Visual courtesy of Elena Koskinas
With over a million protesters out on the streets in the past week, and an estimated one in seven residents believed to have participated in the marches over the last two weeks, the political events of Hong Kong have been hard to miss. Some have even called for the resignation of the leader of Hong Kong over this matter. So, what are the protests about, and why does it matter?
ONE COUNTRY, TWO SYSTEMS
Unlike in neighbouring mainland China, one of Hong Kong’s official languages is English. Unlike the communist regime of the mainland, Hong Kong’s politics is saturated with democratic ideology, and its economy runs on free market principles. Freedom of speech, freedom of the press and equality are deeply instilled values and in many ways have much to do with its colonial past.
In the 1940s, Hong Kong became a British colony, and in 1898, Britain established a 100-year lease of the territory. When this expired in 1997, an agreement was made with China, to maintain a “One Country, Two Systems” policy for fifty years. Under this policy, Hong Kong would retain its democratic institutions, economic system, and independent judicial system. In essence, Hong Kong was granted a high degree of autonomy whilst still remaining formally a part of China.
So, over the last two decades, Hong Kong has been governed by the “One Country, Two Systems” policy. More ideologically akin to the UK and other democratic Commonwealth territories like Australia, but geographically and culturally a part of the East Asian region, the people of Hong Kong possess a strong sense of their unique identity.
In light of all this, it’s a no-brainer that the criminal justice systems of mainland China and Hong Kong run on fundamentally different principles, they treat particular crimes with different degrees of severity, and employ different methods of trial and punishment.
China and Hong Kong are definitely not twins.
THE EXTRADITION BILL
The protests were centred on opposition to a particular bill, introduced into parliament concerning extradition. Extradition means that under an agreement between two states, a criminal who commits a crime in one state can be sent off to another state to face their criminal justice system.
In essence, citizens of Hong Kong accused of serious crimes could be sent to mainland China to face charges.
WHAT DOES IT ALL MEAN?
According to Carrie Lam, the Chief Executive Officer and leader of Hong Kong, the bill was intended to stop criminals from taking advantage of Hong Kong’s more lenient justice system in order to avoid facing criminal charges in China. It was proposed only for crimes punishable by at least seven years, and excluded those who were accused of committing political crimes.
However, despite these concessions, residents’ opposition to the bill was overwhelming. The bill was widely understood as ceding greater power to the authoritarian regime of the mainland. Opponents foresee that this legislation could be used to stifle voices of opposition to the Chinese regime, extradited to the mainland and convicted under the central system. Given China’s brutal historical treatment of historical prisoners, this is not a far-fetched notion. Even this year, China was ranked 82nd of 126 countries on the Rule of Law Index calculated by the World Justice Project, and amongst the lowest in the Asia Pacific region. In addition, the Chinese President Xi Jinping, has taken a particularly harsh stance on political dissent since he came into power in 2012, and this move appears as the latest on a string of policy decisions to gradually eradicate Hong Kong’s independent identity, and tighten the grip of the central regime over all its territory.
Hong Kong @ China's government right now.
Urgent mass protests have been continuing over the last weeks since the bill was announced on June, with overwhelming numbers of protesters on the streets including children. Despite being relatively peaceful, there have been at least seventy injuries and one death, and protesters have actioned in such extreme numbers that are impossible for the leaders of Hong Kong to ignore. The sheer degree of opposition has led to the government’s decision to indefinitely suspend the bill.
Although the power of the people seems to have won a victory in this instance, this fight is just one battle in the context of continuous attempts of the residents of Hong Kong to defend their values in the tightening stranglehold of the central regime.