Bottom Line Up Front:
- In recent weeks, peaceful demonstrators in Hong Kong have gathered in large numbers to protest a controversial extradition bill with Mainland China.
- Hong Kong’s chief executive Carrie Lam has indefinitely suspended the bill but recently ignored protesters’ demands to withdraw the bill completely.
- Since 1997, when Hong Kong was handed over to Chinese sovereignty, actions stifling democratic freedoms and the rule of law have galvanized civil society.
- The protests expose the complexity of Beijing’s desire to fold a quasi-democratic system into the uncompromising rule of Mainland China.
On June 16 organizers estimated at over 2 million people took to the streets of Hong Kong to protest a controversial extradition bill that would allow Beijing to extradite and prosecute Hong Kong citizens in courts on the mainland. The first demonstration took place on June 9 when an estimated 1 million people gathered to protest the proposed bill. It was followed by another protest on June 12, which turned violent as demonstrators were met with tear gas, rubber bullets, and arrests by riot police—representing the most violent disorder in Hong Kong since the 1960s. On June 15, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive, Carrie Lam, announced that the bill was indefinitely suspended, but that did not prevent even more protesters from gathering the next day. While the Chinese government has argued that the legislation is necessary to prevent criminals from seeking refuge in Hong Kong, citizens fear that it will be used to crack down on legitimate political opposition.
In 1997, Hong Kong was given back to China after over 150 years under British colonial rule. Since then, the island has been ruled under the Chinese constitutional principle ‘One Country Two Systems,’ developed initially by Deng Xiao Ping in 1987. In principle, this means that Hong Kong enjoys its own administrative and economic system while belonging to China as a country; in other words, it is a semiautonomous territory. Fears that the mainland will stifle freedom and oppress civil rights have grown steadily in Hong Kong since coming under Chinese rule. Banning activists from running for office, outlawing a political party, jailing pro-democracy leaders, and disqualifying elected lawmakers are some of the actions that have served to undermine democratic freedoms and the rule of law in the territory. These actions have also contributed to further resentment that leaders are handpicked by—and therefore merely a prop for—the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in Beijing.
Hong Kong effectively remains a quasi-democracy, although the leadership in Beijing would ideally like to bring it under stricter Chinese control sooner than later. Given the history of large-scale pro-democracy rallies in China, including the Tiananmen Massacre of 1989, this makes the situation especially precarious to both the CCP and Chinese President Xi Jinping. Since early June, Beijing has doubled down on limiting any information about the protests reaching the mainland. Some reports allege that China has been orchestrating cyberattacks inside of Hong Kong, targeting the online messaging service Telegram, which is used by protesters to organize.
To president Xi and the CCP, Hong Kong is a critical test case to prove that China can peacefully control and eventually integrate semiautonomous regions and territories under its rule. Failure to do so would not only jeopardize the CCP’s goal of reuniting Taiwan with Mainland China, but also possibly hurt Xi’s image as a strongman. Although the extradition bill is temporarily shelved, it does not mean that the CCP and Xi Jinping have conceded to the pro-democracy reforms demanded by protesters, while the future of Hong Kong remains unclear.