Hong Kong upheaval puts Beijing in a bind
Protesters take part in a rally to demand a complete withdrawal of an extradition bill in Hong Kong, China, June 16, 2019. EPA-EFE/JEROME FAVRE
By Natasha Khan
Hong Kong, China, Jun 17 (efe-epa).- An attempt by Hong Kong's leader to push a Beijing-backed extradition bill galvanized unprecedented resistance to tighter mainland control, presenting Chinese President Xi Jinping with the most high-profile challenge yet to his authority, according to a report by the Dow Jones Newswires supplied to EFE on Monday.
On Sunday, a massive crowd of protesters flooded central Hong Kong capping a week of demonstrations and at times violent confrontations between protesters and police.
Organizers estimated the crowd at nearly two million people and said it was the biggest rally Hong Kong has seen since China reclaimed sovereignty of the city from Britain in 1997, though police put the figures substantially lower.
The day before, Hong Kong Chief Executive Carrie Lam had indefinitely suspended the bill, and on Sunday apologized for mishandling it. The bill would have allowed extraditions to mainland China for trial in its more opaque justice system. But the abrupt about-face wasn't enough to satisfy the black-clad protesters, who shut down major city streets, demanding Lam permanently shelve the plan and resign.
Beijing is seeking to project an image of strength and stability as it grapples with an economic slowdown and a bitter trade conflict with the United States.
US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said Sunday that President Donald Trump might raise the Hong Kong issue with President Xi at the G20 meeting later this month.
China has drawn international outcry over its Muslim crackdown in Xinjiang and criticism of its 'One Belt, One Road' development program as a "debt trap". It is also under attack from US officials who accuse China's telecommunications giant Huawei of being a tool of the government.
Lam's "willingness to step backwards suggests that Beijing never wanted this problem, that it hurts their bigger issues" such as US trade negotiations and relations with Taiwan, said David Zweig, Director of Transnational China Consulting Limited.
Upheaval in Hong Kong – long a key to China's trade and business with the West – could seriously set back its long-term goal of fully incorporating the city without setting off civil unrest, and potentially risk inspiring similar actions in mainland China. President Xi's goal of reintegrating Taiwan into the mainland has also suffered a setback.
Lam, a 39-year civil servant, has said she initiated the bill herself after receiving emotional letters from a woman whose daughter was murdered in Taiwan. The suspect fled to Hong Kong, which doesn't have an extradition treaty with Taiwan.
Lam was also trying to fulfill a long-held wish from her political bosses in Beijing, who had for years wanted an extradition arrangement with Hong Kong. The city's Western-style justice system is firewalled from China's.
In combining the two issues, Lam underestimated how deep-rooted distrust was of Beijing among ordinary people, and even businessmen who she usually counted on as allies. While Hong Kong has periodically tussled with Beijing over the boundaries of its political and legal autonomy over the years, this time was different.
Facing the most widespread public backlash in 22 years of Chinese rule, Lam traveled across the border to Shenzhen on Friday to meet with mainland Chinese officials. She returned with a plan to try to restore order, while saving face.
Suspending the bill, rather than withdrawing it, allows China's government to characterize the protests in Hong Kong as a result of miscommunication and foreign incitement, rather than misguided policy-making. China's Foreign Ministry and state media have repeatedly accused the US and other Western governments of meddling in Hong Kong affairs.
The bill rejuvenated dissent in a society that was divided and demoralized after a failed mass street occupation demanding greater democracy from Beijing in 2014.
"This case shows that Hong Kong society has developed strong defenses against direct attacks on its existing freedoms by Beijing, and Beijing has not found a way to take existing rights away without risking large scale turmoil and bloodshed," said Ho-fung Hung, a professor of political economy at Johns Hopkins University.
George Magnus, author of the book "Red Flags: Why Xi's China Is in Jeopardy" and a research associate at Oxford University's China Centre, said that perhaps Beijing didn't want to go to the G20 summit later this month with a major social and political eruption in Hong Kong.
"They have handed temporary propaganda and political kudos to the dissenters," he said. Still, "you'd have to be naively optimistic to think this is the end game."
Beijing had anointed Lam, 62, to build bridges with the public, after her unpopular predecessor was tarnished by his role in quashing the 2014 protests. Lam, who was deputy back then, had previously run social welfare in the city and was seen to be a more sympathetic character to the public. When taking office, she pledged to heal social divisions.
People who work closely with her describe her as forceful and stubborn, a workaholic who sleeps only a few hours a night, determined to push through her agenda. Traveling around the city in a black sedan with only the region's bauhinia flower emblem as the license plate, she is known as a dedicated civil servant with a stern and can-do manner, while some have said that she's been accustomed to following her own instincts.
The extradition issue became a priority after a crime that occurred more than a year ago, when a Hong Kong man traveled to Taiwan with his pregnant girlfriend and allegedly strangled her there. Dumping her body in a pink suitcase in bushes, he fled back to Hong Kong, where authorities were at a loss on what to do. They couldn't send him back to Taiwan to face trial because there is no extradition agreement between the two jurisdictions.
After receiving five letters from the victim's mother, Lam has said felt she had to take action. Early in the year, she sat down at a weekly meeting at her harborfront offices, and told her advisors she wanted to change the law to enable the man's extradition as soon as July.
