From Calum Drysdale
The Hong Kong leader, Chief Executive Carrie Lam, has formally withdrawn the controversial extradition bill that provoked the widespread popular protests that have gripped the former British colony since June.
The bill, which would have allowed for the extradition of persons who had committed crimes in countries with which Hong Kong had no formal extradition agreement, was introduced after a Hong Kong resident committed murder in Taiwan, but could not be extradited, due to a lack of an extradition treaty.
However, opponents of the bill claimed that it would be used to extradite Hong Kong residents to mainland China, where the judiciary is vulnerable to political pressure.
In a pre-recorded televised statement released on Wednesday 4th September, Lam announced that the bill would be withdrawn “to fully allay public concerns.” This marks an embarrassing step down for Lam, who had already put the bill on hold, and who had maintained throughout that the protests were been “riots”.
The bill was allegedly introduced in response to the case of 19-year-old Hong Kong resident Chan Tong-kai, who, in early 2018, allegedly killed his pregnant girlfriend, Poon Hiu-wing, in Taiwan, then returned to Hong Kong. Chan admitted to the Hong Kong police that he killed Poon, but the police were unable to charge him for murder or extradite him to Taiwan, because no agreement was in place.
The bill is aimed to create a mechanism to establish mutual legal assistance relationships between Hong Kong and any place outside Hong Kong. This would have allowed the extradition of Chan to Taiwan, and, according to officials, prevented Hong Kong from becoming a haven for criminals. While the bill would have applied to about 170 countries, the controversy arose over the amendment to a law governing jurisdiction between Hong Kong and mainland China.
This law, dating back to 1987, before the handover of Hong Kong to China, stated that any inhabitant of Hong Kong or China must be tried at the place of offence. As Hong Kong is part of China under the ‘One Country, Two Systems’ policy, must, adhering to mainland policy, treat Taiwan as part of the mainland. Therefore, to extradite Chan Tong-Kai, this law had to be amended to allow for extraditions from Hong Kong to the rest of the mainland.
Opponents of the bill feared that China would use this bill to demand the extradition of people who had committed political crimes on the mainland, such as publishing material that was critical of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership. As Hong Kong is home to many such dissidents, this was a serious cause for concern.
The bill was announced in February 2019, and immediately provoked a number of protests by democracy and civil rights activists, that grew in size, between March and July. As the protests grew in size, the police were criticised for their violent and heavy-handed approach to handling them, Carrie Lam seemed to give in slightly. While there had previously been a fixed determination to force the bill through the largely pro-Chinese controlled LegCo, Lam announced on the 15th June that the bill would be suspended, but not withdrawn. This came after a marked change in police tactics on 12th June that only had the effect of further incensing the protesters. Lam’s statement did not have the desired effect, and the demands of the protesters became broader.
Rather than simply aiming to force the complete withdrawal of the extradition bill, the protesters issued a list of five demands. They insisted on, not just the withdrawal of the extradition bill, but also the characterisation of the protests as a riot, the release and exoneration of all arrested protesters, the establishment of an independent inquiry into police conduct and use of force during the protests, and finally, the resignation of Carrie Lam and the implementation of universal suffrage for Legislative Council and Chief Executive elections.
On July 1, the anniversary of the hand-over of Hong Kong to China, there was another demonstration. The protest was largely peaceful, but some protesters split off from the main march to storm the Legislative Council (LegCo) complex.
At around 9pm, hundreds of protesters, using a rudimentary battering ram made of a shopping trolley, managed to break through a glass door and a metal barrier to reach the LegCo Chamber. Once inside, the protesters spray painted slogans criticising the Hong Kong and Chinese governments, such as, “It was you who taught me peaceful marches did not work,” and “There are no rioters, only tyrannical rule.”
They also waved a colonial Hong Kong flag from during the period of British control and defaced the Hong Kong emblem on the wall to remove any reference to China. At the same time, however, the protesters made sure not to damage books in the library or any other cultural objects. They were dispersed at around midnight by police using tear gas and batons. The police were criticised for their absence during the breaking down of the doors, a move that seemed to have been deliberate, to make protesters seem violent and aggressive.
This government claims it has been undermined by the broadness of the protesters’ backgrounds. Rather than simply being a collection of ‘splittists’ who want Hong Kong to gain independence from China, the protesters have included lots of previously non-political citizens who have mobilised to criticise the government. Examples of this include pensioners who have volunteered to act as human shields for the younger protesters. Marches and confrontations with the police are now often led by old people in wheelchairs, who feel strongly about the heavy-handed use of rubber bullets and tear gas by the police.
Another example of the desperation of the people of Hong Kong has been the four suicide victims who have, all in letters, blamed the unelected and unresponsive government and the insistence of officials to force through the extradition bill for the decision to take their own lives.
However, despite all this pressure, up until yesterday, the Hong Kong administration has remained firm in refusing to concede to any of the demands. While evidence had emerged of growing strain on the governments of both Hong Kong and China, no action had been taken, despite threats by the mainland that they could deploy the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) troops garrisoned in Hong Kong to help the Hong Kong police, or even declare martial law.
It remains to be seen if the withdrawal of the extradition bill will stop the protests, but general opinion is that it is ‘too little, too late’. The protests have attracted such large crowds (2 million people out of a population of 7.3 million attended the 16th June March) that it is unlikely that the anger will just disappear. While some protesters will feel that their aim has been achieved, many others will see the withdrawal as the government as flinching and, buoyed on, will want to push even harder for the fulfillment of their other demands.