A Protest to Remember: Hong Kong 2019

The protests in Hong Kong, which started out over an unpopular extradition bill, are about something much bigger. They are about redefining the status quo with China and within Hong Kong’s Legislative Council.

Background

In February of 2018, a young couple from Hong Kong went for a vacation to Taipei in Taiwan; but only the boyfriend returned home. A month later, he confessed to murdering his pregnant girlfriend, stuffing her body in a suitcase and leaving it near a transport hub in Taipei. As the gory details of the murder emerged, what was essentially a local news story became the crux of Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Officer, Carrie Lam’s strategy to introduce the extradition bill. 

When Chan Tong Kai admitted to having murdered his girlfriend Poon Hui-Wong, there was a problem. Hong Kong authorities found themselves unable to charge him for murder since he had committed the crime in Taiwan. Further, they could not send him to Taiwan to be charged since Hong Kong and Taiwan did not have an extradition agreement. So in 2019, the Hong Kong government proposed new legislation that would allow criminal suspects to be transferred to Taiwan so they could undergo trial. There was, however a concern —the transfer of the suspect could be to countries with whom  Hong Kong did not have an extradition treaty, mainland China being one of them.

Demonstrators took to the streets in large numbers to block this bill - since they felt it would  threaten Hong Kong’s governance, judiciary and freedom. China and Hong Kong have an uneasy political relationship. If the proposed legislation is approved, it will give China immense power over Hong Kong. 

Technically, Hong Kong is still a part of China, and functions as a semi-autonomous state. The state’s separation from mainland China happened when China lost a series of wars to the United Kingdom in the late 1800’s, resulting in the former ceding Hong Kong to the British for ninety-nine years. Hong Kong was a British colony until 1997, when it was returned to China under a special agreement called ‘One Country, Two Systems’.  Although the agreement made it a part of China, it also gave Hong Kong a large amount of autonomy and democratic freedoms which made it very different from authoritarian mainland China. The agreement also made it clear that the concept of one country, two systems would not be around forever. In 2047, Hong Kong will become an integral part of China. 

Analysis

Currently, the people of Hong Kong are out on the streets since early June of 2019. What began as protests over the extradition bill has now become about growing Chinese encroachment; and the paradoxical way the Legislative Council in Hong Kong works.

China has not been waiting for the pre-existing agreement to expire. Xi Jinping’s government has facilitated the arrest of many pro-democracy leaders in Hong Kong and many outspoken critics ranging from journalists to academicians have inexplicably gone missing. Hong Kong, however, has been pushing back against China. The 2003 protests against legislation that would have made speaking out against China punishable and the 2014 protests against Chinese influence over Hong Kong elections were noteworthy. But these latest protests against the extradition bill have sprung up in huge numbers, that were never seen before because it is seen as a step of China’s encroachment into Hong Kong. The sheer number of people who have taken to the streets show just how much opposition there is to the bill. However, if Hong Kong’s legislature does vote on the bill, which has been at present suspended to appease the protesters, the bill will pass.

This is solely because of the unique nature of Hong Kong democracy. Leaders are not elected by the people. The office of the Chief Executive Officer, which is at present held by Lam, is filled by a candidate selected by a small committee, following approval from China. And even though the Officer is the head of the government, they do not make the laws in the country.

Lawmaking is reserved for the legislature which like most democracies, has elected representatives. This body has seventy seats and is called the Legislative Council or LegCo. While Hong Kong has a plethora of political parties, the main distinction is based on whether they are pro-democracy or pro-China. Ever since 1998 pro-democracy parties have won the popular vote, yet they occupy less than half of the seats in the LegCo.

This anomaly is due to the situation that when citizens are voting, they are voting for only forty seats while the remaining thirty are voted upon by different establishments like the medical, finance and insurance industries. Seats from these thirty are also voted upon by corporations. Since these big businesses have much to gain from cultivating good ties with China, they elect pro-China parties. During the time of the handoff to China, the One Country Two Systems deal promised that eventually all members of the LegCo would be elected by the people. This has never happened. Hence, the LegCo has been dominated by pro-China parties without even once having won the popular vote. 

Assessment

  • While this is definitely not the first protest in Hong Kong, it is the largest and most widely documented using social media. More importantly, this protest has people from all walks of life actively taking part; lawyers, pilots, teachers, students, doctors and others. The youngsters are at the forefront because they simply have too much to lose being the first generation born under the One Country Two Systems deal. In 2047, which is when China is set to take over Hong Kong, they will be the professional class.
  • For the first time since the Umbrella Movement of 2014, pro-democracy parties have found themselves a situation that highly justifies their cause, because the problem is easy to understand. If the citizens do not protest now, they open themselves to a future where if arrested, they will be sent to China. This applies not only to those who break the law but anyone who upsets the Communist Party. With the present global scenario, especially the US, highly concerned over growing Chinese power, global support for the citizens’ protest is immense.
  • In May, Taiwan said it would not allow extradition from Hong Kong even if the bill passed because it sees the same problems in it as the protesters. Given Taiwan’s own charged relationship with China, Taipei would never agree to help increase Chinese power in Hong Kong. But Lam has still pressed on because scrapping the legislation now will be nothing short of an admission that it was wrong. This will result in both Beijing losing faith in Lam and Lam losing power at home.
  • As a result of the protests, the bill has only been suspended and not withdrawn. This peaceful protest has seen demonstrators being attacked by white-shirt clad men belonging to triads loyal to the highest bidder. Protesters are being tried in court for a jail sentence of up to ten years.
  • Hong Kong will continue to push back against China’s encroachment with its full might because 2047 is on the anvil. While the protest against this bill is a reflection of how people in Hong Kong would like to chart their future, it is not a solution. It is important that the constitution of  LegCo is set right so that this legislative body is truly democratic.

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