Hundreds of thousands, and perhaps up to one million people jammed the streets of Hong Kong on Sunday to protest amendments by the Legislative Council, which would allow the extradition of those accused of crimes to mainland China. Opponents believe the bill will allow the communist regime to target political opponents, whether living in or visiting Hong Kong, and threaten the city’s longstanding autonomy. Beijing is said to want the bill “urgently,” and the LegCo pledged to press on regardless.
Currently, Hong Kong limits extradition to territories with which it has prior agreements. Mainland China had been specifically excluded due to its poor legal, judicial, and human rights record. Ostensibly caused by the inability to extradite a Hong Kong man accused of murdering his girlfriend to Taiwan, the LegCo, and Chief Executive Carrie Lam, say the bill is needed to close a legal loophole. “None of the serious criminal offenses relate to the freedom of assembly, of the press, of speech, of academic freedom or publication,” the government insisted in a statement.
Protesters accused Lam of pushing the bill at Beijing’s request, a charge she vehemently denied. “This bill is not about the mainland alone,” she said Monday. “This bill is not initiated by the central people’s government. I have not received any instruction or mandate from Beijing to do this bill.” China Daily, an official English-language mouthpiece for Beijing, accused “foreign forces” of trying to hurt China by stirring up chaos in Hong Kong. “Any fair-minded person would deem the amendment bill a legitimate, sensible and reasonable piece of legislation that would strengthen Hong Kong’s rule of law and deliver justice,” the paper said in an editorial.
The extradition bill has generated opposition that is both unusually strong and unexpectedly broad. Democracy activists, students, and politicians have been joined by the city’s establishment— judges, lawyers, and the business community— in opposing the bill. They believe the government’s promised safeguards are meaningless, and the city’s separate status, as guaranteed by Beijing’s “One China, Two Systems” agreement from 1997, will be eroded. One opposition lawmaker, Claudia Mo, says “the idea is to, ultimately, disappear Hong Kong, or at least to change it into one of the numerous Chinese cities.”
Meanwhile, in Washington, the United States is currently engaged in its own arguments with China, and a bipartisan group of lawmakers warned the extradition bill could make the situation worse. Led by Rep. James McGovern (D-MA) and Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL), the group sent Lam a letter last month, advising her the legislation would “negatively impact the relationship between the United States and Hong Kong.” Furthermore, Rubio promised that if the bill were enacted, he would present the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Bill, which would require a review of the city’s status as a free port and separate jurisdiction from mainland China. In attempting to flex its muscle throughout the region, China is first tightening its grip within its own neighborhood.