Ask the people of Hong Kong what they want to be identified as, and they would, without any second thought, say ‘Hong Kongers’ though the region is now a part of China.
A special administrative region spread across a 1,104 sq km territory in southern China with a population of over 7.4 million people of various nationalities, Hong Kong is a semi-autonomous region, which Britain returned to China in 1997 after the latter ceded the land for 99 years after losing a series of wars to the former.
The wily British, nevertheless, gave it up under a special agreement called ‘one country, two systems’, making Hong Kong a part of China while keeping intact the high degree of autonomy and retaining the democratic freedom, which includes the right to vote, freedom of speech, press, association and assembly. The agreement makes Hong Kong very different from Mainland China, which is authoritarian in nature.
According to the agreement between China and Great Britain, the ‘one country, two systems’ would be in practice till 2047. However, the authoritative Chinese government is showing signs of unwillingness with every passing day in following the rule till it expires.
March on July 1
The Hong Kongers, who have forever opposed the Chinese rule in the territory, began an annual protest rally, emulating the rally originally held by the Civil Human Rights Front on the day of handover — July 1 in 1997.
Though it was an annual affair, the protests gained momentum after the July 1, 2003, rally drew public attention with 5 lakh marchers taking to the streets, making it the second-largest protest in Hong Kong since the handover.
The theme for the 2003 march was opposition to the legislation of the Basic Law Article 23. Fearing the loss of freedom of speech along with other freedoms if the introduction of the Article took place, scores of people joined the protest that year. A general dissatisfaction against the Hong Kong government also added numbers in plenty resulting in a mass protest.
They were so effective that the introduction of Article 23 was dropped in 2003. Since then, July 1 marches have been organised every year to demand democracy, universal suffrage, rights of minorities, protection of freedom of speech and a variety of other political concerns.
Protest March 2019
The intensity of protest, however, was much greater this time due to violent clashes between the police and the protesters, a couple of weeks prior to the annual march.
Hong Kongers had turned out in large numbers on June 12 to protest the government-proposed Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019. The anti-extradition protests arose on concerns that such legislation would blur the demarcation between the legal systems in Hong Kong and the Mainland, subjecting Hong Kong residents and those passing through the region to de facto jurisdiction of the courts on the Mainland.
The ongoing protests since late April started gaining ground and witnessing moments of aggression. On June 16, according to claims by the organisers of the protest, a historic record of nearly two million people turned out to demonstrate against the extradition Bill as well as the police brutality, notwithstanding Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s announcement, a day earlier, of a pause in the passage of the Bill.
Though the unusual scenes of protesters shattering glass to break into the Legislative Council building, followed by demonstrators scrawling graffiti on the walls inside and damaging furniture, caused some residents to question the tactics used, many protesters defended the escalation stating nothing else has worked, and that they were left with no choice if their demands — including the full withdrawal of extradition Bill — were to be met.
How it Started
In early 2018, a 19-year-old Hong Kong resident, Chan Tong-kai, allegedly killed his pregnant girlfriend Poon Hiu-wing in Taiwan and returned to Hong Kong.
Chan who admitted to Hong Kong police that he killed his girlfriend, could not be charged with the murder or be extradited to Taiwan as there was no agreement in place between Taiwan and Hong Kong. Until May 2019, the two ordinances in Hong Kong — Fugitive Offenders Ordinance and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Ordinance — were not applicable to the requests for surrender of fugitive offenders and mutual legal assistance between Hong Kong and Taiwan.
This February, the government proposed changes to fugitive laws, establishing a mechanism for case-by-case transfers of fugitives by the Hong Kong Chief Executive to any jurisdiction with which the city lacks a formal extradition treaty, which it claimed would close the “legal loophole”.
Fight Against Extradition Bill
A cooperative law enforcement process between two jurisdictions and the arrangements between them, which otherwise is well received across the world, is being fiercely fought by Hong Kongers. Why?
The extradition Bill proposes to amend the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance in relation to special surrender arrangements and the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Ordinance so that arrangements for mutual legal assistance can be made between Hong Kong and any place outside Hong Kong.
If passed by the Legislative Council, it would mean an establishment of a mechanism for transfer of fugitives not only for Taiwan but also for Mainland China and Macau, which are not covered in the existing laws. Hong Kongers fear that Beijing would use it to target political opponents, and those sent to the Mainland would not get fair trials.
There is also a heightened risk of foreign nationals passing through Hong Kong being sent for trial to Mainland China, where courts are under the oppressive Chinese political control.
The Big Fear
In the 22 years since Hong Kong was handed over to China, it has enjoyed many rights and freedoms, which could possibly be unheard of in the Communist-ruled State.
The political scenario, however, seems to be taking a turn towards the political interests of Mainland China with the pro-Beijing Chief Executive of Hong Kong Lam’s administration proposing rules and laws favourable to the Mainland.
Lam has been mired in numerous controversies, including the trial and imprisonment of activists as well as the disqualification of several pro-democracy candidates and a pro-independence party.
In a recent press conference held by her after the protests turned violent, Lam condemned the break-in and vandalism at the Legislative Council, also called the ‘Legco’, and vowed that stern action would be taken against the perpetrators. Seconding her opinion, the Chinese central government’s Liaison Office in Hong Kong declared that the “savage acts were an outright provocation and trampling of the city’s rule of law,” raising fear among the Hong Kongers.
With China’s growing interference, the freedom of press is also under threat. According to recent reports, eight of Hong Kong’s 26 mainstream media outlets are either under Mainland Chinese ownership or have significant Mainland stakes. The rest is owned by Hong Kong conglomerates with significant business interests in China.
China, meanwhile, slyly pushes expensive integration projects, including the mega bridge linking Hong Kong, Macau and southern China and a high-speed rail link to China in order to woo the people of Hong Kong. The link is hardly used, indicating the dissatisfaction and strong will for Hong Kong’s autonomy among people.
Added to this is Lam’s notorious policies favouring the Mainland, which are making several critical areas such as publishing, ideological education and academic freedom vulnerable in the pro-Beijing Legislative Council. To fight the growing menace, the Hong Kongers are giving their all to remind the world time and again that “Hong Kong is not China!”