By Cindy Cheng
In February 2018, a pregnant 20-year-old woman Poon Hiu-wing from Hong Kong was killed by her boyfriend Chan Tong-kai during a trip to Taiwan. The suspect, Chan Tong-kai, then 19, flew back to Hong Kong and has since been detained. Since then, the Hong Kong government has used Chan’s case to push for an amendment to extradition laws (The Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill 2019), which would allow for case-by-case transfers to jurisdictions beyond Hong Kong where the crime was committed without asking Hong Kong’s legislature, the Legislative Council (LegCo) for permission.[i] As presented by the government, this amendment is intended to close the loophole that allowed criminals like Chan to avoid extradition to other countries or other parts of China. Chief Executive Carrie Lam Cheng Yuet-ngor first introduced the bill in February 2019 and hoped that LegCo could pass the bill before lawmakers’ break for summer.
Regardless of how the Lam Administration packages the amendment, residents in Hong Kong believe this amendment, if passed by LegCo, will make it much easier for mainland authorities to bring people in Hong Kong to the justice system on the mainland. In February 2019, the Hong Kong business community proposed that certain white-collar crimes should be exempted from the bill as the two systems treat some offenses differently. In March, the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong expressed “serious reservations” about the amendments. On April 3, the Hong Kong government formally proposed the bill before LegCo. On April 28, opponents of the bill staged a major protest of around 130,000 people, according to the organizers (police estimated under 23,000 participants). On April 29, Chan was sentenced for money laundering, not murder, for 29 months, and he could be released as early as this October due to good behavior.[ii]
In May, Taiwan declared that even if the bill was passed, it would not seek Mr. Chan’s extradition as this would imply that Taiwan is part of the PRC.[iii] On May 7, the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) reported that the amendments could violate key provisions of the US-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992. On May 11, the pro-government camp and the pro-democracy legislators each set up their own committees to scrutinize the bill, but they failed to reach a compromise for the bill to go forward.[iv]
On June 6, opposition organizers claimed that up to 3,000 legal professionals in Hong Kong took the streets in a silent protest. On June 9, the first Sunday protest, more than one million protesters, all wearing white T-shirts, filled a two-mile central avenue. Similar protests took place in 29 cities around the world such as New York, San Francisco, Washington DC, Chicago, Vancouver, Toronto, Ottawa, London, Berlin, Tokyo, Taipei, Paris, and Copenhagen.[v] On June 10, Lam stated that the amendment was not Beijing’s idea. The debate on the bill was supposed to be held on Wednesday, June 12. However, many students and residents protested outside the building of LegCo, and the police used tear gas and rubber bullets to disperse the crowd. More than 100 local businesses joined a labor strike. On June 14, Lam traveled to Shenzhen, where she consulted with senior Chinese officials and reached the consensus that the legislation should be delayed indefinitely given the public’s strong reaction.[vi] On June 15, Lam decided to suspend the amendment to the proposed extradition law. On the same day, a protester hanging a banner to the Pacific Place, a huge shopping center in the city’s core and the terminus of marches, fell from the roof and died.<span “=””>[vii]
On the second Sunday, June 16, a record number of demonstrators took to the city’s streets. On the same day, U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said President Trump might raise the Hong Kong issue with President Xi at the G-20 meeting. On June 18, Lam spoke during a press conference to apologize for her handling of the issue and dividing society. She hoped for another chance when asked if she would step down. On the next day, the Civil Human Rights Front (CHRF), which organized two mass rallies in the past two Sundays, said people wouldn’t accept anything less than a complete withdrawal of the proposal. CHRF met with pan-democratic lawmakers to discuss their next moves of offering support to the students in their protest. On June 20, student unions threatened to escalate their fight against the already suspended but not withdrawn extradition bill if the government continues to ignore their demands. Surprisingly, no major protest took place on the third Sunday. On Monday, June 24, downtown government offices were reopened. Fewer than 200 people marched from the LegCo to the Revenue Tower. In a briefing in Beijing, Assistant Minister of Foreign Affairs Zhang Jun said the summit was a platform for the economy and that China’s focus will be on trade and finance. Hong Kong will not be discussed as an issue at the G-20 summit.[viii] CHRF convener Jimmy Sham Tsz-kit said the group was making preparations for staging a large-scale march on July 1.[ix]
July 1 is the 22nd anniversary of the handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China. Hong Kong residents marched peacefully in the streets. It was estimated that 550,000 people took part in the pro-democracy march. In the evening, hundreds of young protesters broke into the LegCo building. There was surprisingly no police presence. Angry demonstrators went from floor to floor and vandalized the offices. Around midnight, police suddenly appeared and used pepper spray and batons to disperse demonstrators. Lam addressed protesters in a speech by promising to change the style of governance. Alan Hoo, vice chairman of the pro-Beijing Liberal Party, said the police made a point by leaving protesters to take the building, but protesters trashed the Legislative Chamber. It was vandalism. Protesters also issued the “Admiralty Declaration,” a list of 10 demands including universal suffrage, the resignation of top officials associated with the extradition bill, and an investigation into police brutality during protests.[x]
Why are Hong Kong students and residents so upset by the proposed amendment?
