Millions of residents took to the streets of Hong Kong in protest against the introduction of a new extradition law with the People’s Republic of China (PRC). Last Sunday, on June 16, about 2 million protesters took to the streets. This is almost 1/3 of the population of this Special Autonomous Region, which has been operating since 1997 based on the „One country, two systems” formula coined in mainland China. In light of recent events, one could also add the phrase „… and two political cultures”.
Hong Kong has been enjoying relative autonomy since 1997, its functioning being defined by the Hong Kong Basic Law. The still valid common law system is also an element of the British legacy. Formally, the autonomy is to end with the transfer of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China in 2047. These arrangements were included in the Sino-British agreement of 1984 when Hong Kong was still under the British 99-year lease dating back to 1898. Due to its location in the Pearl River Delta as well as colonial and post-colonial arrangements, the metropolis has become the centre of trade between communist China and the western world.
The prospect of passing a new extradition law already aroused some fears among the American administration a few months ago. In May this year, the U.S. – China Economic and Security Review Commission has issued a report by Ethan Meick entitled Hong Kong’s Proposed Extradition Bill Could Extend Beijing’s Coercive Reach: Risks for the United States, which explicitly negatively assessed the new draft law.
First of all, the new law would supposedly undermine the legal protection guaranteed by Hong Kong. According to the analyst, the new order would, for example, create a security deficit for US citizens and international financial operations.
It is also worth remembering that, along with Singapore, Hong Kong is the Asian capital of business. It has gained this position thanks to its secure legal system, predictable administration, geographic location and a liberal environment for international business.
Therefore, while the eyes of the world are turned towards a dispute regarding values and freedom, the eyes of Asian and American financiers first of all look at Hong Kong’s legal security through the prism of financial flows and freedom of movement, e.g. to negotiate and sign contracts. Passing the law might involve the departure of some of Hong Kong’s business, which could be also dangerous for the residents of the Special Autonomous Region who are the beneficiaries of the current system favouring the region as the financial capital of East Asia. The business community fears the possibility of illegal detention and arbitrary arrests.
The new extradition law was formally presented on April 3 this year before the Legislative Council. The draft presented changes whose main subject was the possibility of ad-hoc extradition to states and jurisdictions which Hong Kong did not have such agreements with until now. These territories include, inter alia, the People’s Republic of China, Macau and Taiwan. The protests already took place in April this year, when protesters expressed their doubts: the possibility of extradition to mainland China for political or commercial motives. On the other hand, concerns were pointed out regarding the deficit of fair trials in China. The new law could potentially threaten not only international business but above all the security of journalists and commentators in public life.
Hong Kong was supposed to be a liberal beachhead
Interestingly, in 1996 the Hong Kong government signed an extradition agreement with Washington. In 1997, after the transfer of Hong Kong to China, this agreement replaced the previous agreement between the United Kingdom and the United States. During the Senate committee on July 3, 1997, which concerned this agreement, Senator John Ashcroft expressed his hope to spread the scope of freedom in mainland China. He also stressed that Hong Kong is a prism that allows assessing the future relations between China and the United States. By observing Hong Kong, Washington would have an outlook allowing the use of such policy towards Beijing, which could encourage the PRC to introduce free-market reforms and democracy. In other words, Hong Kong was to set an example for the Chinese Communist Party and encourage the authorities to liberalize their system.
Why is quoting Senators’ opinions from the report crucial from today’s perspective? Above all, it shows full commitment to the issues of political transformation in East Asia.
Second, Hong Kong emerges as a sort of political experiment that was to tempt Beijing to liberalize not only economically but also politically. From today’s perspective, we know that what happened was the exact opposite. The PRC is trying to catch up with the US on many levels in terms of economic progress, but not its political culture. In the Pearl River region, Beijing spins its program, strongly associated with the Belt and Road Initiative.
They are also planning permanent incorporation of the territory into the continent. This is served, among other things, by improving the flow of people at border stations, as well as the construction of an impressive bridge connecting Zhuhai with Macau and Hong Kong, which was officially opened in 2018 by President Xi Jinping.
Contrary to the Americans’ expectations of 1997, the PRC administration itself creates concepts that it instils in the international arena, such as the vision of a community of shared future for mankind. Over the past 22 years, the PRC has become a major player in the international arena, able to call the shots and influence the economies of the Global South. One thing is certain – Beijing finds nothing more annoying than Washington’s moralizing support for protesters or expressing any opinion on internal Chinese policy. Especially considering the shape of current extradition law between the Middle Kingdom and the United States, which works in Washington’s favour.
This isn’t the first time the Chinese vision of Hong Kong’s return to the motherland raises controversy among the residents of the former British colony. In this context, it is worth recalling the yellow umbrellas protests, which began in 2014. The movement was against the announcement of undemocratic elections, which were to consist of choosing candidates previously selected by the nominating committee in Beijing. The protests were suppressed after many months and the result was maintaining the status quo. During the demonstration in June this year, the controversy was aroused by police officers using violence against protesters. It was decided to use, e.g. tear gas, water cannons, as well as rubber balls and clubs. In light of the situation, Hong Kong residents even demanded the dismissal of the head of the administration, Carrie Lam, who, in fear of the intensification of the protests, apologized to citizens for the proposals to change the extradition law and asked for one more chance.
Hong Kong is a society with a different vision of political participation, and still differs strongly from the community of citizens brought up in communist China (there is a debate on whether China is communist, capitalist or authoritarian; the truth probably lies somewhere at the interface of these three features).
While visiting Hong Kong for the first time in 2013, a huge Facebook advertisement caught my eye, displayed on Hong Kong’s tallest skyscraper, the International Commerce Center. After crossing the border from Shenzhen, it’s hard to believe that it’s the same country: different currency, unrestricted access to the Internet, and even the traffic is left-sided. Hong Kong does not function behind the Internet curtain, it also has the famous South China Morning Post, which does not shy away from controversial topics. One should note the purchase of this daily by the Alibaba Group, thus formally belonging to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China.
Hong Kong is also inhabited by many migrant workers from South Asia and ASEAN countries, which is not observed in mainland China. Beijing is aware of these profound differences, both visible outside and hidden in human minds. It approaches the introduction of changes in Hong Kong cautiously, in fear of a sting in the event of any attempt to restrict freedom.
The protests going on for several days were so effective that they led to the decision suspending the work on extradition law, which could threaten those involved in political activities incompatible with the line proposed by Beijing.
However, the protesters demanded more. After the suspension, they gave the authorities the ultimatum to withdraw the draft completely by 1700 hours on Thursday. Carrie Lam did not comply with the demands, so the contested act was not withdrawn, formally speaking. More protests are promised, which, as the streets of Hong Kong proclaim, may even lead Carrie Lam to resign.
Two scenarios are currently possible. First, a moderate and systematic adjustment of regulations to appease China, which will prepare Hong Kong for changes that are expected to come in 2047. In an alternative scenario, a liberalization of Beijing’s political system, spread over time, is a possibility as well. Despite the escalating trade conflict with the United States, this option should also be taken into account.
A change of the person presiding in the US presidential seat, the emergence of successive representatives during the CCP congress, an economic slowdown in China or a crisis on the financial markets may lead to a change in the world situation. Some analysts and representatives of the American administration describe Beijing as a „closed besieged fortress”, a new evil empire after the Cold War. On the other hand, one should remember that Beijing discusses the issues related to human rights with the European Union (e.g. at the EU-China summit in April), participates in UN peacekeeping missions and takes up initiatives related to opening the internal market to foreign operators.
Polish version is available here.
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