What's at stake in Hong Kong

Protesters are trying to prevent an extradition law that would send Hong Kong citizens into Chinese courts with a questionable reputation for fairness. 

Athit Perawongmetha/Reuters
A protester holds an umbrella during a demonstration against a proposed extradition bill in Hong Kong, China, June 12, 2019.

In Hong Kong thousands of protesters facing police tear gas, pepper spray, batons, water hoses, and rubber bullets have claimed a small victory for civil rights. The Legislative Council there has agreed for now to stop considering a controversial bill that would allow Hong Kong residents and visitors to be extradited to China for trial.

When Britain agreed to return its former colony to China in 1997 it negotiated a “one country, two systems” arrangement permitting Hong Kong to be a semi-autonomous region that would keep its form of government, including British common law, until 2047. 

But Chinese President Xi Jinping appears eager to shorten that transition and has been consistently pressuring Hong Kong to fall into line with the rest of the country.

China’s legal system is notoriously secretive and often brutal, showing little regard for human rights. Earlier this week a court in New Zealand refused to allow the extradition of a South Korean man wanted by China for the alleged murder of a woman in Shanghai in 2009. The court cited the use of torture in China to obtain confessions.

Hong Kong’s 7 million residents know they have real reason to worry that they could be denied trial in Hong Kong’s relatively well-regarded judicial system and whisked away to the mainland for almost certain conviction.

An earlier protest Sunday brought, by some estimates, a million people into the streets, making it perhaps the largest public demonstration since 1997. Small businesses have closed in protest and unions have urged members to join the resistance.

Protesters realize that this may be their last chance to speak freely if the extradition law goes into effect. “We have to stand up for our rights or they will be taken away,” one young protester told The Associated Press. “This is the last fight for Hong Kong,” a pioneering democracy activist told The Wall Street Journal. “The proposal is the most dangerous threat to our freedoms and way of life since the handover.”

Hong Kong residents have protested before. In 2003 Hong Kong’s leadership introduced a security bill similar to one used in China to charge political dissidents with crimes. Street protests eventually caused the proposal to not be enacted. In 2014 a protest known by some as the Umbrella Revolution (marked by the yellow umbrellas protesters used to protect themselves from police pepper spray) continued for more than two months but ultimately didn’t stop a new requirement that Hong Kong’s chief executive, while popularly elected, must be a candidate approved by Beijing.

The size of the current protest and determination of the protesters may have surprised authorities and seem to have temporarily stopped the extradition measure from becoming law. The protest is also highlighting to the world the low esteem in which China’s judicial system is held.

China may ban any public mention of its Tiananmen Square protests 30 years ago. But Hong Kong is showing that the desire for basic civil liberties still lives on.

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