An extradition bill brings throngs of demonstrators to the streets of Hong Kong.
Opinion: Hong Kong Protest: Clashes Erupt Between Citizens and Police
Citizen-shot mobile phone footage of clashes in Hong Kong during what was largely a peaceful protest against government efforts to extradite citizens to mainland China. Image: Getty
It’s not easy to turn a million prosperous people into political dissidents. But that’s what China might have pulled off in Hong Kong.
Organizers say more than a million people poured into the territory’s streets Sunday to march against an amendment to the law being rammed through the legislative council, or LegCo. The amendment would allow extradition to China. Every marcher understands the consequence: China would have the power to go after critics in Hong Kong by having them arrested there and then brought to the mainland for trial and imprisonment.
It is the gravest threat to date to the autonomy promised in the 1984 Joint Declaration, which set out the terms for Hong Kong’s return to China from Britain. At its core, this promise was that China would respect the most important guarantee Hong Kong offers investors and citizens alike: You and your money are safe here, because we aren’t China.
It shouldn’t be surprising that the gravest threat to Hong Kong’s autonomy has now provoked the greatest public outcry. To put it in perspective, Sunday’s march drew twice as many as the 2003 demonstration that successfully derailed an earlier proposed law on treason, sedition and subversion.
For any protest anywhere, a million marchers would be extraordinary. In Hong Kong, it means 1 out of every 7 people. Yet unlike in 2003, this time the government has reaffirmed it intends to ignore public opinion. In any halfway representative society, Chief Executive Carrie Lam would have to resign. Instead, she insists the measure will move through LegCo on Wednesday as planned.
It’s a clarifying moment. China has been moving the goal posts on Hong Kong’s freedoms ever since laying its hands on the territory in 1997. Ms. Lam has now shown the world that the interests her government serves aren’t Hong Kong’s but Beijing’s.
Feelings are running high. Sunday’s protesters carried signs declaring “no evil law.” The American Chamber of Commerce warns that “there are too many uncertainties” and questions why the extradition amendment “should be rushed through.” In the Nikkei Asian Review, Jimmy Lai, the pro-democracy chairman of the media company Next Digital, warns it invites corruption: “Even without actual extradition, any time a Communist Party official wants something from a Hong Kong business leader, the businessman will have to weigh the costs of meeting that demand against the potential of extradition to the mainland.”
Kurt Tong, the U.S. consul general to Hong Kong, has been similarly frank. In a May interview that appears on the consulate’s webpage, the American envoy took a dig at the government’s reassurances that Hong Kongers had nothing to worry about. “Fear,” he said, “is an interesting emotion because you can tell someone don’t be afraid but that’s not going to make them not be concerned.”
Meanwhile, an official Chinese newspaper blames “foreign forces.” That’s rich, coming from a regime founded on the most noxious foreign import in Chinese history: Marxism. What Beijing really can’t abide is the idea of free Chinese people. And it’s especially galling in Hong Kong, where these freedoms are a legacy of British colonialism and its unique marriage of common law and open markets.
Hong Kongers would be happy to leave China alone. All they ask is for China to leave them alone too. But now what do they see? Their own Hong Kong police, in riot gear, using batons and tear gas and pepper spray on protesters.
This may be routine for police in mainland Chinese cities. But it has not been routine in Hong Kong. Little wonder that the University of Hong Kong’s most recent annual poll finds 62% of the Hong Kong public agreeing that they “have a responsibility to instigate the development of democracy in China.” Or that the younger Hong Kong people are, the more pessimistic they are about their city’s future.
Finally, there are those pesky one million. Today they are simply protesters exercising their speech rights. But if China’s leaders are really concerned about sedition, what they should be having nightmares about is what will happen when those one million Hong Kongers conclude that the only way to secure their own freedom is to work to overthrow the Communist Party regime in Beijing.
A short video put out by the organizers of Sunday’s rally suggests Hong Kongers won’t go quietly into the night. It features locals—including the leader of the territory’s Catholic church, Cardinal Joseph Zen—appearing blindfolded, on their knees, or with their wrists in chains. The new law, they say, would make fugitives of them all.
It ends with a little boy, representing the future of Hong Kong, removing his blindfold and saying, “I will opt to rebel.” If that becomes Hong Kong’s takeaway from this extradition fight, China’s Xi Jinping will rue the day he insisted on ramming it through.
Opinion: Hong Kong Protest Organizers Video Message to Authorities
Organizers of Sunday's protest in Hong Kong release a video of local people explaining how they would become fugitives from China under the proposed extradition law. Image: Civil Human Rights Front