“One country, two systems” is a constitutional principle proposed by Deng Xiaoping to guarantee that Hong Kong and Macau retain their own economic, governmental, and judicial system. Hong Kong’s Basic Law established that the chief executive should be elected by universal election “upon nomination by a broadly representative nominating committee.”[xi] However, after Hong Kong was returned to China by Britain in 1997, the pace of democratization in Hong Kong has been painfully slow. What angered many young Hong Kong students even more was Beijing’s decision not to honor the pledge of allowing direct election of the chief executive during the last election. Carrie Lam, like all her three predecessors, was elected by an election committee whose members were carefully chosen by Beijing.
Another case that dampened down the trust of Hong Kong citizens to the Central government was the disappearance of five staff at Causeway Bay Books – an independent publisher and bookstore – from October to December 2015. Under Hong Kong’s own legal system, rights such as freedom of assembly and freedom of speech are protected. These booksellers were taken from Hong Kong or elsewhere without due process. Hong Kong residents fear that political dissidents and civil rights activists might risk being arrested because of fabricated charges in Hong Kong and being sent to mainland China to face unfair trials. They are concerned that President Xi is chipping away HK’s autonomy and freedom of speech.
Hong Kong’s privileged economic status is also at risk with the erosion of its rule of law. Besides Hong Kong residents, the law would also apply to foreign residents and even people passing through for business or as tourists. Beijing might ask Hong Kong authority to arrest and extradite visitors who are critics of and deemed a threat to Beijing. Sean King, a former US diplomat in Asia and currently senior vice president for the consultancy firm Park Strategies, said he would think carefully about visiting again anytime soon if it becomes law.[xii]
Why is Washington concerned?
U.S. government, to the displeasure of Beijing, has always been paying attention to issues related to the human rights situation in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and Tibet. The only bipartisan issue that can unite both aisles of Congress is alleged human rights violation of China. As protests against the proposed bill escalate in Hong Kong, U.S. Congress U.S. Representative James McGovern (D-MA), Chairman of the Congressional-Executive Commission on China, and U.S. Senator Marco Rubio (R-FL) issued a joint statement expressing their concerns about the proposed bill. As the supporter of the statement, Nancy Pelosi, the Speaker of the House, said that if the “horrific” extradition bill passes, Congress would have to reevaluate whether Hong Kong was “sufficiently autonomous” to justify its current special status in trade with America.
In mid-June, U.S. lawmakers reintroduced a bipartisan bill known as the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act designed to defend the city’s autonomy. This bill was first introduced in 2017 by Senators Tom Cotton and Marco Rubio and sponsored by Republican Senator Ted Cruz and Democratic Senator Ed Markey. The bill is also sponsored by Republican Jim Risch, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, who said he is considering holding a vote on the bill in his panel. In the House, the effort is led by Rules Committee Chairman Jim McGovern, a Democrat, and Republican Chris Smith, a longtime critic of China. This bill stipulates an annual certification of Hong Kong’s autonomy. And it guarantees visa applications for those arrested or detained after joining nonviolent protest activities for pro-democracy advocacy in Hong Kong. It also enables the Secretary of Commerce to examine if the Hong Kong government is enforcing U.S. export regulations regarding sensitive dual-use items and sanctions especially in relation to Iran and North Korea.[xiv]
In addition to the introduction of the new bill, U.S. Congress passed the U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act in 1992. This bill established that the U.S. would continue treating Hong Kong as a special economic zone after its handover to China in 1997 given that Hong Kong will retain the current status of its legal, social, and economic systems until at least the year 2047. This act allows Hong Kong citizens to apply for U.S. visas independently. Hong Kong citizens who do receive a visa are normally issued with “10-years multiple-entry combination B1/B2 visas.” The holders of HK passports can travel more easily to the U.S. than those from the mainland. Chinese citizens have to apply for EVUS (Electronic Visa Update System) to update their biological and other information from their visa application every two years. The U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act also permits free exchange between the U.S. and Hong Kong currencies, as Hong Kong’s note-issuing banks peg the domestic currency against the U.S. dollar at an internal fixed rate of HK$7.8 = US$1. Moreover, this act grants Hong Kong the right to purchase sensitive technologies from the U.S. under the U.S. export controls. The trade war between the U.S. and China does not affect the U.S.-Hong Kong free trade because the US-Hong Kong Policy Act states that Hong Kong is treated separately from China in trade, export, and economics. Some mainland companies even established their shell companies in Hong Kong to take advantage of its advanced technologies imported from the U.S.
