Global city or Chinese city? Hong Kong fears the balance is tipping

Kin Cheung/AP
Pro-democracy and pro-Beijing lawmakers scuffle in the chamber at Legislative Council in Hong Kong on May 11, 2019, as members for and against controversial amendments to the territory's extradition law clashed over access to the chamber.
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In 1997, Britain handed Hong Kong back to mainland China after 155 years of colonial rule. But the territory wouldn’t exactly become a Chinese city, the countries’ agreement stipulated – not yet. Under the “one country, two systems” principle, Hong Kong was promised relative autonomy for at least 50 years, until 2047.

But to many Hong Kongers, signs of change are all around: from the increased emphasis on Mandarin Chinese, not their native Cantonese, to massive infrastructure projects better linking them to the mainland. Most significant are perceived encroachments on Hong Kong’s judicial independence. And that’s how many see a proposal to make it easier to extradite offenders, including to the mainland.

Why We Wrote This

Hong Kong has long been more than a hub for trade and finance. In many imaginations, the “fragrant harbor” represents the quintessential world city – and a test of where the wind is blowing in Beijing.

The bill has prompted Hong Kong’s largest protests since the Umbrella Movement in 2014 and even sparked a scuffle in the local legislature last week. Critics worry the plan could sap Hong Kong’s strength as an international financial center. But they also fear political consequences and say one more piece of the distinctly global city’s special status is being chipped away.

“I believe that come 2047, all the buffer will be gone,” says Lau Sai-leung, a political commentator, at a protest on a drizzly day. “The extradition bill is a crucial step along the way.”

It was a sight Hong Kongers aren’t used to: legislators clambering over each other and the press corps, grabbing at the microphone as security struggled to restrain them. At the center of the commotion, a desperate voice asked for someone to second a nomination.

The city’s legislature descended into scuffles May 11 over a government attempt to amend its extradition laws. The former British colony of 7.4 million people, which reverted to Chinese control in 1997, does not have extradition arrangements with mainland China, Macau, or Taiwan, among others. But that may not matter if the local government succeeds with its proposal allowing Hong Kong’s chief executive – elected by a predominantly pro-Beijing committee of 1,200 people – to order offenders’ extradition to territories with which the island has no rendition agreement.

For weeks, pro-democracy legislators have fought – literally, last Saturday – to delay the bill’s progress, knowing they lack the votes to stop its passage. But the proposal has also spurred Hong Kongers’ largest show of force since pro-democracy rallies in 2014 known as the Umbrella Movement.

Why We Wrote This

Hong Kong has long been more than a hub for trade and finance. In many imaginations, the “fragrant harbor” represents the quintessential world city – and a test of where the wind is blowing in Beijing.

Many in and outside Hong Kong worry that the law could sap the city’s strength as an international financial center that has stood shoulder to shoulder with New York and London. But critics also fear the long-term political consequences, seeing the extradition bill as a heavy-handed way to chip away one more piece of the distinctly global city’s special status.

At the first demonstration, on a drizzly day in March, protesters shouted slogans like “People to the mainland extradite, turns Hong Kong into a black site” and called the law the “Send to China Bill” – a play on words that sounds, in Cantonese, like the term for funerals. In late April, tens of thousands of protestors took to the streets.

“The Hong Kong government wants to serve the totalitarian regime on the mainland and disregard our status as an international city,” said K.P. Kwok, a teacher attending the first march. “This will turn Hong Kong into a mainland city.”

Hong Kong operates under the “one country, two systems” framework with China, which grants it a high degree of autonomy until at least 2047 – the 50th anniversary of the handover. The city has its own currency, passports, and legal system and is a member of the World Trade Organization in its own right. 

But signs of the mainland’s growing influence are ubiquitous, from the spread of Mandarin Chinese (rather than most residents’ native Cantonese) to sky-high rents driven up, in part, by mainland buyers. In the past year alone, two multibillion-dollar projects that better connect Hong Kong to China’s southeast Guangdong province were inaugurated, making closer ties seem inevitable. The Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge, completed in October, forms a road link through the Pearl River Delta. One month before that, the high-speed rail terminus was opened, plugging Hong Kong into the rest of the country’s rail network.

