The Hong Kong protests: A primer

The Hong Kong protests: A primer

Senior Fellow Harry Harding explains the dynamics between China and Hong Kong 

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Since early June, Hong Kong has been experiencing one of the most serious political crises in its history, arguably the worst since the Maoist-inspired demonstrations against British colonial rule in 1967. The city has been wracked by near-continuous mass protests, some peaceful, some violent. Despite the Hong Kong government’s attempts to limit or suppress them and Beijing’s efforts to intimidate and discredit them, the protests have persisted unabated, sometimes involving as many as one to two million people at a time, out of a total population of seven million, supplemented by smaller protests by students, teachers, social workers, civil servants, and other professionals. The scale and duration of the protests is arousing international concern, challenging the governments in Hong Kong, mainland China, and the U.S. to devise effective responses. The crisis in Hong Kong is also raising serious questions about the city’s future, particularly given the fact that its quasi-autonomous relationship with the rest of China, established when Hong Kong returned to Chinese sovereignty in 1997, will expire in 2047, less than thirty years from now.

Origins of the protests

The immediate cause of the protests was the government’s introduction of an extradition law that would make it possible to send people in Hong Kong who had been charged with a crime by Chinese authorities back to the mainland for trial. Hong Kong currently has extradition agreements with twenty jurisdictions, but not with either Taiwan or mainland China. The origin of the proposed extradition agreement with the mainland two decades later is not entirely certain, and both the Hong Kong government and the national mainland government insist that it was introduced at Hong Kong’s own initiative, not at Beijing’s request. However, it is also the case that on the eve of the selection of a new chief executive in 2017, at least one high Chinese official expressed concern that, in the absence of extradition procedures, Hong Kong was becoming a sanctuary for corrupt officials from the mainland. So even if Beijing did not request the bill, it did not discourage it.

The main target of the proposed law was ostensibly those residents in Hong Kong who were accused of committing both serious civil crimes (such as murder) and major economic crimes (such as serious cases of corruption), but there was concern that political offenses would also be targeted. Even in the absence of an extradition law, Chinese authorities had shown their ability to bring Hong Kong residents to trial on the mainland, either by arresting them when they visited the mainland or by abducting them in Hong Kong and taking them to the mainland. It would, arguably, be preferable to have formal extradition measures in place so that such ad hoc procedures would no longer be necessary. Moreover, Hong Kong would not want the reputation of being a sanctuary for fugitives. Indeed, the official name for the proposed legislation, although commonly known as an extradition law, is a law on the return of “fugitive offenders.” And the Hong Kong government has justified the law by citing the case of a fugitive not from the mainland but from Taiwan: a Hong Kong man who visited Taiwan with his girlfriend, allegedly murdered her there, and then returned to Hong Kong, where he could not be extradited.

The main obstacle was the same that had prevented the earlier conclusion of an extradition agreement: the serious doubts about mainland China’s judicial system. In addition, the proposed legislation was drafted quickly and without the customary formal public consultation. Even after the extradition bill was introduced the government did not use other consultative mechanisms to gauge the public reaction, and thus was blindsided by the scope and intensity of the protests. The negative reaction came from several quarters: Hong Kong residents who did business on the mainland were concerned that they would be charged with corruption; political activists, journalists, and academics worried that they would be charged with political offenses, and lawyers alleged that the use of mainland courts to try accused offenders would lead to an erosion of the rule of law in Hong Kong.

The government proposed amendments to the law that would have limited the scope of the offenses for which accused persons would be extradited. But the concern remained that while Hong Kong courts would review requests for extradition, the final decision would be made by Hong Kong’s chief executive, who is ultimately responsible to Beijing.

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