US-China relations: After tariffs and Huawei, will Hong Kong be the next flashpoint?

Published: June 15, 2019 12:08:50 AM

Pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong say that the US Congress should reconsider the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. They also hope that the US-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992 is re-evaluated, which treats Hong Kong as “fully autonomous”

Hong Kong’s critics fear this will erode Hong Kong’s judicial independence, and fear China’s opaque legal system and capital punishment. (Illustration: Rohnit phore)Hong Kong’s critics fear this will erode Hong Kong’s judicial independence, and fear China’s opaque legal system and capital punishment. (Illustration: Rohnit phore)

By Anurag Viswanath

Hong Kong is in the spotlight once again, thanks to Hongkongers—and no thanks to China. The current imbroglio in Hong Kong, of protests that snowballed into violence, is over a proposed extradition Bill (sans public consultation) that Chief Executive Carrie Lam’s government (elected in 2017) wants to expedite. If passed, the Bill will allow extraditions to China. Hong Kong’s critics fear this will erode Hong Kong’s judicial independence, and fear China’s opaque legal system and capital punishment.

Last weekend, more than a million Hongkongers, a seventh of the population, gathered peacefully to protest. When the government did not buckle down, Hong Kong businesses and pro-democracy parties called for a general strike on Wednesday.

On that day, the protesters gathered in large numbers, blocking roads to Hong Kong’s Legislative Council (LegCo, the unicameral legislature) to protest against the second reading of the Bill. The violence that followed, with the police resorting to water cannons, rubber bullets, tear gas shells and the protesters running for cover, has since been chronicled by television worldwide. Reports say that 72 people have been injured.

While Lam called the strike “an organised riot,” the China Daily called out the “opposition camp and its foreign masters” for politicising the Bill. But those on the opposite side of the fence saw it differently, hailing it as a collective effort for democracy in Hong Kong.

The protests came ahead of Hong Kong’s 22nd handover anniversary (July 1, 1997) when the city state reverted to China after 150 years of British rule. Hong Kong became a Special Administrative Region (SAR) with a high degree of autonomy, own legislature and judicial independence, and its capitalist system intact for 50 years, until 2047. But what will happen after 2047—likened to “year 2047 problem”—is an open question.

Since 1997, there have been several flashpoints between China and Hong Kong. So much so that the waters of the newly opened Hong Kong-Zhuhai-Macau bridge (the longest sea bridge in the world connecting Hong Kong and mainland China) run deep. Neither is the (extradition) Bill as simple as it appears, nor is the Bill the only friction and cause of protests.

That the Bill is not as simple as it appears is the leitmotif of the protesters. In fact, and strangely so, it was a Valentine’s Day tragedy in Taipei that sparked the government’s interest in the Bill. Earlier in February this year, a Hongkonger strangled his pregnant girlfriend (in Taipei) and fled to Hong Kong. The government stepped in to propose that fugitives be transferred to jurisdictions that Hong Kong lacks an agreement with, such as Taiwan, Macau and China.
Although the extradition was proposed on a case-by-case basis, Hong Kong’s Chief Executive is widely seen as pro-Beijing, “hand-picked” as it were. The government announced 66 hours of debate and a final vote on June 20, but to no avail. The general reading was that the Bill was nothing but a caveat, a pretext to arm-twist dissenters, protesters, opposition and pan-democrats into submission. Activist Nathan Law (founder of pro-democracy party Demosisto) described the Bill as that which would normalise and legalise cross-border kidnapping.

Since 1997, Hong Kong is no stranger to sporadic unrest. In 2003, Hongkongers protested against a security law that purported to prohibit treason, secession, sedition and subversion, citing its proclivity for misuse. In 2013 came Occupy Central. In 2014, came the student-led Umbrella Movement. Both protested the manner in which the Chief Executive is elected (by an election committee manned by pro-Beijing loyalists), that which Hongkongers dismiss as “fake suffrage.”

In 2016 came the Fishball Revolution (fishball noodles is a popular street food) targeted against street hawkers. Hongkongers were up in arms as street hawkers have been an intrinsic part of Hong Kong’s social landscape and everyday life. In 2018, the pro-independence Hong Kong National Party (HKNP) was banned. And in 2018, the Financial Times Asia news editor Victor Mallet’s work visa was not renewed. Mallet had chaired an event at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC) where Andy Chan, the founder of the HKNP, had spoken. This was the first instance when a member of the press was expelled from Hong Kong after 1997.

So, what are the ramifications of these protests? For one, after tariffs and Huawei, Hong Kong has the potential to be the latest flashpoint in US-China relations. Pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong say that the US Congress should reconsider the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act (proposed by Chris Smith and Marco Rubio, Congressional Executive Committee on China in 2015). This would “empower the US President to hold Beijing accountable” and not deny visas to activists associated with Occupy Central and Umbrella Movement. Activists hope that the US-Hong Kong Policy Act of 1992 is also re-evaluated. This Act treats Hong Kong as “fully autonomous”—a re-evaluation would assess Hong Kong’s autonomy.

In the US, there appears to be bipartisan support for Hong Kong. In a statement to the press, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Democrat) indicated that the Democrats look forward to reconsidering the Hong Kong Human Rights and Democracy Act. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (Republican) has also expressed his reservations about “…Beijing’s grip on their (Hong Kong’s) imperilled autonomy.”

Just two decades ago, for China, Hong Kong was nothing short of a diplomatic coup, the poster-child of China’s grand political experiment “one country, two systems.” This was an experiment that China believed could not only showcase how benign China was, but also serve to coax Taiwan into its fold.

But the upheavals in Hong Kong in the last 20-odd years raise questions whether the “one country, two systems” experiment was hogwash for “one country, one system.” If anything, despite China’s copious economic gifts to Hong Kong, and irrespective of the outcome of the protests, it appears that China’s political experiment of Hong Kong being a “model” for Taiwan is going awry, unravelling with Hong Kong aspiring its own political destiny.

The author is a Singapore-based Sinologist, and adjunct fellow at the Institute of Chinese Studies, Delhi. Views are personal

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