The protests in Hong Kong represent a key turning point for China, Hong Kong, and the world.
Hong Kong is in the midst of the most significant protest movement since China assumed sovereignty in 1997. These protests were sparked by a proposed law that could permit people in Hong Kong to be extradited to mainland China to face trial. Protesters fear that this law could be used by authorities in Beijing to erode the rights and liberties currently enjoyed by people in Hong Kong.
At the heart of these protests is the longterm viability of Hong Kong’s independence from China
When sovereignty over Hong Kong was transferred from the United Kingdom to China in 1997, there was embedded in that agreement the principle of one country, two systems. In other words, while Hong Kong is formally part of China, the political and judicial system, civil liberties and rights enjoyed by the people of Hong Kong would be respected by authorities in Beijing.
However, as my guest today MK Tam explains, that principal of one country, two systems has been eroding in recent years. China has been steadily encroaching on civil and political life in Hong Kong and this protest movement is a profound demonstration that the people of Hong Kong are willing to defend their rights.
Man- Kei Tam is the director of Amnesty International Hong Kong, which puts him very much at the forefront of this fight. We kick off discussing the proposed extradition law itself, which is up for a potential vote in the Hong Kong legislative assembly, before having a longer conversation about the causes, consequences and implications of the shrinking space for civil rights and political freedom in Hong Kong
This conversation is obviously very timely. It will give you the context you need to understand what is driving these protests from someone who is directly impacted by Beijing’s encroachment on rights and liberties in Hong Kong.
There is extradition law and treaties between Hong Kong and other countries. So far, there is not such an arrangement with mainland China. However, suddenly in February, the Chinese government has begun trying to pass a law that would allow extraditions to mainland China.
What sparked this legislation?
Recently, there was a murder in Taiwan. In order to facilitate an extradition of the suspect from Hong Kong to Taiwan for prosecution, they would need to amend the existing extradition law.
At the heart of the issue lies the uncertainty of the judicial system. On one hand, you have the Chinese judicial system, which is not independent from the Chinese government or the Communist Party. They have a very poor human rights record. On the other hand, you have the independent judicial system of Hong Kong. Further, there is local and international human rights law to protect those rights of citizens of Hong Kong.
The concern here is that the judiciary and judicial system would be corrupted by the influence of Beijing.
For both citizens of Hong Kong, and human rights NGO’s, the change of extradition law is a major concern and leads to a great deal of uncertainty. The work of NGO’s will be put at risk.
Why would this particular new law spark such a backlash when there has already been a growing encroachment on rights enjoyed in Hong Kong?
This is kind of the last straw. It provokes a lot of fear amongst people and has driven them to the streets. It all started from the Umbrella Movement.
Hong Kong is a unique Chinese city that enjoys freedom of expression, speech, and other basic human rights. One of the promises was universal suffrage and in 2014 people demanded the Hong Kong government deliver on that promise. On September 28, 2014 people gathered in central Hong Kong and initiated the occupying movement that lasted for over 90 days until mid-December. Afterwards, there was a crackdown on activists and nine of the Umbrella Movement leaders were persecuted and sentenced.
If you look in 2018, there are other instances related to the erosion of freedom as well. There was a foreign generalist whose visa was denied to be renewed because he organized a seminar to discuss self-autonomy in Hong Kong. There were citizens disqualified from elections because of their advocacy for self-determination and independence. These instances result in people feeling like the freedom of their city is being eroded.
This is highly related to a changing Chinese regime that is becoming more centralized and authoritarian. The Beijing government wants to tighten control over civil society and politics in Hong Kong. This represents the bigger picture of the changes throughout the last few years. Of course, the Umbrella Movement alerted the Hong Kong and Chinese authorities that the demand of democracy and universal suffrage was still high.
How have you personally and professionally experienced this, seemingly, closing space for civil society in Hong Kong?
From a Hong Kong perspective and from the research Amnesty has been doing, you can feel the tightening of NGO space. There is a new law that will further tighten up the space of international NGO’s operating in mainland China. There are incidents of Taiwan activists being arrested and jailed. Amnesty has the feeling that these kinds of mainland NGO’s might finally be transplanted in Hong Kong.
From Amnesty’s perspective, the tightening of NGO space is a global phenomenon, not something that is isolated in mainland China. The tightening grip of the Chinese government in Hong Kong has triggered two responses. The first is about whether Hong Kong should seek independence. Young people believe their future heavily relies on this. The second response believes Hong Kong will only be better if China gets better. This is reflected in the June 4th memorial of the Tiananmen Square incident.
People are going to defend their rights for as long as they can.
A million people turned out and took to the streets. People from all walks of life want to protect their basic human rights and freedoms. Slightly dissimilar to 2014, this time there was more of a united front amongst young people, business people, and professionals. People do not want this new legislation to pass.
What inflection points are you looking towards that may suggest how this situation will unfold?
Wednesday’s clashes between the police and peaceful protestors was a tragedy. The excessive and unnecessary use of force violated international human rights law. Now, the second reading of the proposal was postponed. So for next week, it is still unknown if the executives will change their mind. There are increasing voices from other governments and foreign ministers expressing their concerns over yesterday’s brutal scenes. However, it is hard to predict what will come in the next few days.