(CNSNews.com) – Uneasy about a persistent chipping away of Hong Kong’s purported legal independence at the hands of the communist government in Beijing, hundreds of thousands of residents of the city have taken to the streets again, this time in opposition to a proposed bill to allow extradition to mainland China.
Opponents of the move worry the measure could be used to target Beijing’s critics in Hong Kong, including people facing religious or political persecution. More broadly, many are distrustful of the system under which suspects sent to China would stand trial.
Hong Kong’s Beijing-backed government says the bill is needed to close a legal “loophole,” and insists that recent amendments to the bill are sufficient to allay citizens’ concerns.
But Sunday saw the biggest protest demonstration in five years – some say the biggest since 2003 – with masses taking to the streets to call for the bill to be dropped and for the resignation of Hong Kong’s chief executive, Carrie Lam. Opposition to the bill has brought together lawyers, students, religious organizations, pro-democracy activists, and business groups.
The protests were mostly peaceful although in the early hours of Monday morning violent clashes erupted between some protestors and police near by the Legislative Council (LegCo) complex.
Police used batons and teargas, and some protestors appeared to have been hurt, according to wire services.
Police Commissioner Stephen Lo said some “radical protestors” had tried to storm LegCo and had used metal barriers to attack police officers, at least three of whom had been injured.
There has been no public response Monday from the Hong Kong government, but in a statement Sunday a spokesman noted that – as of that stage – the protest, “though large, was generally peaceful and orderly.”
The statement reiterated the arguments that the bill was both necessary and would include the necessary safeguards.
It said extradition arrangements were needed to prevent criminals from using Hong Kong as a “bolt hole,” putting its residents’ safety at risk.
The statement said only crimes carrying prison sentences of seven years or more would be covered, and none would deal with “freedom of assembly, of the press, of speech, of academic freedom or publication.”
There would also be no handover of fugitives wanted “for a political offence or if the purported charges are in fact on account of race, religion, nationality or political opinions,” it added.
The spokesman confirmed that the LegCo will resume debate on the legislation as scheduled on Wednesday. The Fugitive Offenders and Mutual Legal Assistance in Criminal Matters Legislation (Amendment) Bill could be passed by the end of June.
Beijing blames ‘opposition camp and their foreign allies’
The former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997 under a special “one country, two systems” model that promised Hong Kong limited autonomy under a capitalist system for at least 50 years, incorporating such rights as free speech, a free press, fair elections, and the right to a fair trial.
Over the years since a number of freedoms have been eroded, however.
Critics of the proposed law worry about its effect on Hong Kong’s reputation as an international financial hub free of the mainland’s oppressive policies.
American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong president Tara Joseph in a recent interview critical of the proposed bill tied Hong Kong’s reputation as “a global financial center par excellence” to its efficiency, connectivity, and “the real gem” – the rule of law.
China meanwhile has sought to turn the reputation argument around.
The state-run China Daily said in an editorial Sunday the absence of extradition arrangements “has undermined Hong Kong’s reputation as a rule-of-law society that is intolerant of crime.”
“[I]t has compromised cooperative law enforcement efforts with other places; and it has weakened the confidence of law enforcers elsewhere in Hong Kong’s ability to hold criminals to account and combat crime.”
The paper said that some in Hong Kong had unfortunately been led astray by “the opposition camp and their foreign allies” and were being used a “pawns” in a campaign to damage the Hong Kong authorities credibility and to “hurt China.”
China’s Xinhua state news agency recently cited Lam, Hong Kong’s chief executive, as saying some external forces or foreign governments were trying to harm relations between Hong Kong and the central government, and were attacking the latter’s “judicial and human rights system.”
The most recent State Department report on China’s human rights record cites abuses including “arbitrary or unlawful killings by the government; forced disappearances by the government; torture by the government; arbitrary detention by the government; harsh and life-threatening prison and detention conditions.”
It says the judiciary does not exercise judicial power independently, with judges regularly receiving political guidance on cases, especially politically sensitive ones, from the government and Communist Party.
In a recent major report Freedom House, a democracy watchdog in Washington, quoted the president of China’s Supreme Court as saying in March 2018 that the judiciary’s top priority for the year would be to defend “the party’s centralized and unified leadership, with Xi Jinping as the core leader.”
“Criminal trials are frequently closed to the public, and the conviction rate is estimated at 98 percent or more,” the report said. “Adjudication of minor civil and administrative disputes is relatively fair, but cases that touch on politically sensitive issues or the interests of powerful groups are subject to decisive ‘guidance’ from political-legal committees.”