The Hong Kong Demonstrations, China, and Lasting Change
Though it has been a part of China since 1997 — following the transfer of power from Great Britain — Hong Kong enjoys autonomy, a separate judiciary, an independent political system (except for foreign affairs), and a free media. The extradition bill recently proposed by Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam would have severely compromised the separation between the two entities.
Lam’s proposed extradition bill was intended to enable local authorities to arrest and extradite criminal suspects to China. According to the law, there are 37 types of offenses for which defendants could be extradited to China to face trial. The bill prompted a furious public response that resulted in its being indefinitely tabled.
The estimated number of demonstrators ranged from a police estimate of 240,000 to one million, the figure provided by the organizers.
The law raised concerns among citizens and in the business community both at home and abroad. Residents feared that it would greatly expand China’s control over Hong Kong, which could result in a curtailment of human rights and freedom of speech, while diminishing the differences between the two entities. The business community, which uses Hong Kong as a base from which to work with Chinese entities while remaining in friendlier and more secure territory, fears the economy-related offenses listed in the law, as well as the door it would open to the Chinese law enforcement system to operate within Hong Kong — a legal system with motives that have long been suspect.
But it was not only the magnitude of the demonstrations that was unusual. It was also the expressions of widespread public distrust of the Chinese justice and law enforcement systems. This distrust was expressed not only by locals, but also by the US, Canada, and Britain, which opposed the law on the grounds of their concern for human rights. The EU sent a letter to the Chinese authorities expressing its concern and opposition to the law.
It should be remembered that the US and China are in the midst of a struggle, and the US concern, as well as that of its close allies, should be viewed in that context. The criticism might be a tool for battering the Chinese government. Several pro-democratic leaders from Hong Kong recently met with US Vice President Mike Pence and officials from the State Department in Washington.
On June 15, Lam announced that she was postponing, not canceling, the legislative process on the bill in question. The announcement came five days before the alternative date set for the vote, which was ultimately canceled entirely due to the protests.
As expected, the official reason for suspending discussion of the law was said to be procedural rather than fundamental. The law was originally proposed following the case of a man suspected of murdering his girlfriend in Taiwan and then fleeing to Hong Kong. The Taiwanese authorities requested his extradition (though they have since retracted their request).
Though the Hong Kong demonstrations were a striking event, it is unlikely that they did any harm to the stability of the Chinese government. Beijing needs Hong Kong as a business contact point with the rest of the world (particularly at this time of conflict with the US), but it cannot allow itself to show weakness, which could be construed as an invitation for further protests in Hong Kong, and — much worse — in mainland China. Beijing is also unlikely to compromise because of its concerns about hostile foreign forces using Hong Kong as a base for subversion against China.
The demonstrators won a battle, but probably not the whole campaign. It is likely that once the winds die down, the law will return in a different form and at a less sensitive time. Beijing, which does not need to show short-term results to satisfy voters, can take its time. Xi Jinping, who has not yet addressed the demonstrations publicly, is expected to lead China for years to come. He has no reason to destabilize Hong Kong and its place in the global economy, which would in turn destabilize the Chinese economy.
Roie Yellinek is a doctoral student in the department of Middle East Studies at Bar-Ilan University, a fellow at the Kohelet Policy Forum and the China-Med Project, and a freelance journalist.
A version of this article was originally published by The BESA Center.