Rallying Against Extradition: Can Hong Kong's Protests Against Chinese Influence Strengthen Local Identity?

The Hong Kong government’s proposed amendment to the Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation Bill in February 2019, has thrown the Chinese territory into its largest legitimacy crisis since its handover from Britain to China in 1997.


The proposed amendment bill, commonly referred to as the extradition bill, has raised strong concern among different sections of society because it intends on establishing a formal mechanism to transfer fugitives to other jurisdictions, including mainland China, with whom Hong Kong lacks an extradition treaty. Hong Kong residents and visitors could thus be extradited to mainland China for trial if they were deemed as fugitives by mainland Chinese authority. 

A Brief History of the Bill

Even though the extradition bill was consistently opposed by at least 60% of the general public (Chung 2019), the government proceeded to submit the bill to the Legislative Council (LegCo). In April 2019, a bills committee was set up within the LegCo to discuss the controversial bill. The minority pan-democratic legislators tried to filibuster the bill at the committee stage. However, keen to push the bill through, the Hong Kong government dissolved the bills committee in May and introduced the bill directly in the LegCo in June (Sum and Lum 2019). The uncompromising attitude of the administration led many to suspect that the bill was a “political mission” from Beijing, despite Hong Kong and Chinese officials denying any such motives.

Outside the formal political structure, the public has voiced their opposition to the bill in a series of escalating actions over the last four months (and counting). Beginning with small-scale demonstrations in March and April, over 100 schools, unions, and professional bodies have issued petitions demanding that the Hong Kong government withdraw the bill (Chan H 2019). Protestors also crowdfunded  advertisements in major international newspapers to grab the attention of the international community ahead of the G-20 summit in late June. At the first major protest on June 9, the organisers estimated the total turnout to be 1.03 million—about one-seventh of Hong Kong’s total population (Dormido et al 2019). When the government ignored protestors’ demand and proceeded to put the bill to LegCo, the protestors sieged the LegCo building on 12 June to prevent the scheduled LegCo meeting. The police responded with disproportionate violence[1] against the protestors and even reporters, causing further public resentment. This led to an even larger march on 16 June with a record-high 2 million protestors (organizer’s estimate) (Dormido et al. 2019). 

In response, the Hong Kong government made some concessions, but they were too little too late. To win the support of the business community, the government watered-down the bill to exclude certain commercial crimes. But, faced with continuing public opposition, the bill was declared “suspended” on June 15, and then “dead” on July 9, but not formally withdrawn—as the protestors demanded (Kuo and Yu 2019).

Clashes between the protestors and the political establishment have been escalating since mid-June. Protestors have held large-scale rallies, general strikes, and multiple airport sit-ins. Some protestors have sieged police stations and set up road blockades. The more extreme protestors have confronted riot police, throwing eggs, water bottles, iron rods, and bricks. The police have responded with increasing levels of violence: they began with the liberal use of tear gas, pepper spray, and rubber bullets against protestors and even some journalists. The police claimed their use of force was proportionate and necessary (Information Services Department 2019), but there were clear instances where crowd-control weapons were used in ways that violate international standard, such as firing tear gas canisters directly into crowds in enclosed areas and the firing of rubber bullets on protestors’ heads or in close distance (Amnesty International 2019). More controversially, on the night of July 21, a mob of over 100 armed white-shirted men indiscriminately attacked protestors in the Yuen Long train station to intimidate them while they were heading home. The police were warned at least a day in advance about the attack, but arrived suspiciously late to the crime scene and failed to make any arrests that evening (Leung and Ting 2019). The 21 July Yuen Long incident shocked the Hong Kong public. The police were accused of colluding with this mob who apparently had the support of the Chinese state. Junius Ho, a pro-China government legislator was seen shaking hands with members of this mob before the attack (Standard 2019). This incident, alongwith multiple others of police brutality against protestors angered the public. The chairman of one of the police unions further stirred public resentment by describing black-shirted protestors as “cockroaches” (Cheng 2019a). 

Whenever the police have used excessive force, there has been a knock-on effect; otherwise neutral citizens sympathise with the protestors, thereby further radicalising the protests. By early August, the protestors’ primary demand was not the withdrawal of the extradition bill, but an independent investigation into the excessive use of force by the police (Lam 2019; AntiELAB survey report 2019). According to an opinion poll conducted in mid-August, 67.7% of the public believed the police used excessive force, and 39.5% believed that the protestors used excessive violence (Lee 2019).

The Making of a Protest

Three interrelated causes help explain why the movement against the anti-extradition bill has gathered such strong momentum. First, there is a strong sense among the local Hongkongese—especially among the younger generation—of an identity that is distinctive from that of mainland China. The rule of law is one of the key features that distinguishes Hong Kong from the rest of China. After the 1997 handover, Hong Kong’s common-law-based legal system remained independent from the mainland Chinese system under the “One Country Two Systems” arrangement. The mainland Chinese justice system was generally viewed with skcepticism by the Hong Kong public. In 2015, Lam Wing-Kee, a Hong Kong citizen and owner of a bookstore known for politically sensitive publications critical of Chinese Communist Party leaders, was clandestinely detained by mainland authorities without a trial. He was later forced to plead guilty on television (Siu, Ng and Fung 2016). Several other staff members of Wing-Kee’s store suffered a similar fate. Incidents like this further weakened the public’s faith towards the mainland Chinese legal system. This negative public perception towards Chinese courts is not groundless: based on the latest global rule of law index, which compares 113 countries and jurisdictions, Hong Kong and China were ranked 16 and 75 respectively, emphasising the  vast difference between the two systems (World Justice Project 2018). The rule of law entails the protection of personal liberty and puts limits on state power. The proposed extradition bill—and the violence used by the police to put down the protest—expanded the state’s power in a way that put both the rule of law and personal liberty at risk.

