubber bullets. As some injured protestors were youngsters, thousands of mothers in Hong Kong gathered in Central to support the young protestors on June 14.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam announced on June 15 that the extradition bill would be suspended for more consultations. The Hong Kong people came up with other requests, such as a comprehensive withdrawal of the extradition bill, investigation on the Hong Kong police’s overuse of force, the overturn on the use of the term “riot” to describe the social movement on June 12 as well as demanding Carrie Lam to step down. All these led to two million people (the Hong Kong police claimed around it was 330,000 people) to take to the streets on June 16.

The participants of the anti-extradition movement come from different backgrounds. Local newspapers reported there were even civil servants and businessmen who seldom participated in mass rally. In addition, various sectors had proposed to the government to postpone the extradition law for more discussions, such as the Hong Kong Christian Council, the Baptist Convention of Hong Kong and the Christian and Missionary Alliance Church Union Hong Kong from the religion sector; around 2,000 counsellors, carers and therapists from the social work sector; the Hong Kong Professional Teachers’ Union and various universities’ student unions from the education sector; as well as the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, Hong Kong Federation of Industries, Chinese Manufacturers’ Association from the business sector. Such a unified voice in Hong Kong is indeed greater than the previous social movements with leadership and organized goals.

A New International Status

The extradition bill no doubt raises the concerns of foreign countries and public if Hong Kong could become another normal city of mainland China. Hong Kong’s international status depends on whether Hong Kong can maintain a high level of autonomy with rule of law, judiciary independence as well as various rights and freedoms. Some previous incidents have already triggered international criticisms that Hong Kong is now inclining towards “one country” rather than “two systems”. For example, the abductions of Hong Kong booksellers in 2015; the ban of some activists to enter Hong Kong such as Benedict Roger in 2017; and the rejection of the Financial Times editor Victor Mallet’s working visa renewal in 2018.

Hong Kong has become a focus internationally, though there are different meanings and interpretations on the status of Hong Kong. First, the extradition bill has become the red line many foreign countries would measure if this is the end of Hong Kong’s “one country, two systems” status. Some American lawmakers are proposing to review the US-Hong Kong Policy Act if Hong Kong should still be regarded as a separate entity from China for enjoying special treatment on investment, trade as well as technological transfer.

Second, some Hong Kong analysts and the pro-Beijing camp question if Hong Kong has already become the forefront of China-US trade war. Such an argument is firstly built on the peaceful democratic transition of China by making a liberal and semi-democratic Hong Kong as an appealing example to mainland Chinese. But right now, Hong Kong could also be used to jeopardize Chinese economic development. If the US-Hong Kong Policy Act is abolished, China will lose the last window to access western technology and financial services.

Third, Hong Kong’s human rights issues would receive much more international attention, similar to the cases of Xinjiang and Tibet. Political activists Ray Wong Toi Yeung and Alan Li Tung Shing fled from Hong Kong to Germany for fearing the charges Edward Leung faced, and they were granted refugee protection status by the German government. Meanwhile, the Taiwan government already discussed if there would be the inflow of political refugees from Hong Kong in the coming future. Although the extradition bill has not yet been passed, Hong Kong’s international status has suffered already.

Chief Executive Carrie Lam said the extradition bill will be suspended, and there is no time table to pass the bill again after two million Hong Kong people expressed their discontent on June 16. But some impacts should be given special attention, such as the increasing popularity of pro-independence Taiwan president Tsai Ing-wen, who shows her support of Hong Kong’s anti-extradition movement while referring to the limitation of the “one country, two systems” policy to her Taiwanese people.

Besides, the pro-Beijing camp may suffer a blow in the District Council elections later in 2019 as the extradition bill seems to heighten many Hong Kong people’s consciousness in politics. Lastly, it does not really matter if Carrie Lam steps down or not. As long as the Hong Kong people do not have political trust in China, there will be ongoing governing difficulties and crises no matter who is the Chief Executive.