How will the confrontation between citizens and HKG impact China?
First, it will make mainland-Hong Kong relationship more tenuous while China is trying to integrate Hong Kong with China. The amendment to the extradition bill will weaken, even destroy, the credibility of the doctrine of “one country, two systems,” which China is trying to apply to the resolution of the Taiwan unification issue. Hong Kong has always been China’s outpost to the West since the founding of PRC. Although Shanghai and other cities are vying for the same position, no mainland city could match Hong Kong in its free flow of information, rule of law with a fiercely independent judiciary in operation and a population with a very high degree of education. As Beijing is pushing for the yuan’s internationalization, Hong Kong can lead the way of using Chinese currency in trade and finance as a top offshore yuan trading center.
Second, it will make HK less competitive as American and other Western companies consider relocating to other more international and open cities in the region (i.e. Singapore). Hong Kong and Singapore are competing to be the best Asian financial center. “The real concern here, which we’ve seen slight signs of, is that people are moving their companies and their money in greater numbers to Singapore,” said Tara Joseph, president of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong. Fred Hu, founder of the investment firm Primavera Capital Group and former chairman of Goldman Sachs’s Great China business, said the perceived erosion of independent judiciary and individual freedom could undermine investor confidence. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, also asked Washington to reconsider if Hong Kong is still exempted from some of the trade and technology limits imposed to the mainland.[xvi]
Hong Kong also accumulates a huge amount of private wealth with more than $100 million of 853 tycoons, just over two times in Singapore, according to Credit Suisse.[xvii] One tycoon has started transferring more than $ 100 million from a local Citibank account to a Citibank account in Singapore, according to an advisor involved in the transactions. But Fraser Howie, an independent analyst, argued that Hong Kong enjoyed the geographical proximity to China so that it is unlikely for other financial hubs to take the place of Hong Kong. Hong Kong Stock Exchange CEO Charles Li also said Hong Kong citizens still enjoy the freedom of speech and assembly. The Hong Kong government still feels its own people’s sentiments and listens to them. Thus, Li holds a confident view that many Chinese companies listed abroad will decide to return.[xviii]
Third, the U.S. always maintains huge economic and political interests in Hong Kong and keeps promoting its prosperity, autonomy, and way of life, which are stated in the U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992. The proposed extradition bill would possibly violate the U.S.-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992, resulting in the denial of Hong Kong’s special status. Hong Kong is a major destination for U.S. legal and accounting services. In 2018, the largest U.S. bilateral trade-in-goods surplus was with Hong Kong at $31.1 billion. According to the U.S. State Department, 1300 American firms are in Hong Kong. Passing the bill will diminish Hong Kong’s reputation as a safe place for U.S. and international business transactions, dragging Hong Kong into the Sino-American trade conflict. About 85,000 U.S. citizens living in Hong Kong also face risks. This bill could also affect the U.S.-Hong Kong extradition treaty.[xix] Some members of LegCo visited the U.S. to lobby for the preservation of the act as they see Beijing’s assertion undermining the Sino-British Joint Declaration.
Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi said that it was “highly alarming that Western forces have been stirring up trouble and provoking a confrontation in an attempt to undermine Hong Kong’s peace and stability.”[xxi] Washington may want to use Hong Kong as leverage by pressuring President Xi on the trade deal. Pro-democracy activists did urge Group of 20 leaders at the summit in Osaka to pressure Chinese President Xi Jinping to defend the autonomy of Hong Kong and freedom enjoyed by the Hong Kong residents.[xxii]
There is no denying that Hong Kong protesters want to repeat the success in 2003 when up to 500,000 people took to the streets that resulted in a controversial security bill being scrapped.[xxiii] However, this movement might also end up like the Umbrella Revolution in 2014, which failed to achieve universal suffrage after student protesters occupied the city streets for 79 days.
[i] “Hong Kong Man at Centre of Extradition Legal Row Jailed for 29 Months, May Be out as Early as October.” Hong Kong Free Press HKFP, 29 Apr. 2019.
[ii] Meick, Ethan. Hong Kong’s Proposed Extradition Bill Could Extend Beijing’s Coercive Reach: Risks for the United States. US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 2019, pp. 1–8, Hong Kong’s Proposed Extradition Bill Could Extend Beijing’s Coercive Reach: Risks for the United States.
[iii] United States, Congress, Congressional Research Service, and Michael F Martin. “Hong Kong’s Proposed Extradition Law Amendments.” Hong Kong’s Proposed Extradition Law Amendments, 2019.
[iv] “Timeline: Key Dates for Hong Kong Extradition Bill and Protests.” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 1 July 2019
[v] Mak, Elise. “Massive Protests May Do Little to Stop HK’s New Extradition Law.” Harbour Times, 10 June 2019
[vi] Victor, Daniel, and Tiffany May. “The Murder Case That Lit the Fuse in Hong Kong.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 15 June 2019
[vii] Mak, Elise. “Hong Kong’s Moment.” Harbour Times, 17 June 2019
[viii] “China Says It Will Not Allow Talk of Hong Kong Protests at G-20.” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 24 June 2019
[ix] “Students Vow to Escalate Protests If Govt Ignores Their Demands.” EJ Insight, 20 June 2019
[x] “Hundreds of Hong Kong Protesters Storm Government Building over China Extradition Bill.” CNN, Cable News Network, 1 July 2019
[xi] “Hong Kong’s Democracy Debate.” BBC News, BBC, 18 June 2015
[xii] Solomon, Feliz. “How Hong Kong’s Fight for Freedom Is a Global Battle.” Time, Time, 13 June 2019
[xiii] Riddell, Malcolm. “Hong Kong Protests: ‘If China Doesn’t Back down, the U.S. Will Make It Pay Dearly.’.” China Debate, 15 June 2019
[xiv] Wasson, Erik. “U.S. Lawmakers Begin Push to Support Hong Kong Demonstrators.” Bloomberg.com, Bloomberg, 13 June 2019
[xv] “The Utter Importance of the US-Hong Kong Policy Act.” EJ Insight, 1 Feb. 2019
[xvi] Stevenson, Alexandra. “As Protesters Fill Hong Kong’s Streets, Businesses Are Alarmed, Too.” The New York Times, The New York Times, 12 June 2019
[xvii] Torode, Greg. “Exclusive: Hong Kong Tycoons Start Moving Assets Offshore as Fears…” Reuters, Thomson Reuters, 17 June 2019
[xviii] Gracemzshao. “Hong Kong Stock Exchange CEO: Many Chinese Companies Listed Abroad Will ‘Come Home’.” CNBC, CNBC, 1 July 2019
[xix] Meick, Ethan. Hong Kong’s Proposed Extradition Bill Could Extend Beijing’s Coercive Reach: Risks for the United States. US-China Economic and Security Review Commission, 2019, pp. 1–8, Hong Kong’s Proposed Extradition Bill Could Extend Beijing’s Coercive Reach: Risks for the United States.
[xx] “The Utter Importance of the US-Hong Kong Policy Act.” EJ Insight, 1 Feb. 2019
[xxi] Yu, Verna. “They Will Definitely Take Revenge: How China Could Respond to the Hong Kong Protests.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 29 June 2019
[xxii] Press, Associated. “The Latest: China Hopes US Can Meet It Halfway in G20 Talks.” The Washington Post, WP Company, 28 June 2019
[xxiii] Hughes, Helier Cheung & Roland. “Why Are There Protests in Hong Kong? All the Context You Need.” BBC News, BBC, 6 July 2019