As Lam tells it, time was of the essence. The accused murderer was held by Hong Kong authorities on money laundering charges for allegedly using his slain girlfriend's credit card, and it was important to push the bill through before his release, government officials have said.
Citing that, Lam's administration made a series of decisions that further inflamed people: she skipped the usual public consultation, fast-tracked the legislation bypassing a lawmaker scrutiny committee and repeatedly brushed aside criticism of the bill.
People in Beijing briefed on the matter say that while Chinese officials embraced the idea of closer extradition cooperation, judicial and law-enforcement authorities hadn't regarded it as a priority. Chinese authorities have in the past circumvented Hong Kong's judicial processes in detaining booksellers and a businessman from the territory – moves indicating that mainland officials felt they could act in Beijing's interests without serious impediment, the people say.
In February, after the amendments to the bill were introduced, the public was given 20 days to respond, much less than is typical.
By early March, the government had received 4,500 responses, including objections from normally loyal business groups. Some local businessmen were privately concerned that their past mainland activities, such as gift-giving, tax evasion or outright bribery when such activities were common, may land them in trouble. The government cut a number of economic crimes from the list to pacify them.
Still, pro-democracy legislators seized on the law, which they saw as China breaking its promise to give Hong Kong legal autonomy until 2047, Dow Jones added in its report to EFE.
On May 9, when Lam gave a speech explaining the bill to lawmakers, opposition members interrupted her. A pro-democracy leader, Claudia Mo, slammed her hands on the table and proclaimed, "Liar! You're a liar!" before being kicked out of the meeting.
An extradition clause was deliberately left out of a constitutional agreement governing Hong Kong because the legal systems were deemed too far apart, according to Martin Lee, a lawyer involved in negotiations of the handover treaty between China and the United Kingdom.
China has a secretive, conviction-loaded justice system that differs in almost every way from Hong Kong's common law system, developed on the British model. Chinese officials also have a history of using its courts as a tool against political dissidents, as well as for mistreating suspects and denying access to lawyers. In Hong Kong, suspects are presumed innocent and entitled to trials that meet international standards of fairness.
Lee, the lawyer – known as the "Father of Democracy" in Hong Kong – traveled to Washington DC to raise the alarm. Lee met Pompeo.
Soon, US congressmen and British politicians issued more warnings that the bill was a threat to Hong Kong's status. In a June 5 meeting with the heads of international business groups who aired grievances over the bill, Lam told them that they didn't understand the law and what it meant, according to a person present.
By the end of April, a march against the bill attracted 130,000 people, organizers said, the most in recent years and signaling a tipping point in public sentiment. Lam interpreted the modest turnout as a sign she could press ahead, a person familiar with her thinking said.
"Hong Kong people are not stupid, they know when the ax is falling down," said Alvin Yeung, a pro-democracy legislator.
May Li, a 33-year-old financial services worker, said she was sitting on her couch one night in May scrolling through her Facebook news feed when she saw a stream of posts on the extradition bill, and was incensed, even though she normally doesn't follow political news.
"It was shocking," she said. She said she knew the extradition law wouldn't apply to her directly in that she was unlikely to be shipped off to China for trial; but she believed the impact would damage the open society around her: cowing dissidents, journalists and people's willingness to speak freely.
By the time an umbrella opposition group called a mass march for June 9, Li rallied a group of her friends to join. Thousands of others used social media and more secure channels such as Telegram to mobilize. Protestors on the day waved homemade placards that showed their fears: "It'll be Game Over for Hong Kong!" and "We've Been Betrayed."
Lam was undaunted. The mostly pro-Beijing legislature had set the bill on a fast track to start debate on Wednesday June 12, aiming to wrap up a vote by June 20. The news lit up Telegram, Facebook and Whatsapp groups.
With protesters swarming government offices Wednesday, legislators postponed the debate and police later moved in, raining down tear gas and firing rubber bullets, the biggest show of force under Chinese rule, to disperse the crowds and reclaim roads.
Lam issued a statement by video that was posted on the government website and played on local news that night, calling for calm. Privately, she was up late, in touch with her advisors through the night, associates say. She had lost control of the city.
Images of the scenes shocked Lam's advisors, who frantically called and messaged her to find a way to defuse the situation. Ronny Tong, a member of the cabinet who supports the bill, on Friday said he began urging the government to consider all their options to avoid further bloodshed.
"No matter who's right or who's wrong, the people out there disagree. We have to accept that," he said.
Lam canceled public appearances, including a long-scheduled interview at a Wall Street Journal tech conference in Hong Kong. By Friday, almost all pro-government voices all had the same message: there was a need to calm things down. By Saturday afternoon, Lam had announced she'd suspend the bill indefinitely to restore calm.
Still, she didn't back down completely, insisting the extradition bill was needed to stop the city becoming a safe haven for fugitives. She blamed public outrage on the government failing to explain it to them.
While some business groups welcomed the move, opposition groups weren't satisfied.
"Hong Kong people have such a high tolerance for adversity, but when you cross their bottom line their explosion is high," said activist Nathan Law, 25 years old. Law, the youngest lawmaker elected in the city who was later disqualified from office via a government-ordered purge in the courts, said in the past few years that tensions had been simmering to a boiling point.
Lam ended the week with none of her goals achieved, her relations with Hong Kong's people shattered and an anxious Beijing looking over her shoulder. Colleagues say the bill won't return until at least later next year, possibly never.
The alleged murderer could walk free as soon as this fall.