Whither Hong Kong?

Over the past week, Hong Kong has witnessed its largest demonstrations since the Occupy Central movement in 2014. The protests have centered around amendments introduced in Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (Legco) and supported by Chief Executive Carrie Lam to Hong Kong’s extradition law. While the past two decades have seen multiple large protests in Hong Kong, the scale and breadth of the ongoing clash reflect a deepening discomfort many in Hong Kong feel being under mainland-Chinese rule.

Q1: What is controversial about the amendments?

A1: Hong Kong currently has extradition treaties with 20 countries and provides legal assistance to 32 countries. Two laws, the Fugitive Offenders Ordinance and the Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Ordinance, were introduced in 1997 right before Hong Kong was handed over to China to regulate the practices of extradition and legal assistance with other jurisdictions. The two laws specifically deny the applicability of those laws to mainland China because of deep concerns about the limits of rule of law in China and the desire to implement the “one country, two systems” of ensuring Hong Kong can maintain its internal social, economic and legal system until 2047. Under the current legal framework, Hong Kong’s government is legally bound not to respond to extradition requests from mainland China.

The bill, introduced and sponsored by 22 Legco members, seeks to amend these two ordinances. The amendments will change Hong Kong’s government’s extradition practice to a case-by-case scenario when such a request is made by a jurisdiction, including mainland China, that does not have extradition or legal assistance agreements with the city. It will also modify the list of crimes that are covered under the current ordinances.

When the amendments were officially introduced in April, there was a strong backlash from the legal and business communities. The original amendments included 46 categories of extraditable crimes, among which were commercial crimes related to bankruptcy, tax, and trading. In a revised bill, the government removed nine crimes on commerce and trade. The final proposed version covers 37 crimes that are eligible for extradition if the offenses are punishable by more than seven years under Hong Kong law.

The bill still sparked controversy over whether it would politicize extradition from Hong Kong, and whether it would threaten Hong Kong’s judicial independence. Over the years, Beijing has gradually increased its influence over the special administrative region (SAR), an effort which triggered concern from within Hong Kong and internationally. The forced disappearance of the Hong Kong-based bookseller, Gui Minhai, from Thailand and his reappearance in China generated grave fear over the extent to which China chased after its fugitives. If the amendments are passed, there would be no legal barrier for any government, including the Chinese government, to ask Hong Kong’s government for assistance with extradition. Although the amendments attempt to introduce protection against fears of abuse and politicization through measures, such as prima faci evidence reviews by Hong Kong’s court, the measures are still seen as insufficient given the great distrust people have over China’s opaque legal system.

Protesters have made two demands: that the amendments be withdrawn, and that Carrie Lam resign.

The bill has also generated concern from foreign countries because if passed, the city’s government will have the power to decide what type of action to take against foreigners who are in Hong Kong but wanted by China. The United States and the European Union have both expressed their concerns over the safety of their citizens residing in or transiting through Hong Kong if such law is passed.

Q2: How do the anti-extradition protests compare to the Occupy Central movement in 2014?

A2: In 2014, the Occupy Central movement lasted nearly 80 days, and the organizers estimated that more than a million people participated, disrupting traffic and regular business activities in and around Central, Admiralty, Causeway Bay, and Mongkok. Thousands of police were deployed to limit protester movements and disperse them. The police did not use rubber bullets or beanbag rounds but instead used tear gas and pepper spray.

Since the extradition amendments were introduced, there have been sporadic protests on Hong Kong’s streets. As the date for the second debate on the amendments neared, protest activity grew substantially. On June 6, thousands of lawyers dressed in black staged a silent march against the bill. On June 12, the day on which the second debate was initially scheduled to take place, a significantly larger crowd blocked Harcourt Road and Lung Wo Road near the site of Legco. Due to these large protests, the bill’s second debate was postponed. The police estimated 240,000 protesters attended, but the organizers estimated the crowd to be more than a million. At one point, up to 5,000 police officers were deployed to disperse the protesters. Five regional response contingents, which were set up after the Occupy Central movement, were also deployed in rotation. This time, in addition to tear gas and pepper spray, the police also used rubber bullets and beanbag rounds to disperse the protesters.

Q3: What policy tools does the United States have on the issue of Hong Kong?

A3: The United States regulates its bilateral relations with Hong Kong under The United States-Hong Kong Policy Act, which was passed in 1992. This act allowed the U.S. government to treat Hong Kong as a different entity from mainland China on issues of commerce and immigration following the 1997 handover.

The law has a provision that empowers the U.S. president to terminate the act through an executive order, under consultations with Congress, “whenever the President determines that Hong Kong is not sufficiently autonomous to justify” the special relationship. If the law is repealed, Hong Kong will lose its status as a separate economic entity from China in the eyes of the United States. As a result, Hong Kong could potentially be subject to the same treatment as China on matters about trade, export control and cultural exchanges with the United States. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi issued a statement through her office on June 11, which reads that Congress will reconsider whether Hong Kong will remain sufficiently autonomous if the amendments are passed. Speaker Pelosi expressed support for the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act, a bipartisan bill that will be introduced soon.

Q4: What are the stances of Beijing and the Hong Kong government?

A4: Hong Kong’s Chief Executive Carrie Lam made a televised statement after the large June 12 protest, calling the activities “a blatant, organized riot, and in no way an act of loving Hong Kong.” The term “riot” carries more severity than “protest” or “peaceful assembly” but does not rise to the level of “rebellion,” the term Beijing uses to describe the 1989 protest movement. She also has argued that the government will move forward with these amendments regardless of the opposition.

Beijing has stood firm behind Hong Kong’s government and its chief executive by also referring to the demonstrations as a “riot.” Chinese Foreign Ministry’s spokesperson Geng Shuang repeatedly stated that China’s central government supported Hong Kong’s government’s effort to amend the two ordinances, and secondly, China firmly opposed interference in Hong Kong’s internal legislation from any foreign country or organization. That said, Beijing has not given any indication that it is prepared to get directly involved should the protests continue or expand.

Q5: What are the possible outcomes?

A5: It is hard to say. Observers expect protests to resume on Sunday, June 16, but it does not look as if in the short term Legco will withdraw the amendments and Carrie Lam is unlikely to resign. However, the president of Legco, Andrew Leung, issued a circular on June 13 and momentarily postponed further debate on the bill. No new date has yet been set. Leung previously indicated that only 61 hours would be allocated for debate. It is still possible that the bill could be passed soon. But if the bill could not be debated and voted on before July 11, Legco would go into its three-month summer recess, and no bill would be considered until they meet again in October.

Beyond the bill itself, it remains to be seen whether social divisions within Hong Kong will intensify, or if a greater consensus about its relationship with mainland China will emerge. That debate will be heavily affected by how Beijing responds. It could continue its current approach of gradual expansion of its influence in Hong Kong or pick up the pace of such activities, or reconsider its approach and do more to provide reassurance to Hong Kong residents and the international community.

Mingda Qiu is a research associate with the Freeman Chair in China Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Scott Kennedy is a senior adviser with the CSIS Freeman Chair and director of the Project on Chinese Business and Political Economy.

Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).

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Scott Kennedy
Senior Adviser and Trustee Chair in Chinese Business and Economics

Mingda Qiu