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Freedom and Fears in Hong Kong

Protests in Hong Kong began in response to an extradition bill proposed to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (Legco), and clashes between protestors and police are increasingly violent over the past four months. In response to the violence, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, announced the formal withdrawal of the bill in September. Residents of Hong Kong have long feared either legal infringement of Hong Kong’s autonomy or Beijing’s military’s encroachment into Hong Kong proper to control the situation. Despite the extradition bill being withdrawn, it has already acted as a catalyst for mobilization, and these fears remain despite the bill no longer being on the table. 

Firstly, the bill fed fears that the Chinese government was attempting to undermine the Hong Kong legal system. The Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill would have allowed for suspects to be to be extradited on a case-by case or one-off basis under the authority of the chief executive to Mainland China for trial without Legco or courts having much say in the process. Legco is the unicameral legislature of Hong Kong which enacts, amends or repeals laws; examines and approves budgets, taxation and public expenditure. Additionally, the Legco endorses the appointment and removal of the judges of the Court of Final Appeal and the Chief Judge of the High Court, and has the power to impeach the Chief Executive.

Beijing’s support of the amendment and response to the protesters served to add fuel to these preexisting fears of Beijing infringing on the political system of Hong Kong. While Beijing denies any connection to the proposal of the amendment, the extradition bill would have granted Beijing a means to involve itself with the governance of Hong Kong by allowing Beijing to target political activists and critics of Beijing by requesting extradition orders under false charges.

Secondly, the militaristic response to the protests by Beijing also contributed to fears of infringement on Hong Kong’s autonomy. The principle of “one country, two systems” grants Hong Kong a considerable degree of political and legal autonomy. However, many citizens are worried that the special freedoms granted to Hong Kong are eroding. In part, this is because President Xi Jinping has been cracking down on dissent since his ascent to power. The extradition bill provided a locus for people to mobilize around to express concerns about Beijing’s interference in Hong Kong’s political autonomy.

More than the legal infringement, Beijing’s military response is the most concerning to Hong Kong protesters. Chinese military and police are not permitted to operate inside of Hong Kong. Yet, the Chinese military and police moved into Hong Kong days before the anti-government protests in August and September. Though the movement of the military in August was portrayed as regular troop movements, the Chinese governments condemnation of the protests as approaching terrorism makes it clear that Beijing is willing to use force. Whether or not the mainland government intervenes, the protestors are likely to see any action taken as proof of their fears.

The movement, though it lacks clear leadership, has moved beyond merely protesting extradition. Instead, the protests have become a forum for the citizens to express all manner of apprehensions about the future direction of the region. The expansion of the protestors demands to include “withdrawal of the “riot” description used about the protests, amnesty for all arrested protesters, an independent inquiry into alleged police brutality, and universal suffrage for the elections of the chief executive and Legislative Council” indicate the breadth of political concerns plaguing Hong Kong about human rights and democracy.

It is unclear what the results of the protests will be. However, with no sign of slowing momentum the situation is likely to continue to grow and do so violently. The Hong Kong government has already declared emergency powers with no effect. How the Hong Kong and Beijing governments choose to react will determine more than then end of a movement. It will set a precedent for how dissent is handled in the region and to what extent Hong Kong can retain its autonomy.  

Faith Hawkins is a first year graduate student in International Security at the Schar School. Her research interests lie at the intersection between international security, human rights, and multilateral institutions.

Photo from Wikimedia Commons