The rule of law is a much-cherished element of the Hong Kong identity, especially among the younger and more educated cohorts. While this rule of law forms a part of universal liberal democratic values, in Hong Kong it is also exists as a remnant of British colonial legacy. Hongkongers’ identity has long been a mix between the East and the West. With increasing effort by the Chinese state to assimilate Hong Kong in its cultural and political realm in recent years, Hongkongers have begun to increasingly emphasise upon the Western elements of their identity. A June 2019 representative survey found that 52.9% of all respondents (and 75% among those aged 18-29) identified themselves as “Hongkonger” rather than as “Chinese,” “Hongkonger in China”, or “Chinese in Hong Kong”—a record-high since the survey’s previous round in 1997 (Public Opinion Programme 2019). The extradition bill’s threat to Hong Kong identity is partly why the current protests have drawn  such widespread support.

Second, placed within a largely liberal society, the Hong Kong government has long faced a structural legitimacy problem, owing to its quasi-democratic political system. Existing political freedom allows public discontent to be expressed on the street and in the press, but opposition voices are under represented in the existing political structure due to a rigged electoral system. Hong Kong’s chief executive is still not democratically elected, despite the promise made in the Basic Law by Beijing prior to the handover. The quasi-democratic design of the LegCo means that pro-government parties control 44 of the 70 seats even though they received only about 40% of the popular votes (Wikipedia 2019). Further, the 2016 LegCo elections saw multiple nominees barred from running  due to their alleged pro-independence views. Furthermore, six LegCo members of the political opposition were unseated by the court shortly after they were elected, on dubious grounds of having altered the required oath as a platform of protest (Lui 2017). Four of the six localist candidates were disqualified as a result. This led to a denial of political representation from the growing discontent of the younger generation. With the fairness of the electoral process and the legitimacy of the legislature compromised, people no longer believed that their vote mattered, and took to the street.

In the case of the extradition bill, the critics accused the government of violating LegCo’s rules of procedures due to the hasty manner in which the bills committee was bypassed. The government’s determination to bend existing legislative norms to push this unpopular bill through exemplified the structural violence of the current quasi-democratic political system. It can be argued that if the legislative and the executive branches of government were genuinely democratic, the protests would not have occurred because such an unpopular bill could not possibly pass the LegCo. Such a bill would probably not have been proposed to begin with.

Third, a vibrant civil society network was an essential factor that led to the current movement. Civil society organisations and various pressure groups first took root in Hong Kong in the early 1980s, when the British colonial government began the path to democratisation. A variety of civil society groups have flourished since the early 2000s and have remained active since. In the current movement, these traditional groups played a smaller role in political mobilisation, which is being increasingly  done online without any identifiable leaders. After several key social movement leaders of the 2014 pro-democracy umbrella movement were jailed for “conspiracy to cause public nuisance” and other charges, the risk involved in leading movements has substantially increased.

Yet, protestors have learnt from past experiences and evolved. The moderate and radical wing of the current movement has stayed united, despite disagreements over the use of violence. Through extensive use of technology (especially the internet), the current leaderless movement has shown remarkable resilience in its determination, and also flexibility in its tactics. People discuss news and strategies on an online forum lihkg.com. The forum has an active “voting” function which allows users to upvote or downvote discussion threads. This has acted as a primitive democratic mechanism that gives the most upvoted threads more attention. Protestors also use the messaging application, Telegram, to coordinate action in smaller groups without revealing one’s phone number or identity. The movement is thus organised by numerous nameless netizens rather than any identifiable leader or political group. Various protest strategies have been devised to accommodate people with different roles and identities. For example, school-based petitions circulated through alumni networks played an important role in spreading messages via normally apolitical social networks in the early phase of the movement. Several rallies have also been organised for identity groups such as mothers, elderly, teacher, and Christian groups to show their support for the movement. The strong civil society network and web 2.0 technology have mobilised the broad base of moderate pro-democracy citizens to turn their views into action. Via such networks, the small number of hardcore protestors in the frontline receive moral and material support from the much larger base of moderate supporters. 

