Under normal circumstances, and had Beijing respected its side of the agreement under the ‘one country, two systems’ framework, a proposed extradition bill should not have unduly alarmed Hong Kong society. Instead, it caused a serious backlash fueled by fears that the bill would be used to disappear pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong and give Xi Jinping the legal instruments he needs to target his critics under the guise of his anti-corruption drive. J. Michael Cole analyzes the situation.

 

Hong Kong riot police on July 1 once again used batons and pepper spray to disperse crowds of protesters who were blocking streets in the city on the 22nd anniversary of the return of the former British colony to Chinese rule. In recent weeks, millions of people have rallied against the attempted passage of a controversial extradition bill that would permit the transfer of crime suspects in Hong Kong to China proper for trial. Critics say the amendment would sound the death knell of Hong Kong as a semi-autonomous region and render obsolete the idea that the special administrative region can retain some of its independence under the “one country, two systems” formula.

The large youth-led protests, not seen since the Umbrella Movement in 2014, have received wide coverage in international media. In next-door Taiwan, which Beijing hopes to incorporate into the People’s Republic of China under the same offer of “one country, two systems” (the formula was in fact first proposed for Taiwan in 1981 and only subsequently applied to Hong Kong), extensive coverage of the protests has exacerbated opposition to unification under Beijing’s blueprint.

Following back-to-back million-plus rallies last month, the pro-Beijing Hong Kong Chief Executive, Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor, announced that her government would shelve the bill. Hopes that suspension of the bill would appease protesters and buy time for the authorities were dashed, however, as civil society called for the bill to be scrapped permanently, for charges brought against protesters be dropped, and for Lam to step down.

Lam, 61, was “elected” in March 2017 with 777 votes from Hong Kong’s Election Committee, whose 1,194-members are composed mostly of Beijing loyalists.

Widespread opposition to the extradition bill stems from the elite-driven and largely unaccountable workings of the Hong Kong government, which is seen to be subservient to the authoritarian Chinese Communist Party. The gradual erosion of freedoms in the semi-autonomous region since 1997, a process which is seen to have accelerated under CCP General Secretary Xi Jinping, has alarmed residents who hitherto may have been willing to give the authorities the benefit of the doubt (those who did not left in droves, emigrating to places like Canada and Australia). Hong Kong’s loss of control over its borders, among other things, with decisions on who can enter and leave the territory increasingly made by Beijing, added to clear indications that universal suffrage will not materialize under current conditions, have compounded the view that “one country, two systems” was little more than a grand deception. 

Taiwanese show support for protesters in Hong Kong (Photo: CHIANG YING-YING)

Besides causing jitters within the business sector in the financial hub, the proposed extradition bill has also sparked alarm among pro-democracy and -localization groups, who fear that their members could be renditioned to China proper for various “crimes” under the National Security Law, where it is unlikely they would receive a fair trial. Hong Kong activists are also aware of the high likelihood that, while in detention, they would be exposed to poor conditions, abuse and torture. The bill has also had a chilling effect on the willingness of politicized Taiwanese to visit the territory, for fear that they, too, could be arrested for loosely defined “crimes” against the PRC and spirited to China for trial. A number of Taiwanese, most prominently rights activist Lee Ming-che, are currently in detention in China for “crimes” against the state.

Much speculation has surrounded the attempt to expedite passage of the extradition bill. According to some experts, the move was miscalculation on the part of Lam, who may have convinced herself (and Beijing) that the bill was necessary to address a legal gap identified when Taiwan sought the extradition of Chan Tong-kai, a 19-year-old suspect in a murder case in Taiwan. Under normal circumstances, and had Beijing respected its side of the agreement under the “one country, two systems” framework, the bill should not have alarmed Hong Kong society as it did in the past month. Instead, it caused a serious backlash fueled by fears that the bill would be used to nab pro-democracy forces in Hong Kong and give Xi the legal instruments he needs to target his critics under the guise of his anti-corruption drive. 

Lam may have oversold her ability to pass the bill without controversy, and Beijing, distracted with other issues such as the trade war with the United States and bad publicity surrounding its treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, may not have fully appreciated the potential for unrest. According to some, the extradition bill wasn’t even a priority for Beijing. In the opaque and conspiracy-laden world of CCP politics, rumors have also circulated that enemies of Xi Jinping within the “Shanghai/Jiang Zemin” faction may have played a role in the controversy as a way to cause headaches for, and to discredit, Xi. 

Whatever the origin of this mess — miscalculation or conspiracy — the effects on the legitimacy of “one country, two systems” have been extensive. Despite her best efforts to limit its repercussions, Lam’s credibility in the eyes of Hong Kong society and with Beijing has probably suffered irreparable damage. Beyond Hong Kong, the effects have also been considerable. The controversy has served as another reminder that the “one country, two systems” formula, which Xi has made an intrinsic component of “one China” and the so-called “1992 consensus,” has practically zero attraction among the Taiwanese except among extremists in the pro-unification camp. This “linkage,” which Beijing has sought to break since the dramatic events of 2014, has been reinforced by recent developments, as showcased by the high levels of support shown by Taiwan’s civil society and government for the protesters in Hong Kong. Once again, the existence of the semi-autonomous region as a “canary in the mineshaft” has been reaffirmed for the Taiwanese.