Unravelling the Hong Kong conundrum

Reading time: 6-7 minutes.

Hong Kong is a semi-autonomous southern Chinese city. It lies on the eastern side of Pearl River estuary. Officially it is known as ‘Hong Kong Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China’. It was a former British colony which was returned to China in 1997 under the principle of ‘one country, two systems’. This meant that Hong Kong could have its own political and legal system, own currency and borders. In fact, the legal system of Hong Kong guarantees to its people many rights and freedom like freedom of speech and expression which are non-existent in the Chinese mainland.

Hong Kong is one of the most densely populated cities in the world and one of the world’s significant economic hubs. Currently the city of Hong Kong is witnessing huge protests and social unrest which was triggered by the introduction of a controversial piece of legislation, namely, the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019 (hereinafter referred to as the Extradition Bill).

What began as just resentment against a law has now assumed bigger proportions and has turned into a social and pro-democracy movement. So far, a large number of civilians have been injured in the protests. But the protestors have vowed that they would continue their fight their demands have been fulfilled.

What is the Extradition Bill, 2019 all about?

The Extradition Bill, 2019 was passed by the Hong Kong government in February this year. The Bill states that Hong Kong government will accept legal request from other countries for extradition of criminal suspect, who have fled to Hong Kong after committing a crime in their territory, to face trial. The Bill allows extradition to mainland China and even to those countries with which Hong Kong does not have an extradition treaty.

The Bill allows extradition of only those fugitives who are accused of offences that are punishable with a sentence of at least seven years. Extradition of people accused of political and religious crimes is also not allowed. The Bill grants the power to decide on an extradition request to Hong Kong’s Chief Executive whose decision would then be reviewed by the courts.

The Bill came to be introduced in the wake of an incident in February 2018 when a 19-year-old man, after murdering his 20-year-old pregnant girlfriend in Taiwan, fled to Hong Kong. Though the Taiwanese officials sought help from Hong Kong to extradite the criminal, Hong Kong government could not comply with the request due to lack of an extradition agreement with Taiwan.

What was the reaction of the people of Hong Kong to this Bill?

The Bill was introduced to plug the loophole which allowed criminals like the 19-year old to avoid the law. However, the opponents of the Bill are of the opinion that the enforcement of this Bill would subject the people of Hong Kong to arbitrary detention, unfair trial and torture under the China’s harsh and biased judicial system. They justify their view by citing the case of Lam Wing Kee who, in 2015, was abducted, detained and charged by China with the allegation that he was operating a bookstore illegally in China. Mr. Lam was reported to have made the statement “I don’t trust the government to guarantee my safety, or the safety of any Hong Kong resident.”

This Extradition Bill comes amidst the growing Chinese influence in the governance of Hong Kong and also the increasing authoritative tendency of the Hong Kong government. Therefore, this Bill is widely viewed as another blow to the democratic rights of the people of Hong Kong.  

People from all walks of life have strongly opposed the Bill. The public unrest against the Bill which started as marches on street has turned uncontrollable with the protesters striking at the government headquarters and forcing the shutdown of the international airport for two days. Few road ways and tunnels were also shut down. The continued protest has completely paralysed Hong Kong, the international finance hub.

How has the government responded to the protests against the Bill?

Though initially the government refused to back down, the widespread nature of the protest compelled the government to reconsider its stand. On 15th June, 2019, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, the present Chief Executive of Hong Kong, suspended the controversial Extradition Bill and on 9th July, she declared the Bill as dead. The Bill was formally withdrawn on 4th September 2019.

However, the withdrawal of the Bill has done little to pacify the protestors with them terming it as an action “too little, too late” and one of them commenting that “it is like applying band-aid on rotten flesh”. The protestors say that the withdrawal of bill will not compensate the blood and tears of the protestors.

These statements imply that the public resentment is not just about the Bill anymore but about the threats against the larger democratic rights of the people of Hong Kong as a result of the increasing Chinese influence. Due to the continued disappointment and unrest among the people, Ms.Lam suggested “to replace conflicts with conversation”.

What has been the response of the international community?

The US and other Western countries have extended their support to the Hong Kong protestors and have called for a peaceful resolution of the issue.

Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the United States House of Representatives, said “Democrats and Republicans continue to stand united with the people of Hong Kong in demanding the hopeful, free and democratic future that is their right.” The US is also looking forward to expedite the passage of the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Bill, a bipartisan Bill, the stated objective of which is “to renew the historical commitment of the United States to uphold freedom and democracy in Hong Kong at a time when its autonomy is increasingly under assault.”

The British Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, asked China to grant basic freedom to Hong Kong. Hunt warned China of severe consequences if it did not respect the Sino-British Joint Declaration, 1984, which enshrined the “one country, two systems” principle.

Beijing has not taken this external support for the protestors very well. It views them as unnecessary interferences by external actors which have only encouraged the protestors to continue with the chaotic situation. Beijing sees the current crisis as an internal issue which it wants to deal with internally without any external meddling.

What are the human rights concerns that the public protests in Hong Kong raise?

Human Rights in Hong Kong are enshrined in the Basic law and the Bill of Rights Ordinance (Cap. 383). It is generally perceived that the people of Hong Kong enjoy greater civil liberties than those in mainland China. However, there is a concern over freedom of assembly in Hong Kong as it has been restricted by the Public Order Ordinance.

Unfortunately, the ongoing civilian protests have witnessed gross human rights violations. It is reported that the police authorities are using harsh power to suppress the protestors. This disproportionate use of power by the police muzzles the fundamental human rights of freedom of expression and assembly. It also puts into jeopardy the principle of participatory democracy.

It is been argued that human rights violation in Hong Kong is a failure of the ‘one country, two systems’ rule.

What are the demands of the protestors?

Hong Kong has been witnessing continued mass protests for the past few months now and it has resulted into chaos, public unrest and major political predicament. The frustrated protestors have been demanding the following:

  • The controversial Extradition Bill must be withdrawn
  • The Chief Executive, Ms. Lam, must resign
  • The government must retract its characterisation of violent clashes as “riots”
  • There must be full independent inquiry into the actions of the police.
  • All those who are arrested in connection with the clashes must be unconditionally freed.

Though the first demand has been fulfilled, Ms. Lam has refused to fulfil the other demands of the protestors so far.

The way forward…

Over the years, China has been trying to undermine the autonomy that is guaranteed to Hong under the “one country, two systems” rule. The Extradition Bill is just another example of China attempting to meddle into the internal affairs of Hong Kong. Therefore, the present public outrage in Hong Kong is a show of resistance to not only the Extradition Bill but also to the repeated attempts of China to suppress the democratic rights of the people of Hong Kong. Therefore, this movement has the potential to decide the future of Hong Kong’s democracy and autonomy.

As rightly said by a report, “there is no reward to be gained by silence on the Hong Kong conundrum”. Significant support for peaceful resolution will reassure the people of Hong Kong that what they are doing is right and this will lead to a good outcome.

Therefore, the international community must come out in strong support of the people of Hong Kong who are fighting for justice and democratic rights. They want a bright future for their country with proper governance. Compromise and wise decisions would be the contributing factors for peace in the present conditions.

-This article is brought to you in collaboration with Rutuja Gujar from Sandip University, Nashik.

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