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China pulling the strings in Hong Kong

Dang Yuan
June 16, 2019

The message of the mass protests in Hong Kong is clear: China's interference is not welcome. But city leaders aren't listening. The basic principle of "one country, two systems" is in jeopardy, says Dang Yuan.

A Hong Kong protester in chains
Image: imago images / ZUMA Press

On Sunday, hundreds of thousands of people — nearly 2 million, by some estimates — took to the streets of Hong Kong once again, demanding that a contentious extradition law be scrapped and for Chief Executive Carrie Lam to step down.

The irate protesters aren't only marching against the proposed bill, but also the continued Chinese takeover of their city. It's a battle to preserve Hong Kong's identity.

As a former British crown colony, Hong Kong's Basic Law constitution guarantees civil rights and freedoms under a Western-style framework. It has a fundamentally democratic value system that encompasses the rule of law, freedom of the press and freedom of expression. All of these terms are foreign in mainland China.

China's reformist leader Deng Xiaoping came up the guiding principle for Hong Kong's return to China in 1997: "One country, two systems." China was tasked with handling foreign policy and defense, but Hong Kong would be able to continue governing itself.

Special status?

In theory, Hong Kong continues to enjoy that special status today. At heart, the city is completely different from mainland China: it has a separate political system, a different currency, a distinct dialect, different electrical sockets — they even drive on the opposite side of the road. And Hong Kongers are proud of that.

However, the political reality has been otherwise for a long time now, and the proposed extradition bill was just the catalyst for the massive protests in recent days. The resentment of Beijing's constant interference is enormous.

The Chinese ambassador to the United Kingdom has denied that Beijing pushed for the bill to be passed — but there are many indications that this is precisely the case. As the bill was being addressed at the Legislative Council, speaking time was limited and the proceedings were rushed. But what kind of government can ignore the fact that every seventh voter has taken to the streets to protest?

But Carrie Lam's administration has, by and large, remained obstinate. And Saturday's announcement that the bill's legislation would be suspended for the time being did nothing to appease protesters.

True, under the current law a Hong Kong man who admitted to Hong Kong police that he killed his girlfriend during a trip to Taiwan cannot be extradited to face punishment. But to lift the general ban on extradition to mainland China, Taiwan and Macao rather than making decisions on a case-by-case is disproportionate, and oversteps the mark.

Read more: Hong Kong 'discontent is really about China' 

Regime critics face prosecution

In the end, who stands to gain the most from the extradition bill?

One only has to think back to the disappearance of several booksellers from Causeway Bay Books, which sold tell-all non-fiction books banned on the mainland. Among them was Lee Bo, who disappeared without a trace in Hong Kong in late 2015, only to reappear months later in Chinese custody. According to Beijing, he left voluntarily. But Lee did not have any travel documents with him, and Hong Kong border authorities had no official record of his departure.

What about the multibillionaire and entrepreneur Xiao Jianhua, who, according to a report 2017 Financial Times report was approached in front of his Hong Kong luxury apartment by "five or six plain-clothed Chinese public security agents who then took him and two of his bodyguards to the mainland." Xiao's whereabouts, and any accusations against him, are still unknown.

Hong Kong's former lawmakers deliberately established their grounds for why suspected criminals cannot be deported to mainland China: the judiciary there is not independent, and fair trials are impossible.

If the extradition bill is passed, anti-China activists and regime critics living in exile could be arrested in Hong Kong, even if they're only transiting through its airport. Eventually, the same law would apply to anyone living in Hong Kong, making the city indistinguishable from any other city on the mainland.

Hong Kong's young protesters

Democracy falls by the wayside

According the city's Basic Law, Hong Kong may retain its freedoms for 50 years after the handover from the UK in 1997. But 22 years later, it seems real democracy has already fallen by the wayside.

The direct election of all seats of the Legislative Council and the position of chief executive — an act expressly stipulated in the Basic Law — has been shelved.

In fact, Beijing is pulling the strings. The chief executive is elected by a committee in which pro-Chinese officials have an absolute majority. And in the city's present parliament, only 35 of the 70 seats have been directly elected. In the current legislative period, pro-democracy groups hold just over a quarter of the seats. Younger generations are becoming increasingly fed up with Beijing's short leash, and new parties are emerging — demanding independence.

Beijing has so far remained silent. In mainland China, censorship of the demonstrations in Hong Kong has been so stringent that not one report has made it through. In the eyes of China's communist leadership, on paper the principle of "one country, two systems" is perfectly fine — you can write whatever you like on paper.

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