LONDON -- Police fired tear gas at throngs of protesters in the streets of Hong Kong on Wednesday amid growing anger over the government's proposal to change an extradition law.
Protest organizers from the Civil Human Rights Front have also called for a general strike to start Wednesday, with over 100 small businesses, stores and restaurants saying they will take part. If there is a general strike it will be the first in the Special Administrative Region (SAR) since 1967, when it was still a British colony.
The introduction of the controversial extradition law to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council has been delayed, but the bill is still scheduled to be voted on June 20. Despite the protests and increased police presence, the bill is expected to become law.
Why is it so controversial? And what is the likely impact of these protests?
The extradition bill
The proposal for the extradition bill has been steeped in controversy. It started when Chan Tong-kai, 20, a citizen of Hong Kong, admitted to killing his girlfriend in Taiwan last year. Chan, who has since returned to Hong Kong, has only been charged in Hong Kong for money laundering (he allegedly used his murdered girlfriend's stolen credit card). The Taiwanese government has urged Hong Kong to send Chan back for trial, but the Hong Kong government refused, according to the South China Morning Post.
“The extradition bill does a key thing -- it undermines the validity and legitimacy of the Hong Kong legal system,” Winnie King, a specialist in Chinese international political economy and international relations at the University of Bristol, told ABC News. “One of the key central pillars of Hong Kong's identity and history, it is at the foundation of the island's strengths (be it for international business and contract law, but also for the protection of its own citizens), the extradition bill illustrates how China's influence is no longer 'creeping' in nature.”
Although the extradition law amendment is not China-specific, it is universal, meaning that any country, including China, can request extradition of an individual to their home country from Hong Kong for trial. Many fear that China could use the law to arrest political dissidents. The protests have brought into sharp focus the contrasts between Hong Kong’s and China’s judicial systems.
“The bill is controversial in my view for emotional reasons,” according to Tim Summers, a former diplomat and senior consulting fellow on the Asia-Pacific program at Chatham House, which is based in Hong Kong. “It brings to the fore distrust of the authorities in mainland China and highlights differences between Hong Kong’s robust rule of law and the more arbitrary system in mainland China.”
The mass demonstrations have been organized by a group called Civil Human Rights Front, but the sheer numbers involved over the past few days, (one million people, according to the organizers), show that the issue is supported by a cross-section of Hong Kong society.
“Protests are a regular feature of politics in Hong Kong,” Summers said. “The vast majority of these are peaceful and pass off without incident. These protests had wide support across society, so many people just turned up. There was widespread publicity about the protests in advance and people share info rapidly on social media.”
Between 7% and 14% of Hong Kong’s entire population have turned out to protest, according to Steve Tsang, the director of the China Institute at the School of Oriental and African Studies in London.
“Logistically it would have been very challenging for the organizers to get such a turnout so quickly,” he said.
What impact will the protests have?
Hong Kong’s leader, Carrie Lam, has said she plans to sign the legislation despite the protests, according to The Associated Press.
The Hong Kong government has been “very savvy” to use the case of Taiwan as the basis for the extradition law, according to King, and the “results from within the legislature will be exactly as the government want.”
“While the protests are the largest and most significant in decades, the impact on the resulting legislation will be limited,” King said. “This being said, they are being very effective in ensuring that Hong Kong's experience under the 'One Country, Two Systems' model is not forgotten. With real implications for Taiwan, the international community would (and should) be very interested to see where this leads.”
However, introduction of the extradition laws is "ill-advised and unnecessary," according to Tsang, who said it reflects the top down approach of policy making by Chinese Premier Xi Jinping. But neither officials in Hong Kong nor China are likely to change their mind, meaning the crisis could escalate further.
“If anything there is a higher than even risk that Xi Jinping will see this as a challenge to his authority and will push the government in Hong Kong even harder to get this legislated,” Tsang said. “Such an outcome would be very disturbing and likely to result in some activists in Hong Kong persisting and even seeking to escalate. I hope wiser heads will prevail in the governments of Hong Kong and China.”