BEIJING —They are calling it Hong Kong’s “last battle” — a David vs. Goliath struggle to prevent China from encroaching on the city’s freedoms and autonomy — as Hong Kong authorities face massive opposition to a bill that would enable extradition to the mainland.
But with China’s increasingly assertive approach to Hong Kong, the battle may already be lost.
Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam —who last year told a journalist that her favorite politician was Chinese leader Xi Jinping — insists the bill will go ahead, despite a mass protest Sunday that organizers said drew more than a million people. Authorities estimated the number to be a quarter of that.
Any reversal would not only humiliate Lam, but would embarrass Chinese authorities, making a backdown unlikely, according to analysts and pro-democracy activists.
“This is what Hongkongers are against, a tone-deaf leader who turns a blind eye to the people’s voices, who pushes ahead robotically and stubbornly at all consequences,” tweeted Hong Kong singer and actress Denise Ho.
Critics say Xi’s term as president since 2012 has seen a steady whittling away of freedoms that Beijing promised before Hong Kong’s handover from British rule to China in 1997, as he has also tightened controls on activists and clamped down on dissent in mainland China. They charge this has eroded the credibility of China’s “One Country Two Systems” policy, which is supposed to allow Hong Kong its own autonomous administrative, legal and economic system.
The bill is likely to be finalized within weeks. Businesses across the city are planning to strike Wednesday, when the bill is to be debated in the city’s Legislative Council, where around half the members are popularly elected. Pro-democracy activists are planning further protest action.
Lam told journalists Tuesday that the bill struck a balance between the protection of human rights, addressing public concerns, and ensuring Hong Kong did not become a haven for fugitives.
The last time so many Hongkongers turned out in protest — in 2003, marching against a national security law — Hong Kong authorities praised citizens for pointing out the problems with the law and dropped it. That Lam has refused to budge on the extradition measure conveys how far Hong Kong has shifted into Beijing’s orbit in recent years.
“I think we’ve seen in the last few years a desire from Beijing and the Hong Kong government to crush political opposition and to remove avenues to continue opposing the government and also to really push the integration of Hong Kong into the rest of mainland China on an economic basis,” Ben Bland, Hong Kong analyst at the Lowy Institute, a Sydney, Australia-based think tank, said in an interview.
“What is clear is Beijing’s direction of travel. They need Hong Kong brought to book. They need to eliminate opposition. They need to intensify the integration of the city and that obviously represents a fundamental clash with the liberal democratic values that many Hongkongers uphold but is also the core of the Hong Kong system.
“Autonomy and ‘Two Systems’ was designed to protect Hong Kong from the capricious legal and political system of the mainland. As mainland becomes more and more assertive, the risks to the Hong Kong system as we know it continue to rise,” Bland said.
At stake is Hong Kong’s future as a global financial center and base for multinational corporate entities with business in Asia and China. The American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong recently expressed opposition to the government’s determination to rush the bill through parliament, adding that it put at risk Hong Kong’s reputation for rule of law.
The new bill raises fears that Hong Kong citizens, foreigners living in Hong Kong and even people passing through Hong Kong’s airport could be arrested and sent to mainland China, where critics say the legal system fails to guarantee a fair trial.
Many countries, including the U.S., do not allow extradition to China because its legal system _ which is under Communist Party control and has a conviction of more than 99% _ lacks ordinary legal protections designed to guarantee a fair trial. Human Rights Watch has reported torture and disappearances of suspects into detention centers for months without charge and no access to lawyers or family.
In one recent example, New Zealand’s Court of Appeal on Tuesday ruled against the extradition to China of Kyung Yup Kim, accused of murder by Chinese authorities, ruling that the New Zealand government reassess serious human rights concerns in China, including the right to a fair trial and the use of torture.
Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, a pro-democracy activist and former chair of the political science department at City University Hong Kong, said in an interview that many Hongkongers did not trust China’s legal system because it was controlled by the Communists.
He said many people participating in Sunday’s mass rally feared it could be the last time such a gathering was allowed, because of growing Chinese pressure on rights.
“There’s a sense of pessimism here. I think the vast majority of people here knew that even if we marched and even if there was a big turnout we probably would not be able to change the decision of the government and the decision of Beijing.”
“Certainly people are very angry. More than a million people came out to march and the government would not make any change. The pessimistic view is that you have to make a decision: Either you go, emigrate or you keep quiet.”
In recent years, Hong Kong authorities have disqualified pro-democracy candidates from running for parliament; jailed members of the pro-democracy Umbrella Movement; banned a pro-independence political party; and refused to renew the visa of a journalist who is vice president of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club after the club hosted an address by a pro-independence politician.
“Beijing’s assault on Hong Kong’s freedoms, particularly the rights to free expression, association and political participation, worsened considerably in 2018,” Human Rights Watch reported in its 2019 World Report.
The battle over the extradition bill may bleed into global tensions over China’s rising geopolitical and strategic clout, which has erupted into a trade war. Tensions jumped after Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, an executive of the Chinese tech giant Huawei, on a U.S. extradition request. China responded with arrests of two Canadians, including political analyst Michael Kovrig of the International Crisis Group and businessman Michael Spavor _ seen by Western diplomats as the kind of tit-for-tat abuses that could unfold in Hong Kong should the bill be passed.
“That’s exactly the kind of weaponization of the legal system that people are afraid of,” said Antony Dapiran, author of “City of Protest,” a book about dissent in Hong Kong.” China sees Canada’s arrest of Meng as political and an abuse.
Kevin Yam, Hong Kong-based lawyer and former coordinator of the Progressive Lawyers Group, said that, under the proposed law, Hong Kong courts would have limited scope to refuse extraditions.
“I think it’s one of those situations where the odds are heavily stacked against the protest movement succeeding. We’ve got the Hong Kong government basically sticking its fingers up to the business community, the international community and various professional groups as well as a million Hong Kong people.”
Pro-democracy activist and politician Albert Ho of the Hong Kong Alliance in Support of Patriotic Democratic Movements in China said the Hong Kong government cared more about pleasing authorities in Beijing than listening to anger in Hong Kong. He warned that Beijing’s increasing pressure on Hong Kong’s freedoms could undermine Hong Kong’s vibrancy and turn it into just another ordinary Chinese city.
“We are heading toward that direction. Hong Kong is in a direct confrontation between the soft power of Hong Kong as a free city and the sharp power of Beijing.
“We are doing everything we can to stop or slow down the process. We have a dynamic civil society and a rich tradition of the rule of law and people aspire to human rights and freedom. We will speak out and resist anything that seeks to erode our values,” Ho said.