A ‘last bat­tle’ against Chi­nese au­thor­ity

As Hong Kong protests against an ex­tra­di­tion bill con­tinue, many see its passage as a done deal.

Los Angeles Times - - FRONT PAGE - By Robyn Dixon

BEIJING — They are call­ing it Hong Kong’s “last bat­tle” — a David-ver­sus Go­liath struggle to pre­vent China from en­croach­ing on the city’s free­doms and au­ton­omy. But with China’s in­creas­ingly as­sertive ap­proach to Hong Kong, the bat­tle may al­ready be lost.

Hun­dreds of demon­stra­tors gath­ered late Tues­day in a last-ditch ef­fort to stave off a bill that would al­low crim­i­nal de­fen­dants to be ex­tra­dited from Hong Kong to main­land China. Soft strains of “Sing Hal­lelu­jah to the Lord” washed over po­lice guard­ing Hong Kong’s leg­isla­tive com­plex with riot shields and metal barriers.

By Wed­nes­day morn­ing, a larger crowd flooded into the streets, block­ing ac­cess to the cen­tral gov­ern­ment building, in a fash­ion rem­i­nis­cent of the pro-democ­racy Um­brella Move­ment in 2014.

But many saw passage of the bill as a fore­gone con­clu­sion, part of a steady ero­sion of the spe­cial sta­tus that set the for­mer Bri­tish colony apart from the rest of the Peo­ple’s Repub­lic.

“There’s a sense of pes­simism here,” Joseph Cheng Yu-shek, a pro-democ­racy ac­tivist and for­mer chair of the po­lit­i­cal sci­ence depart-

ment at City Univer­sity of Hong Kong, said in an in­ter­view. “I think the vast ma­jor­ity of peo­ple here knew that even if we marched and even if there was a big turnout, we prob­a­bly would not be able to change the de­ci­sion of the gov­ern­ment and the de­ci­sion of Beijing.”

At stake is Hong Kong’s fu­ture as a global fi­nan­cial cen­ter and base for multi­na­tional cor­po­rate en­ti­ties with busi­ness in Asia. The Amer­i­can Cham­ber of Com­merce in Hong Kong re­cently ex­pressed op­po­si­tion to the gov­ern­ment’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to rush the bill through par­lia­ment, adding that it put at risk Hong Kong’s rep­u­ta­tion for rule of law.

The new bill raises fears that Hong Kong cit­i­zens, for­eign­ers liv­ing in Hong Kong and even peo­ple pass­ing through Hong Kong’s air­port could be ar­rested and sent to main­land China, where, crit­ics say, the le­gal sys­tem fails to guar­an­tee a fair trial.

Hong Kong Chief Ex­ec­u­tive Carrie Lam — who last year told a journalist that her fa­vorite politi­cian was Chi­nese Pres­i­dent Xi Jin­ping — in­sists the bill will go ahead, de­spite a mass protest Sun­day that or­ga­niz­ers said drew more than a mil­lion peo­ple. Author­i­ties es­ti­mated the num­ber to be a quar­ter of that.

Any re­ver­sal would not only hu­mil­i­ate Lam, but also would em­bar­rass Chi­nese author­i­ties, mak­ing a back­down un­likely, ac­cord­ing to an­a­lysts and pro-democ­racy activists.

“This is what Hongkonger­s are against, a tone-deaf leader who turns a blind eye to the peo­ple’s voices, who pushes ahead robot­i­cally and stub­bornly at all con­se­quences,” tweeted Hong Kong singer and ac­tress Denise Ho.

Crit­ics say Xi’s term as China’s leader since 2012 has seen a steady whit­tling away of free­doms that Beijing promised be­fore Hong Kong’s han­dover from Bri­tish rule to China in 1997, as he has also tight­ened con­trols on activists and clamped down on dis­sent on the main­land. They say this has eroded the cred­i­bil­ity of China’s “one coun­try, two sys­tems” pol­icy, which is sup­posed to al­low Hong Kong its own au­tonomous ad­min­is­tra­tive, le­gal and eco­nomic sys­tem.

The bill is likely to be fi­nal­ized within weeks. Busi­nesses across the city were plan­ning to strike Wed­nes­day, when the bill was to be de­bated in the Leg­isla­tive Coun­cil, where about half the mem­bers are pop­u­larly elected.

Demon­stra­tors be­gan gath­er­ing late Tues­day night, and um­brel­las popped open at mid­night as rain be­gan to fall. In one cor­ner over­look­ing Hong Kong’s fa­mous har­bor sky­line, 28-year-old Quincy crouched un­der her um­brella, hud­dled with a group of Catholic univer­sity stu­dents. She asked not to use her last name be­cause she works in Beijing and fears reper­cus­sions.