The Impact of the Current Movement on Hong Kong, China, and the Rest of the World

At the time of writing, in late August, it is uncertain how this movement will end. The protests still have strong momentum. It is unlikely to end unless the government responds positively to at least some of the protestors’ demands. Meanwhile, the protest has escalated from a local standoff between Hong Kong protestors and the Hong Kong government to a bargaining chip between China and the US in the ongoing trade negotiations. Beijing has hinted at the possibility of sending the People’s Liberation Army or Armed Police Force to put a stop at the unrest, possibly before 1 October 2019, the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (Chan, M 2019). The actual deployment of army will be catastrophic for Hong Kong’s society and China’s international image. A Tiananmen Square-esque crackdown is highly unlikely though not entirely impossible. On the US’s part, the proposed Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act has been reintroduced in the US Congress, which will resume in early September after a recess (Cheng 2019b). The precise scope of the Act and the US administration’s stance will determine whether Hong Kong can remain a hub for international trade and finance. Hong Kong is hanging on a cliff.

For Hong Kong, the government’s authority will continue to decline. In particular, the regime’s heavy reliance on the police to suppress the protests has caused irreversible damage to the image of the police force. The disproportionate use of violence against protestors is in stark contrast to their response towards pro-government offenders. The Hong Kong police, who once prided themselves as “Asia’s finest,” will not regain public respect without thorough reform.  Another foreseeable impact on Hong Kong will be the continued growth of Hong Kong nationalism. Like the umbrella movement five years earlier, the anti-extradition movement has been  a “baptism by fire” to a new generation of youth participating in the movement. Although the current movement is not primarily nationalist or pro-independence one (it would not have gathered such wide public support if it was), there is a general consensus that certain core values of Hong Kong should be defended against mainland Chinese encroachment.

As much as one-quarter of the population have joined one of the peaceful demonstrations. Many Hongkongers have also participated by creating and sharing pro-movement messages online and offline. The act of participating in a social movement itself is creating solidarity among the participants, further strengthening the sense of an “imagined community” that characterises a nation (Anderson 1991). The current movement may not change the political structure, but will strengthen a sense of Hong Kong identity and shape what it means to be a Hongkonger. After the police used large quantities of tear gas across multiple neighbourhoods which affected many innocent bystanders, a half-joking internet meme was widely circulated: “if you haven’t smelled tear gas you are not a Hongkonger.”

For China, the movement is arguably the most challenging political crisis it has faced since the 1989 Tiananmen Square movement. Regardless of whether or not short-term concessions are made to meet protestors’ demands, it is likely that Beijing will further tighten Hong Kong’s existing autonomy in the foreseeable future. If Hong Kong’s autonomy further declines, the international community (most importantly, the US government, as stipulated in the US-Hong Kong Policy Act) may no longer regard Hong Kong as a trade entity distinct from mainland China. This would put an end to Hong Kong’s role as a hub for the flow of international capital in and out of China. Its role in the internationalisation of renminbi cannot be easily replaced by other Chinese cities like Shenzhen or Shanghai. Over half of the companies listed in Hong Kong’s Hang Seng Index are based in mainland China. Hong Kong’s role as China’s only international financial centre is a strong leverage in Sino-American trade negotiations. The loss of Hong Kong’s financial status would be a disaster not only to the city’s economy, but would also pose a significant setback to China’s path to a more open market economy.

For the mainland Chinese, Hong Kong has long been used as a symbol of “national humiliation,” caused by Western colonisation. The colony’s “reunification” with the motherland was an anticipated event that was prominently featured in official media and national educational textbooks. (Wang 2012). Two years prior to the handover, a large digital clock tower was set up in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square that counted the days, minutes and seconds until 1 July 1997. 

Mass social movements in Hong Kong will continue to be used to fuel Chinese nationalism. To deal with the current movement, the Chinese propaganda machine first adopted a block-out strategy in the early phase of the movement in June, and then switched to a misinformation campaign that selectively highlighted the most violent elements of the protest and framed it as a separatist “colour” revolution supported by hostile foreign countries. Online comments sympathetic to the movement have also been quickly removed. In such a highly-censored media environment, many mainland Chinese have been pitted against Hong Kong protestors. The rise of both Hong Kong nationalism and Chinese nationalism will inevitably strengthen the cleavages between the territory and the mainland. This means that Beijing will have little room to concede to Hongkongers’ demands because the regime’s legitimacy will rely heavily on Chinese nationalism. Chinese leaders seem to be increasingly dealing with the “Hong Kong problem” in an ethnic minority policy framework. The worst outcome of this could be a mild version of the “Xinjiang model,” where authorities stirred up inter-ethnic conflicts and then used it as a pretext to exert near totalitarian control over the people.

The rest of the world will view Hong Kong’s struggle for freedom and democracy as a frontier battle between the authoritarian Chinese political model and the liberal-democratic Western model. Hong Kong is a mixed regime with a quasi-democratic political system accompanied by  a high level of personal liberty comparable to Western democracies. However, the Hong Kong government is clearly moving in a more authoritarian direction, though the pace of this movement depends on the strength of Hongkongers’ resistance. Some commentators have likened Hong Kong to West Berlin in a new Cold War era. But the West is unlikely to support Hong Kong the way it supported West Berlin during the Cold War, in order to protect the trade relations with China. 

For political scientists, Hong Kong will be a valuable case study of democratic decline and resistance as an autonomous region within an authoritarian regime. No matter how the events turns out in the short term, the movement will carry long-term implications for Hong Kong, China, and the world. 

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