Both projects are part of an ambitious Chinese plan to knit together Hong Kong, Macau, and eight mainland cities, creating a “Greater Bay Area” to eventually compete with Silicon Valley.

“Integrating [Hong Kong] into the Greater Bay Area will gradually remove the barriers accorded by the ‘one country, two systems,’” says Lau Sai-leung, a political commentator attending the march. “I believe that come 2047, all the buffer will be gone. The extradition bill is a crucial step along the way.”

Competing vision of law

The Hong Kong government claims the proposed bill closes a loophole in existing laws that must be urgently closed so that a Hong Kong man accused of murdering his girlfriend in Taiwan may face trial there. Critics say the so-called loophole was intentional, to protect Hong Kongers from the yawning gap between mainland laws and their own common-law system, and that suspects cannot be guaranteed a full and fair trial on the mainland.

Hong Kong ranks 16th globally in the World Justice Project’s Rule of Law Index, the mainland 82nd. The Chinese criminal justice system is known for arbitrary detentions, forced confessions, and other rights-violating practices. Strengthening the Communist Party takes precedence over strengthening rule of law, President Xi Jinping emphasized in remarks published this year, vowing not to follow “the West’s path of ‘constitutionalism,’ ‘separation of powers,’ and ‘judicial independence.’ ”

The Hong Kong bill, which also makes crimes such as bribery and fraud liable for extradition, has attracted unusually public dissent from business groups. Entrepreneurs are worried about the retroactive effect of the law, Felix Chung, leader of the Liberal Party, explained at a forum hosted by the Hong Kong Journalists Association. He noted that, for many businesses, “small-scale bribery” has been the norm when dealing with mainland counterparts.

Following criticism, the government removed nine crimes from the list for which suspects could be extradited. But that hasn’t won over the skeptics.

“There are so many land mines,” says Rosalind Lee, a businesswoman and accountant. For instance, accountants may worry about being tried on the mainland for accounting fraud based on false data provided by mainland firms. She will avoid mainland-related accounting work if the bill is passed, she says, “but how much room for survival does that leave us with?”

China’s political clout beyond its borders is growing, aided by massive investments like the Belt and Road Initiative, stretched across three continents. Recent years have seen Beijing accused of kidnapping a Hong Kong-based bookseller with Swedish citizenship in Thailand, ferrying the son of a Chinese human rights lawyer from Myanmar, and pressuring the government of Malaysia to extradite ethnic Uyghurs, a million of whom are believed to be locked up in internment camps in China’s Xinjiang province in the name of “fighting extremism.”                 

The ‘best gateway to China’

For many observers, the bill debate extends beyond Hong Kongers’ rights to the future of a cosmopolitan hub whose own government has marketed it as “Asia’s World City.”

“Hong Kong’s international reputation for the rule of law is its priceless treasure,” reads a statement from the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, which said the bill will reduce Hong Kong’s appeal for international companies.

Britain, Canada, the European Union, and the U.S. have all expressed concern about the government’s proposal. The U.S. State Department warned in an April 25 statement that Hong Kong’s “long-established special status in international affairs” is at risk with the continued erosion of “one country, two systems.”

“The global community will turn their backs on Hong Kong if this is passed,” says lawmaker Dennis Kwok, adding that foreign officials have warned him about “serious consequences for Hong Kong as an international city if countries revoke their bilateral agreements.” For example, the U.S. treats the city as a separate customs territory from China under the Hong Kong Policy Act.

Those changes could carry consequences for Beijing as well. Leo Goodstadt, an economist who advised the last governor of Hong Kong before the handover and has written extensively about Hong Kong, notes that Chinese leaders from Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai (the first premier) to President Xi have said China needs Hong Kong to succeed thanks to its respected legal system, mature financial institutions, and talented workforce. The city is ranked the world’s 7th most competitive economy in the last World Economic Forum Global Competitiveness Report, while China is 28th.

For international companies, Hong Kong is “the best gateway to China,” he says. “It has the capacity for knowing exactly what the Chinese government and economy want without demanding anything back politically.”

Ms. Lee, the accountant, says the biggest worry for her and others is Hong Kong’s status as a world city, if local laws grow more like Beijing’s.

“What, then, is still special about Hong Kong?” she asks.

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