“I un­der­stand what Hong Kong will be­come be­cause I per­son­ally know what is hap­pen­ing in China. We don’t have any way to change things, so we are just here to pray and hope,” she said, be­gin­ning to cry. “We hope the gov­ern­ment can find some kind­ness deep down in their heart to change things.”

Lam told jour­nal­ists Tues­day that the bill struck a bal­ance in terms of pro­tect­ing hu­man rights, ad­dress­ing pub­lic con­cerns and en­sur­ing Hong Kong did not be­come a haven for fugi­tives. The last time so many Hong Kong res­i­dents turned out in protest — in 2003, march­ing against a na­tional se­cu­rity law — author­i­ties praised cit­i­zens for point­ing out the prob­lems with the law and dropped it. That Lam has re­fused to budge on the ex­tra­di­tion mea­sure con­veys how far Hong Kong has shifted into Beijing’s or­bit in re­cent years.

“I think we’ve seen in the last few years a de­sire from Beijing and the Hong Kong gov­ern­ment to crush po­lit­i­cal op­po­si­tion and to re­move av­enues to con­tinue op­pos­ing the gov­ern­ment and also to re­ally push the in­te­gra­tion of Hong Kong into the rest of main­land China on an eco­nomic ba­sis,” Ben Bland, Hong Kong an­a­lyst at the Lowy In­sti­tute think tank in Syd­ney, Aus­tralia, said in an in­ter­view.

Many coun­tries, in­clud­ing the U.S., do not al­low ex­tra­di­tion to China be­cause its le­gal sys­tem, which is un­der Com­mu­nist Party con­trol and has a con­vic­tion rate of more than 99%, lacks ordinary le­gal pro­tec­tions de­signed to guar­an­tee a fair trial. Hu­man Rights Watch has re­ported tor­ture and dis­ap­pear­ances of suspects into de­ten­tion cen­ters for months with­out charge and no ac­cess to lawyers or fam­ily.

New Zealand’s Court of Ap­peal on Tues­day ruled against the ex­tra­di­tion to China of Kyung Yup Kim, ac­cused of mur­der by Chi­nese author­i­ties, and called on the New Zealand gov­ern­ment to re­assess se­ri­ous hu­man rights con­cerns in China, in­clud­ing the right to a fair trial and the use of tor­ture.

In re­cent years, Hong Kong author­i­ties have dis­qual­i­fied pro-democ­racy can­di­dates from run­ning for par­lia­ment; jailed mem­bers of the Um­brella Move­ment; banned a pro-in­de­pen­dence po­lit­i­cal party; and re­fused to re­new the visa of a journalist who is vice pres­i­dent of the For­eign Cor­re­spon­dents’ Club after the club hosted an ad­dress by a proin­de­pen­dence politi­cian.

“Beijing’s as­sault on Hong Kong’s free­doms, par­tic­u­larly the rights to free ex­pres­sion, as­so­ci­a­tion and po­lit­i­cal par­tic­i­pa­tion, wors­ened con­sid­er­ably in 2018,” Hu­man Rights Watch said in its 2019 World Re­port.

The bat­tle over the ex­tra­di­tion bill may bleed into global ten­sions over China’s ris­ing geopo­lit­i­cal and strate­gic clout, which has erupted into a trade war. Ten­sions flared after Canada ar­rested Meng Wanzhou, an ex­ec­u­tive of the Chi­nese tech gi­ant Huawei, on a U.S. ex­tra­di­tion re­quest. China re­sponded with ar­rests of two Cana­di­ans, po­lit­i­cal an­a­lyst Michael Kovrig of the In­ter­na­tional Cri­sis Group and busi­ness­man Michael Spa­vor. Those were seen by West­ern diplo­mats as the kind of tit-for-tat abuses that could un­fold in Hong Kong should the bill be passed.

“That’s ex­actly the kind of weaponiza­tion of the le­gal sys­tem that peo­ple are afraid of,” said Antony Dapi­ran, au­thor of “City of Protest,” a book about dis­sent in Hong Kong. China sees Canada’s ar­rest of Meng as po­lit­i­cal.

Kevin Yam, a Hong Kong­based lawyer, said that, un­der the pro­posed law, Hong Kong courts would have lim­ited scope to refuse ex­tra­di­tions.

“I think ... the odds are heav­ily stacked against the protest move­ment suc­ceed­ing,” he said.

An­thony Wal­lace AFP/Getty Im­ages

PROTESTERS oc­cupy highways near the gov­ern­ment head­quar­ters in Hong Kong on Wed­nes­day. Peo­ple have turned out en masse in an ef­fort to stave off a bill that would al­low ex­tra­di­tions to main­land China.

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