Hundreds of thousands of protesters dressed in white marched in the streets of Hong Kong Sunday in the biggest protest since the Umbrella Revolution of September-December 2014. Police estimated the number of marchers at 240,000; organisers, said a million people protested. Hong Kong, which at roughly 1,100 sq km is smaller in size than Delhi, is home to an estimated 7.4 million people.
The extradition Bill
The protesters were marching against proposed changes in the law that would allow suspects accused of crimes such as murder and rape to be extradited to mainland China to face trial. Carrie Lam, who became Chief Executive of Hong Kong in 2017 as the candidate favoured by Beijing, is pushing for the amendments to be passed this month.
Once the law is changed, Hong Kong will also hand over to China individuals accused of crimes in Taiwan and Macau. Taiwan has a tense relationship with China; Macau, like Hong Kong, is a Chinese special administrative region with significant autonomy.
The government has said that the proposed amendments would “plug loopholes” that allow the city to be used by criminals. It has assured that courts in Hong Kong would make the final decision on extradition, that only certain categories of suspects would be liable, and that individuals accused of political and religious offences would not be extradited.
The main worry, government assurances notwithstanding, is that China will use the changed law to target political opponents in Hong Kong. Critics point to China’s flawed justice system and say extradited suspects would likely face torture. Also, they say, the change in the law will deal another blow to Hong Kong’s already crumbling autonomy.
Sunday’s march included people from the business community, lawyers, students, members of religious groups, even housewives.
“This is the end game for Hong Kong, it is a matter of life or death,” a Reuters report quoted a 59-year-old professor as saying. An 18-year-old student was quoted by AFP as saying: “This Bill will not just affect Hong Kong’s reputation as an international finance centre, but also our judicial system. That has an impact on my future.”
A report in the BBC quoted Lam Wing Kee, a Hong Kong bookseller who was detained in China in 2015 for selling books critical of Chinese leaders, as saying he did not trust the Hong Kong government. Lam fled to Taiwan via Hong Kong this April, where he has got temporary residency.
Human Rights Watch and the International Chamber of Commerce have warned against changing the law. A body of the US Congress has said it would make Hong Kong vulnerable to Chinese “political coercion”, and the UK and Canada have expressed concern over the potential impact on their citizens in Hong Kong. The EU has sent a diplomatic note.
Hong Kong and China
The former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997, and is semi-autonomous under the “one country, two systems” principle. It has its own laws and courts, and allows its residents a range of civil liberties. Hong Kong does not have an extradition agreement with Beijing. China has decried the alleged “politicisation” of the Hong Kong proposal, and the “interference” in China’s internal affairs.